Let’s stop praising ‘Roma’ as an indigenous woman’s story

A woman and a man stand at a rooftop and look to the right as the man points.

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The Academy Awards are notorious for struggling to recognize films making strides toward diversity — this is not new information. What is new is that this is one of the first years in which half the nominations for best picture recognize films that highlight issues of race and identity and are led by POC actors.

One of these films, which is currently racing to the front of the best picture competition, is “Roma,” the latest release from director Alfonso Cuarón. This film, which marks the first time a wholly Spanish-language film has been nominated for this category, tells the story of a maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) working for a well-off family in Mexico City. The story is based off the life of Liboria Rodríguez, the maid who worked for Cuarón’s family when he was young, and in this, the story navigates a narrative space between the perspective of the young boy and the perspective of Cleo.

It is undeniable that “Roma” is a significant, positive step for Latinx representation in Hollywood. Aparicio’s nomination for best actress as an indigenous woman is a first for the category and a rightful acknowledgment of a truly vulnerable yet powerful performance. Marina de Tavira’s nomination for best support actress is likewise another significant step toward increased acknowledgment of Latinx women in film.

“Roma” holds on its back a whole community of Mexican people waiting to see their stories recognized by the academy and film audiences alike. The fact that it received nominations in 10 distinct categories is unprecedented and important in and of itself.

Many outlets are saying “Roma” could and should take the award for best picture this Sunday. These outlets praise the story of the film and the way in which Cuarón crafts its narrative as truly remarkable. And while Cuarón has proven his skill in exploring various styles and genres of film that both encompass and go beyond Latinx-oriented narratives, not enough people are addressing how the film’s creation and celebration are, in a number of ways, problematic.

“Roma” is the story of a low-income, working indigenous woman told through the lens of an affluent man. In line with several instances in the film industry, this is intrinsically problematic — a direct representation of narrative space being occupied by someone who is not a part of the community they are speaking on. And it’s especially problematic that this film is being praised for that representation.

The story of “Roma” is crafted by someone who has never experienced the issues being dealt with in the film — specifically those experiences of gender inequality and limited social mobility that come from being an indigenous female worker. While Cuarón may have witnessed the life of his childhood maid and may have consulted her when developing the narrative, he is still telling this story from an outside perspective — and that’s oftentimes not very clear, given that Cuarón tells this story from Cleo’s perspective rather than from the perspective of the character who represents him.

Cleo’s voice becomes lost within the film, which very rarely gives itself space to adequately explore her personal hardships and background. She is thus reduced to a silent and bland representation of the Mexican working class, one with no real break from the oppressive stereotypes of the Latinx worker. Instead, she is left unacknowledged and unredeemed in the end, while Cuarón is able to capitalize off of her narrative to awards-season success and industry prestige.

“Roma” is surely a representation of someone’s story; it’s simply not Cleo’s or Libo’s.

It’s Cuarón’s. And that is OK. The film should be recognized for telling his largely autobiographical story in a beautiful way. But the problem is that the film seems to be parading itself as a milestone representation of the working-class Mexican woman. We simply cannot regard this film as such when Cuarón’s lens subjects Cleo’s story to so many narrative limitations. Again, we have a “Crazy Rich Asians” scenario in which one film highlighting POC people is being campaigned as representation for every member of that community.

Latinx people, specifically Mexicans, are putting all of their hopes of representation into this movie because it is seemingly the only one that attempts to highlight the indigenous labor experience. There is a simple solution to this problem: Hollywood and audiences alike need to invest in more diverse Latinx films so that we can praise each one for what it does well without having to discuss the stories it doesn’t address.

“Roma” is a powerful Latinx narrative about a young, middle-class Mexican boy and the disjointed relationship he has with his family’s maid — a relationship in which he loves her and she loves him, but there remains a distinct boundary between them. This is a wonderful move toward acknowledgment of a common Mexican narrative and an overall impressive mark for Mexican cinema.

In the years to come, I want to see more and more films about all different kinds of Mexican and Latinx stories, including those of indigenous working-class women. And hopefully, those films will also be nominated for Academy Awards.

Maisy Menzies is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].