Invisible Women in Mexico City

I had the privilege of watching Roma, from Alfonso Cuarón, last night at the the historic and charming Castro Theater in San Francisco (Cuarón said in the introduction to his most personal movie that the Castro Theater reminded him of the cinemas of his youth, with the sticky floor and all… I have no qualms, because my experience last night was enhanced, and I took pleasure indeed in this, by the sticky floor under my seat!). The movie is a memoir, full of subtle insights, into what growing up in our wonderful Mexico City was for Chilangos or Defeños of our generation. But more importantly, it is a homage to the millions of women who remain invisible, but selflessly pour their love into the families and children they care, as beautifully portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio.

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018)

Mexican filmmakers have come to dominate filmmaking today, sweeping the Academy Awards and the Venice Biennale alike. I have followed them all my adult life. I vividly remember the excitement our young generation felt with movies like Solo Con Tu Pareja (1991), Cronos (1993), and, a bit later, Amores Perros (2000). We knew back then that something was happening in Mexican cinema. Against all odds, these movies were financially viable, while pleasing our artistic cravings, without diminishing our admiration for the auteurs like Ripstein (or more recent ones like Reygadas). Mexicans have been producing some of the most astounding and exciting artistic works in cinema today. The most creative cinematographer today (the common denominator for movies by Cuarón and González Iñárritu and a unique collaborator of Terrence Malick) is, of course, Mexican Emmanuel “El Chivo” Lubezky. And the amazing Carne y Arena, a fully immersive experience into what it may be like to attempt to cross the US-Mexico Border, suggest the future that technology may bring to our cinematic experiences.

But what what I want to highlight in the magnificent film Cuarón gifted us (in collaboration with his cast, producers and crew), is that he is making the domestic workers in Mexico finally visible. At the Castro Theater last night someone from the audience thanked the Director, telling him that Cleo, the Mixtec live-in maid played by Yalitza Aparicio, inspired in turn by Cuarón’s own caretaker, Liboria Rodriguez (Libo), to whom the movie is dedicated, was, in fact, his own mother. He explained that his mother had been a live-in maid, that he used to help her since he was five, as they lived in Neza and Colonia Roma. Yalitza Aparicio plays Cleo with a dignity and emotion that brought tears to my eyes several times during the screening. Last night Ms. Aparicio also explained to the audience that her mother is a domestic worker, and that she did this movie to honor and praise her and the millions of indigenous domestic workers like her.

Sirvientas, muchachas, criadas (and epithets that I have never used, and refuse to list), are some of the words Mexicans in the high and middle class use in their vocabulary to name the Libos and Cleos in their lives. Domestic workers account for perhaps 2.4 million people in Mexico. Since virtually none of them have labor rights, I guess Mexicans prefer not to call them workers. The long hours, unconditional service, separate bathroom, and living quarters in the rooftops (or special “cuartos de servicio” next to the kitchen, included even in modest apartments units built today) are all subtly shown in the movie Roma. Sunday afternoon is the only day off, with an outing to the movie theater, providing a touching glimpse into the private life of Cleo. And the hypnotic first scene, showing the unceasing chores, but in particular the scrubbing of floors with soap and water, made me remember the the distinct smell of my childhood, and the maid I was mostly oblivious of.

In the 1970s Mexico experiencing an accelerated process of modernization. The country was transformed from rural to urban, agricultural to industrial, religious to secular, and opportunities moved from the periphery to the center in Mexico City. Middle and high class families aspired to keep the privileges of servants as part of their households, even as they became cosmopolitan, educated and connected to the modern world. Servants were already ubiquitous in rich households in Mexico City during the colonial era. But it is not until the 1960s and the 1970s that the professional middle classes could aspire to have live-in maids in their homes.

During the past weeks I have been calculating, through census data of 1890 and 1970, the prevalence of domestic service workers in Mexico City. The old censuses at the beginning of the 20th century had not qualms in asking about maids working in the households, and listing them as people who were not relatives, living under the same roof, working as servants. In more recent censuses it is actually more difficult to identify live-in maids, because they often show up as a different household, or are simply not included by the respondent as part of the home census enumerators are asking about (the quasi-feudal relationship towards the live-in maid has perhaps changed to some extent, as people realize their household does not include “their” servants as part of their property or extended family).

In 1890, as the map below shows, servants were a very large share of the population living in the rich households in the core area of Mexico City. In the periphery of the city, areas that used to be the more indigenous City, there are virtually no servants. The numbers are truly astounding. In the central core of Mexico City, about half of the population were servants. A family of five would probably have two criadas, a mozo, a cook and perhaps a driver.

The 1970s witnessed an incredible growth of the City. The urban footprint extended into many new neighborhoods like the Colonia Roma, as well as connecting the indigenous towns surrounding the City, that become part of urban agglomeration. In that 1970 Census it is possible to show how the various quarters of the city (there were 12 of them, plus the towns that used to be municipalities, like Coyoacan or Iztapalapa) were composed of two dimensions of female presence, that are beautifully shown in the movie Roma. The first one is the share of domestic workers. The second one relates to the other strong female lead in the movie, the mother.

Female headed households did not really exist in the 1890s, even though the city as whole had about 20 percent more women than men, particularly in the core areas. Female headed households in Mexico City are ubiquitous today, but in the 1960s would mostly occur in high and middle income homes where divorces or separations took place. The graph below shows those two dimensions of female presence in the households of Mexico City. Notice that the bubble labeled as Cuartel VIII has the largest combination of both female headed households and domestic workers. In the late 1970s I myself lived in the cuartel X, which shows up immediately below.

Cuartel VIII of the City, a nomenclature that I doubt anyone would recognize today, was, precisely, the area where the movie Roma takes place! It is the neighborhoods of Roma (Sur and Norte) as well as the trendy Condesa. How many of the inhabitants of the middle and high class of Mexico City grew up with a loving live-in maid and a divorced mother?

The new wave of Mexican cinema has been able to seep into mainstream US culture to the point that, for example, the last Academy Awards included Pixar’s Coco and its music, the affability and sweet demeanor of Guillermo del Toro, the flushing joy of Gael Garcia Bernal. All of them have become household names in American TV screens. And we should not forget the presence of Salma Hayek with her courageous stand (together with other brave women) against abuse in the industry.

I wonder how mainstream Mexicans will react to Roma. Beyond the academic debates regarding inequality, there is nothing more obvious, but more invisible, than the servants (and the chauffeurs, gardeners, cooks and porters) that surround the life of the rich in Mexico City. I wonder in particular, what kind of inclusion, or at the very least what kind of debate about inclusion of indigenous and domestic workers in Mexico might emerge from Roma? What awareness about the double workday of all the single and divorced mothers? Can a movie like Roma shake consciences with its subtle approach -never chiding or lecturing-, providing ample evidence of the love of the invisible women in Mexican households? Might love move audiences to think about how their domestic workers ought to be materially rewarded and treated with the dignity they so much deserve?