The limits of fictitious kinship: “Roma” reveals the need to recognize domestic workers’ own care rights

February 19, 2019
Image: Sean O’Flaherty (CC BY-SA 2.5) Desaturated from original

“We don’t want to be adopted by our employers. We simply want our rights.” This was one of the statements made by Mexican domestic workers’ rights activist and union leader Marcelina Bautista, following the release of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

Through its portrayal of the inner life of a 1970s middle class Mexican household, Roma provides an intimate view of the construction of a prevalent myth: that paid domestic workers, and live-in domestic workers in particular, are “like part of the family” to their employers.

The struggles of main character Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) to meet her needs to both give and receive care as a live-in domestic worker confirm what scholars refer to as the “fictitious”  or “imaginary” nature of these kinship structures. Her pregnancy introduces an element of unpaid reproductive labor that does not serve her employers’ interests. 

At first glance, one could be tempted to view the labor relationship between Cleo and employer Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira) as respectful of Cleo’s own reproductive and care needs. Cleo anticipates that she may be fired upon announcing her pregnancy. But instead, she is reassured and taken to a doctor known her employers. Sofía’s mother, Señora Teresa (Verónica García), also accompanies Cleo to purchase a crib for her child at the same store where some of her grandchildren’s own furniture was purchased.

However, several events shed light on the limits of the family’s respect for Cleo’s own care needs. Despite the doctor’s advice that Cleo should rest, she is depicted doing relatively strenuous physical labor, including hauling her employers’ suitcases, without any offers of assistance, while visibly pregnant.

Cleo’s fellow domestic worker Adela (Nancy García) attempts to shoulder some of her workload. But, by the time the closing credits roll, one is still left with the sense that Cleo has not truly rested at any point in the film.

One of the scenes that most clearly shatters the façade of Cleo’s familial status is when Señora Teresa accompanies Cleo to the hospital while in labor. She is initially identified as Cleo’s kin. However, Teresa is unable to recall Cleo’s full name or age, and potentially whether she has health insurance. She eventually clarifies to the hospital staff that she is, in fact, Cleo’s employer and not her “direct relative.”

Perhaps most troubling are those intersections between Cleo’s role as a worker and her own reproductive life that the plot does not explore because of the tragic stillbirth of her child.

How would Cleo have cared for her own daughter with the continued demands and constraints of working and living in her employers’ home? Lead actress Yalitza Aparicio alluded to this crucial issue in a recent media interview. It is a question for many of the world’s live-in domestic workers, and there remains no easy answer under the law or in practice.

Alfonso Cuarón has said that the film “is a look into the past from the standpoint of the present… and what is really concerning is that the troubling issues that the film deals with… if anything, have gotten more acute ever since.”  The consequences of domestic workers depending on highly contingent pseudo-kinship structures to secure both their livelihoods and their own care needs are not unique to the locale or the period in which Roma plays out.

The overwhelming majority of domestic workers in Latin American work in the informal sector, with little access to employment-related health insurance, pensions or paid maternity leave guarantees. Mexico, in particular, has one of the lowest rates of social security registration for domestic workers. There are hopes, however, that a recent Mexican Supreme Court ruling may help to turn the tide. 

Grassroots worker organizations and unions have mobilized in recent years to advance the cause of domestic workers’ rights internationally and to situate this work as “work like any other” within codified labor standards. The passing of an International Labour Organisation (ILO) Domestic Workers Convention (189)  in 2011 was a watershed victory in this respect.

My own research in Uruguay and Argentina focuses on the implementation of these international labor standards on the ground, through the lens of labor, migration, and care regimes. My work confirms that the narrative of “being almost part of the family” persists, even in countries that have been leaders in ratifying Convention 189 and in establishing more equitable national legislation regulating domestic work.

In the best of cases, the fiction of familial ties may help some domestic workers to negotiate informal care arrangements with their employers. A common example of this is establishing ways to care for their own child(ren) in their employer’s home. But, dependence on the goodwill of employers, without sufficient regulatory structures or implementation mechanisms to guarantee both their labor rights and their own care rights, is as precarious as it sounds.

That is not to deny that domestic workers may forge affective ties in the workplace. It is unsurprising that the emotional and existential labor depicted in the film – from waking children up in the morning to saying prayers with them before bed and even saving a family member’s very life– may engender lasting relational links. Cuarón’s dedication of the film to Liboria (Libo) Rodríguez, the domestic worker who cared for him as a child and inspired the film, may be a testament to this.

Roma’s culminating scene indeed points to the possibility that class differences and power asymmetries can be transcended, if only fleetingly, in domestic work employment. However, this expression of care and solidarity does not erase the fact that pseudo-kinship narratives and even the language of love may be used to obscure domestic workers’ labor rights and needs. Even after rescuing a drowning child and being told that she is loved, by all appearances, Cleo returns home to the same working conditions with which she started.

As Marcelina Bautista claims: “Domestic workers take care of the cleaning, the cooking and the kids. They’re important for that, but employers don’t see any further, that they have personal lives, that they need their rights.”

The establishment of international labor standards and new national laws on domestic work in many countries are steps forward. They offer hope for forms of labor relations in the home characterized by respect for workers’ rights and autonomy within the complex emotional labor that this work often entails. To make this a reality, laws, policies and employers themselves must more explicitly recognize the care rights of those who care.

Image: Sean O’Flaherty (CC BY-SA 2.5) Desaturated from original

1 Comment

  • Reply Panel – Reflections on “Roma” from researchers who study domestic work – Work in Progress February 19, 2019 at 3:52 pm

    […] Simpson Lapp, who studies implementation of domestic work regulation in Uruguay and Argentina, examines the limits of fictive kinship between employers and domestic workers, who also need care and may […]

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