As people who have historically occupied second-class status, domestic workers execute their jobs in private homes where the power — and their position — is utterly in the hands of their employers. So, much like the battle for gender equality, the real change must start inside the homes where domestic workers perform their duties, where the day-to-day occurs.
Change won’t happen until the terms of the relationship becomes one between equals — until the one who has been inferiorized can speak with a powerful voice; be heard in her terms; narrate in equal measure. Until then, it is the boss’s voice telling the story of the one who is bossed.
That is how I feel about Alfonso Cuarón’s critically acclaimed “Roma.”
The film has been nominated in 10 Academy Award categories, including best film and best director. Yalitza Aparicio, who plays the fictional version of the director’s real-life nanny, Libo, to whom he has dedicated the film, is nominated for best actress. Roma is tied with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) for the most Oscar nominations ever received by a non-English language film.
Clearly, “Roma” is all the rage. And like the critics, I loved the film’s beauty, sensitivity, cinematography, and overall direction. Nevertheless, I am also troubled by the message it conveys.
Commentaries I have read and heard reveal the intense chord struck in the hearts of some who experienced middle-class childhoods, like the one Cuarón so ably depicts in his film. Viewers wax nostalgic, declaring similar affections for former nannies.
What strikes me, however, is the comparatively little reflection about Cleo’s position as the domestic worker in this family and how, or if, that role has changed today. Likewise, in the context of the film, I do not see Cleo question her purpose.
Yet, her character is not unidimensional. Through Cuarón’s gaze we clearly see Cleo as someone who giggled as she worked; who went on weekly outings; and who endured personal sorrows as illustrated through the traumatic scene where Cleo’s baby girl is stillborn, abandoned by her father and – as we learn later –also rejected by her mother.
But nowhere in this film does the viewer see or sense Cleo’s indignation, frustration, anger — or even impotence — in her role as the family´s servant. I do not know how real-life Libo might have described it. Perhaps she would not have put it in these terms, but I must imagine that she might have wondered why the same privileges and social mobility were not allowed to her. Even if she did think of her employers as her family.
Among the many interviews that I have had with domestic workers over the years as part of my ongoing research, I witnessed the complex emotions and viewpoints that co-exist in the people who do this work. I have heard stories of deep affection for employers; indeed, for some women I interviewed, their employers were like family. But I have found that when the surface is scratched only a little, many complicated — sometimes contradictory — feelings surge forward, among them indignation and, often, confusion at not really being part of the family they serve.
While Cuarón imbued Cleo’s character with feelings and agency, that same sense of self did not surface regarding her role as the servant. We do not see Cleo question her position in this family, her role at work, or in society. Not when the children’s father comes home to the family and she is left outside with the other maid, the dog, and his droppings.
The patriarch does not even look at the person who opens the courtyard doors and holds the dog so he can squeeze his oversized car in the allotted space. Cleo simply holds the dog and smiles. There is no hint of annoyance at not being recognized as a human being in the household, let alone someone beloved by the family.
When the patriarch leaves his wife, and the latter impatiently tells Cleo to clean up the dog’s mess, there is no hint at what Cleo might feel. When we catch a glimpse of her nightly exercises done in the dark with her co-worker because the lady of the house does not want to spend on electricity, all we see are two giggling girls.
And when, after losing her own child, her employer insists that Cleo should come along on a family vacation, ending in her rescue of the two smallest children from the ocean – despite her own inability to swim – the film ends with a family embrace in which mother and children tell Cleo that they love her.
But who is Cleo and how does she feel about her place in this family that says they love her but expects her to set the table, but not sit at it with them? I never get a sense of how Cleo really feels about not being a fully integrated member of this clan.
Given that servitude is still played out in the way we have seen in this film and, sadly, in much more hostile contexts, I fear that the stated intention of the director – to honor Libo by dedicating it to her — is somehow lost.
In the acceptance speech following his Golden Globe award win in the category of best director for “Roma,” Cuarón stated: “In reality, this film was directed by Libo, by my mother, and my family and maybe even more importantly by this place, this very complex lab that shaped and created me. So muchas gracias, México.”
Despite these comments, the real voice and desires of Libo are camouflaged by Cuarón’s own viewpoint and the complicated, paternalistic notion that Libo was a part of the family. And this is exactly the problem.
In much of the world, young women like Libo continue to serve in households that are not their own, often paid little, sometimes nothing. And there is still currency in the idea that, because of the proximity shared and the responsibility cast on them, they are part of the family. But they are not. They do not occupy equal space; they don’t sit at the same table; their time is not their own; they do not enjoy the same rights. They are also invariably non-white and migrant. And they are women.
Servitude is still an institution in Latin America; its face is mostly female. I suppose that is why I would rather have a conversation about why it is that this continues to be the case, why parks full of uniformed nannies are still running after other people’s children instead of enjoying the means to spend time with their own.