By Carla Rover
Roma, 2018, follows the story of Cleo, a young domestic worker, during the 1970s in Mexico City. Cuaron paints a vivid tableau of 1970s Mexico, showing the deep well of cultural and political chaos that inspired him, and a generation of Mexican thinkers. The star, Yalitiza Aparicio, is the first indigenous Mexican woman to be nominated for an Oscar. Directed by Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón, Roma has received a historic 10 Oscar nominations.
What Women Like Cleo Earn in Mexico
Roma has been compared to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in its visual poetry, but its meaning is just as deep as and culturally significant as the 1949 masterpiece. Bicycle Thieves was revelatory for many at its release. The presentation of a day laborer imbued with a resolute dignity and the illustration of his hero’s journey in a manner most often reserved for screen idols of the day like Cary Grant was a radical choice, and its message has resonated through the decades.
Like De Sica, director Alfonso Cuaron paints the housemaid Cleo (played flawlessly by Yalitza Aparicio) as a modern Dante, venturing wordlessly through a world of contradictions, hypocrisies, and injustices, and finding her strength as a symbol of irrepressible hope in the midst of quotidian suffering. While the story is undoubtedly a treatise on class and social evolution, it is most significantly a tribute to the meaning of “women’s work.”
Why Characters Like Cleo Matter
For millions of women around the world who labor as housekeepers and cleaners, employment is deliverance from an even lower socio-economic status, but it may also be an introduction to a cycle of poverty, more akin to servitude than any sort of career. Those who do the most resource and time-intensive work in the household—keeping daily life running smoothly and caring for the children—are paid the least, and rarely acknowledged. Women’s work is a lowly thing in every country, and that whiff of cultural and gender-based shame is only more acrid when we see its duplication in terms of status and monetary compensation. Cleo and those like her are not devalued within their culture because their work is not hard or essential, it is because it is the work of women and the poor.
Why Roma is the New Bicycle Thieves
The juxtaposition of the extremes of poverty and bourgeois privilege is even more salient in Roma than in Bicycle Thieves. We see Cleo’s independence and future dangling by the most precarious of social threads, held only by her employer’s interest in her—a microcosm of how so many of the world’s working women avoid the precipice of homelessness or worse just by chance.
Cuaron paints the world of Cleo with almost sacred reverence—her washing up water appears like an ocean, representing the endless hours which she spent on her knees, scrubbing floors which would never be truly clean or recognized as representative of years of her life and hidden potential. Cleo would not, perhaps, become more than a maid in this story, but she was shown as its soul — fully human, worthy of respect and deep study —a rare portrayal of the centrality of a woman’s lot to a society’s standard of living.
What Women Like Cleo Earn in Mexico
In Mexico City, for example, the average cost for a one-bedroom apartment is $563 per month, with a one-bedroom in an outlying neighborhood, costing $333 per month. The average wage for the 225,000 domestic workers in Mexico City is about $8 per day according to some reports. This is nearly twice the minimum wage in Mexico, which is $4.35 per hour. Live-in maids can send money home and save much more than those who must pay for rent from their meager salaries. For many women in Mexico—nearly 83%–it is impossible to continue their studies after becoming domestic servants. As many as 75% of domestic workers do not receive a pay rise during their time with their employers. This, of course, often transforms the opportunity that young women find as domestic workers in cities into a cycle of poverty. While they send money home, their extended family subsists, only to send another generation of young women to fill their shoes as the first becomes too old for backbreaking labor.
What Roma’s Cleo Tells Us About the Human Spirit
Cuaron takes care to present Cleo in rich emotional color—her poverty, and perhaps her future life with slim prospects of socio-economic choice—does not define her as a character, but instead buoys her spirit to reveal itself. Cleo is Mexico—often exploited, taken for granted, overworked, poorly compensated, yet vibrant and still full of hope. Cleo’s laughter and love of the children in her care defies logic and the pain that she suffers.
Cleo’s quiet dignity and humanizing influence loom over a story that is laced with tragedy. As in Bicycle Thieves, the triumph of the hero is in empowerment—a decision to seek the highest attributes of the human spirit rather than to fall to despair. Cleo’s bravery and unwillingness to doubt her purpose as a force of good within a complex and most often unjust society reflect the best of our mutual humanity and international cinema.
What We Can Learn from Films Like Roma
Every story of human triumph is not pretty. Most women lead lives of virtually endless, uncompensated or forced, exhausting labor. And yet, those women are heroes, just as surely as the imaginary figures like Wonder Woman, whom we hail as icons for our little girls. Every woman does not have the means to escape, to triumph over poverty, racism, or a lack of education, but this does not mean she is not a feminist, or that she is not worthy of honor. In Roma, Cleo is an icon of strength, even on her knees. For Cuaron and De Sica, ordinary lives are perhaps more extraordinary than the superheroes we long to be.