“Roma” and the Pressure to Represent all of the Latinx Experience
That’s something I say sometimes. Mostly to people who are (rudely) asking “where are you [really] from?” And sometimes to those who take my light skin as an invitation to say something racist. Every once in a while to a fellow Latinx person as we share experiences.
The thing is, though, I’m not really Mexican. I’m the descendant — the granddaughter to be precise — of people who immigrated from Mexico. When I go see my extended family, I go to Los Angeles. I don’t know a single relative who lives in Mexico. And even if I did, I’d be too embarrassed by my Spanish/Spanglish to really connect. So yeah, I’m not really “Mexican,” I’m more Mexican American/Chicana/Latinx, a product of a culture that systematically was forced to mix and assimilate.
All the same, I went into Roma expecting to see myself or at least my family reflected back to me. Latinas are the least represented group in US media when compared to our actual numbers and here is a ten-time Oscar nominee with two of Latinas as the stars! I couldn’t wait to watch it and get the rare glimpse of my identity on screen. After all, we do buy the most movie tickets every year AND have the highest rates of Netflix subscriptions.
“Latinas are the least represented group in US media when compared to our actual numbers and here is a ten-time Oscar nominee with two of Latinas as the stars! I couldn’t wait to watch it and get the rare glimpse of my identity on screen.”
Roma stars Yalitza Aparicio as Cleodegaria Gutiérrez, one of two indigenous maids and the primary caretaker of a white Mexican family, living in the upper-middle-class Mexico City neighborhood of Roma. The film follows Cleo through a year in her life, starting in 1970, during which big events shake her life and the broader world she lives in. This is the year the patriarch and Cleo’s employer leaves his family — his wife, four children, and extended household, never to return. It’s the year Cleo gets pregnant and experiences her own abandonment with the child’s father disavowing her. It’s also the year of El Halconazo or Corpus Christi Massacre, in which government forces kill around 120 people for participating in student demonstrations in DF. And it’s the year Luis Echeverría becomes President of Mexico, seizing land belonging to the likes of Cleo’s mother. Throughout these events, both personal and political, Cleo stands in the center with the male characters relegated to supporting roles.
Roma is a biography of sorts for writer, director, and cinematographer, Alfonso Cuarón. One of the leading voices in the Nuevo Cine Mexicano (along with Gonzalez Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro), Cuarón based Roma on his own memories of being one of the children in the aforementioned family. The film is shot in black and white and brings into focus the small details of Cleo’s life — where she puts the dishes before turning off the lights, the song she sings to wake up the children, the sounds it makes when she cleans up the dog shit.
In the film, the children are a gaggle of ill-behaved, loved, and loving creatures who Cleo manages and clearly adores. We also see the family’s mother Sofia, played by Marina de Tavira, alternate between cruel and kind to her children, herself, and particularly Cleo as she adjusts to her new position as a woman without a husband.
Roma is nominated for all the awards and I’m particularly excited to see Latinas finally breaking barriers in their categories. If Yalitza Aparicio wins for Best Actress, she’ll be the first Latina to do so and the first indigenous woman at that. Gabriela Rodriguez could be the first Latina to win a Best Picture Oscar and Marina de Tavira would be only the second Latina to ever win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars (shout out to Rita Moreno for being the first)!
“That’s who I come from. A mix of White and indigenous folks who left Mexico and got jumbled together because, even though colorism is real and dangerous in these Estados Unidos, once anyone from Latin America crosses the border, they become just another ‘dirty Mexican.’”
At this moment, Roma is THE movie about the Latinx experience in the way that Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther represented those communities. And yet, as a Mexican American/Chicana/Latinx person who loved the film, cried watching it, and tries to catch everything Cuarón does, I didn’t see myself in it. You see, my family story is hard to square with the world of Roma. If we exist at all in the film’s universe, it’d have to be long before Cleo goes to work for Sofia. My family is more like if Cleo’s grandmother’s sister and Sofia’s grandfather’s cousin both migrated to the US separately, met and got married here, and started a whole other family. That’s who I come from. A mix of White and indigenous folks who left Mexico and got jumbled together because, even though colorism is real and dangerous in these Estados Unidos, once anyone from Latin America crosses the border, they become just another “dirty Mexican.”
I’m not saying the differences between White and Indigenous Latinos do not exist. Or are not substantial. In fact, I’d argue the opposite — the racial divide among Latinx people is often ignored in the US to our peril. Roma is telling an important story. It’s just not a story that includes large portions of the population, like me. And that would be fine except if Roma somehow becomes the end-all-be-all of how we understand the Latinx experience. Certainly, it’s the only movie about us that’s broken through this year. And when you look back at the record, it’s the only film about Latinas that’s EVER received this level of attention (remember how Rita Moreno is the only Latina to have won an acting Oscar? And for West Side Story way back in 1961 — a film that came out over 50 years ago and is arguably not about what it means to be Latina…).
The thing is, I don’t fault Roma for not including me. It’s not fair to expect any single piece of art to represent a group as vast as the Latinx community — we’re talking about more than a continent full of people here! But the pressure is still there, the hope, and the expectation.
“The thing is, I don’t fault Roma for not including me.”
Because I so rarely get the chance to see myself on screen, each time is fraught with more meaning than it should hold. It’s not like I’m a white guy who sees the complexity of my experience everywhere I go. As a Latina, we don’t have much. We have the commodification of Frida Kahlo. The emerging consensus that original EGOT-winner Rita Moreno deserves a lot of backdated respect. We have Jennifer Lopez in that green Versace dress now and forever. And we have Sofia Vergara’s paycheck. Note that none of them are Mexican American like me (even though we make up more than half the Latino/Hispanic population in the US).
I hope Roma wins all the awards. I also hope it leads to more representations of the Latinx experience. After all, it’s a beautiful story that centers Mexican women in a way you almost never see. It’s just not my story and that’s ok.