Love Letter to Cleo, Libo & Yalitza
The following is an open letter from domestic workers dedicated to the women of Roma: Cleo, whose character embodied the experiences of millions of working women across the world; Libo, whose real-life experiences as a domestic worker provided the inspiration for Cleo; and Yalitza, whose portrayal on-screen made Cleo come to life with humanity and dignity.
To Libo, Cleo and Yalitza,
Last year, a group of us — nannies, house cleaners, and care workers — heard about a black and white film by a Mexican director that stars a domestic worker in a leading role. We were curious and excited, but cautious.
All too often, domestic workers in film and pop culture are turned into stereotypes, and our work is caricatured. We’re pushed to the margins, hidden behind the scenes, or forced to be silent and invisible. But this film–Roma–was different.
Based on the childhood memories of director Alfonso Cuarón, Roma centers on a domestic worker named Cleo, based on Libo, the woman who helped raise him. She is brilliantly played by Yalitza Aparicio, an indigenous first-time actress and Best Actress Oscar nominee, whose mother was a domestic worker and who had done domestic work herself.
Far from a one-dimensional character, Cleo is the heart of the film that holds the family together. We see her laugh; bond with the children she cares for; spend time with her lover; overcome the challenges and complexity of her work over and over again; and find strength in other women. We see all of her. And we see ourselves.
While set in a specific time and place, Cleo’s life represents that of more than two million domestic workers across the United States. Our work supports the economy, and makes it possible for millions of working parents to go to work. We’re the future of work- we’re one of the fastest growing industries in America. As care workers, we ensure that our aging loved ones and family members living with disabilities are cared for in a way that upholds their dignity and independence. We make order out of chaos when we clean homes across America. We say goodbye to our own children in the mornings, so we can love and care for the children of other families.
Our work is valuable, but it is not valued. So many of us work long hours for very little pay, trying to support our own families. Many of us are immigrant women, Black women, and women of color. Our work takes place behind closed doors, and we are still excluded from the most basic workplace protections, like laws against sexual harassment and discrimination. Many care workers struggle to meet their basic needs with an annual median income of $13,000.
This reality exists because of the story of domestic work that’s told in our society. For generations, domestic work has been considered “women’s work,” not seen as professional or deserving of good working conditions. In the U.S., it’s rooted in the history of slavery, and some of the first domestic workers were enslaved Black women. This history of racial exclusion has been codified in our laws and shapes the way our work is valued. It’s become a norm to experience disrespect, discrimination, and sexual harassment on the job.
But we are more than stereotypes and caricatures. We are women. We are mothers. We are domestic workers. We are leaders. Just like the women of Roma — Cleo, Libo, and Yalitza — we’ve built a powerful movement through the stories of our own heroines. Women like Carmelina Torres who in 1917 organized a protest of more than 200 domestic workers on Santa Fe bridge at the U.S.-Mexico border to protest unjust treatment and abuse. Women like Dorothy Lee Bolden, who began working as a domestic worker in Georgia when she was just nine years-old. Dorothy founded the National Domestic Workers Union of America, and organized more than 13,000 domestic workers in ten different cities throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. And today, women like Rosa Sanluis, June Barrett, Myrla Baldonado, Allison Julien, Ingrid Vaca, Doris Tapia, Daniela Contreras, Jeanette Vizguerra, and so many others who are leading the domestic workers movement today.
Since 2010, we’ve won recognition and workplace protections in eight states and one city. We’ve brought two million home care workers nationwide under the protection of the law through a federal rule change. And now, we’re working towards introducing the first national Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to make sure that no domestic worker is left out of our labor laws again.
Our movement is built by and for women like Cleo. Roma is not just a moment for visibility, but a moment for action. Now, more than ever, women across America are recognizing their collective voice but using it to build power. It’s time to reexamine the work inside our homes and the stories of the women who hold it together. Everyone of us has a role to play.
Cleo, Libo and Yalitza, we see you.
National Domestic Workers Alliance
The nannies, cleaners and care workers of America