White Mexican director wins an Oscar for Roma … Mexican feminists debate.
In “Roma,” a white-Mexican director tells the story of a brown-skinned indigenous domestic worker — like my friend Zoe Mendelson says, this was bound to generate polemics.
The American press hailed it as the “Latest Entry in Alfonso Cuarón’s Feminist Oeuvre” and Naomi Klein called it one of the most “magnificent, generous and feminist films” she had ever seen. Roma, named for the neighborhood where Cuarón grew up, is a homage to the woman who raised him.
But Mexican feminists — while acknowledging the film has become a cultural touchstone — offered a more complex view of “Roma.” Some even questioned its feminist credentials.
“Roma cannot be a feminist movie, because feminism has to take class struggles into consideration,” said Ana Farías, the director of Parvada, a non-governmental organization focused on the intersection between gender and poverty.
From her perspective, the movie romanticizes exploitation. “It’s like writing a love letter to someone your family treated really badly, and then you don’t even allow her to tell the story from her perspective.”
Yásnaya Elena, a linguist and indigenous woman who belongs to the mixe community in Oaxaca, answered her cell phone as she rode the bus to her home.
To her, “Roma” reinforced the stoic indigenous stereotype — it assumes that indigenous people can endure everything in silence.
“It still seems that indigenous women will only be recognized through a certain structure –a white, privileged and masculine one,” she said. “It would be very different if us, indigenous women, had the means to make our own films.”
And indeed, Cleo, the housekeeper, rarely speaks in the movie.
Feminists, however, did see some benefits to “Roma’s” popularity. For the first time, a movie about an indigenous domestic has generated “ conversations at dinner tables, with friends and public spaces,” said Lulú Barrera, a feminist activist and founder of Luchadoras, an independent magazine. “It was even projected in the ex-President’s house.”
Barrera said the movie is useful in framing conversations about “class inequality and discrimination suffered by domestic workers.”
Most immediately it has helped domestic workers battling to regulate their informal job market.
“Roma has been an ally in our cause for the defense of domestic worker’s rights,” said María de la Luz Padua, a general secretary of the Domestic Workers Union. She listed those rights: “vacation, Christmas bonus and social security.”
After the film was released, social security became obligatory for domestic worker employers, she said. And while “Roma” can’t claim credit for a long struggle, it helped and it continues to keep the conversations alive.
Sofía Paulo, who works on labor and human rights issues for domestic workers at CACEH in Mexico City, watched “Roma” along with a group of domestic workers before it was released. “Roma speaks of our closest memories,” said Paulo, who grew up in a family of domestic workers, “and not a lot has changed since the seventies: our work conditions are still the same and our jobs are still not recognized.”
But at least now, she said, the broader Mexican society is talking about domestics and their relationship with the family.
Paulo said domestic workers are generally not allowed to “ eat in the same space or watch television” with the families they serve. “We are there to serve them.”
She vividly remembers a scene where the family in Roma tells Cleo that she is “like family” after saving the kids from drowning. Yet in the end, they still order her to make smoothies.
Dana Corres, a feminist scholar and communication consultant who is currently working with Paulo, watched the movie with them that night. Afterwards, she said, the workers talked. “It was impressive to see how they remember their first jobs, the first kids they took care of and hear them talk about those emotional links they formed,” she said, “it was very valuable to see themselves represented outside of the mainstream telenovela figure that depicts them as cartoons.”
Yeni Rueda witnessed that discrimination first hand. She grew up going to work with her mom, a domestic worker for 30 years. When she watched “Roma,” the first scene of Cleo cleaning up the dog shit in the family’s driveway, moved her. She could recognize the daily work of her mom’s job.
Nonetheless, Rueda still thinks the movie is problematic from a feminist viewpoint “mostly because it’s depicted as a memory.” When she heard Yuri, the Mexican singer, say that she wants a Yalitza in her house “it’s partly due to the emotional nostalgia that surrounds the movie.”
In one scene, Sofia, the employer, explodes in suffering. “No matter what they tell you, women, we are always alone,” she tells Cleo. For Mariana Valente, a member of a feminist legal network in Latin America, hearing this was like a punch in the stomach.
“The phrase is representative of a liberal feminism that does not take into account the differences of oppression suffered by different women in terms of race and class,” she said. “Sofia suffers, of course she does, but she can take steps in rebuilding her life. And she can count on Cleo’s work to do so.”