In 1951 when I began elementary school less than 100 miles from the California border with Mexico most of the migrant farmworker children – the “second language learners”- occupied trailers next to the back fence. The only contact with the Mexican children I now recall was with a boy whose English proficiency gained him a seat in my class. His family had found year end employment and settled in the town’s barrio, a step up from the migrant families whose children were assigned to the school trailers.
A declining number of children in the United States raised in lower middle class and middle class families have much contact with children or adults who are poor. Our communities, our schools, our cities are designed to prevent interaction with the poor. The “security” industry sells us on a lifestyle and an outlook that disdains, when it does not fear, a relationship with someone of the “lower class”. In Mexico, as the middle class has grown with industrialization and urban growth, it has become customary for families to contract with the poor for domestic help who live with the family.
Having fled to the city, poor women, often of Indian heritage, work in these homes to help their families survive the harsh conditions typical of rural Mexico today. Forty years ago, in a middle-class Guadalajara neighborhood, I rented a two bedroom house with a room on the roof just large enough for doing laundry and housing a maid/housekeeper if we chose to hire one. We managed quite well without that luxury but we didn’t have four children and our mother living with us like the family in the new film “Roma”.
Alfonso Cuaron dedicates “Roma” to “Libo”, the Mixtec Indian woman Liboria Rodriguez, who served his family throughout his childhood in the Mexico City neighborhood still known as Roma. One reviewer has pointed out that Roma is “amor” – love in Spanish – spelled backwards. The film was conceived and shaped by the filmmaker’s gratitude for the heroic role of “Libo” (Cleo in the film) in caring for, watching after and ultimately saving Cuaron’s family members. By telling the story of his childhood from Cleo’s perspective the film’s script writer/director/cinematographer Cuaron enriches and deepens the viewer’s experience while revealing Mexico’s barriers and boundaries of class, ethnic origin, and language.
According to an extensive article by Marcela Valdes in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/magazine/alfonso-cuaron-roma-mexico-netflix.html) Cuaron spent long hours speaking with Liboria Rodriguez about her life serving as nanny/housekeeper in his childhood home. He wanted to depict her life of domestic labor accurately, but he also wanted to understand better the conditions in her village that drive so many to seek work in the city. In the article Cuaron is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy, she would tell me about her pueblo, and she told me about the terrible cold they suffered and the hunger they suffered. But for me as a boy, it’s the cold equivalent to ‘Shoot, I forgot my sweater to the movie,’ and the hunger is ‘[Expletive], they’re running two hours late with dinner,’ you know? I had no awareness.” Apart from the wizardry and beauty of Cuaron’s black and white imaging of his past, the triumph of the movie is the filmmaker’s coming to terms with his empathy for the humble woman who served as a second mother to him.
Having gained international recognition as a leading Hollywood film director, with “Roma” Cuaron has also come to terms with his identity as a Mexican film maker. He told the writer of the NYT article, “The film confronted me with the mystery of what I no longer am yet still am at the same time,” In his embrace of his Mexican homeland, Cuaron enthralls us with his love of the clever children’s toys, the cries of street vendors, the unrestrained lunacy and melodrama of Mexican television, the country’s fiesta traditions and much more. Applying the empathy encouraged by his relationship with Libo, the filmmaker also explores the forces which continue to divide and suppress people in Mexico – and elsewhere.
Cleo’s boyfriend in the film is seen in training and later as a member of the paramilitary mercenaries who beat and killed students and workers in the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971 in Mexico City. Cuaron notes in his interviews with Valdes that the young man, like so many worldwide, find their adult identity as members of an undercover force who repress the aspirations of their own class. He comments, “They’re invisible, and they’re given a visibility. They’re given training. They’re given discipline, a feeling of belonging, a feeling of being needed. And what is this used for? Not to improve society, to improve social services. No.” The film also portrays members of the U.S. CIA who organize and oversee the training of the poor youth.
Few films aim to depict the social and political context operating behind the story but “Roma’s” creator paints a huge canvas. As the camera follows Cleo through a year and a half of her life we are immersed in Mexican life as lived by middle class professionals like Cuaron’s parents, hacienda owners, soldier and para military trainees, health workers, street vendors, television personalities and more. They are depicted responding to divorce, pregnancy, earthquake, forest fire, a mass political protest, death, near drowning and a lot of dog poop. By the end, I felt as though the soul of a person and a culture had been laid bare before me.
In the course of their long conversations recalling their life together nearly fifty years before, Cuaron asked his nanny Liboria if she would like to be paid for her help on the film. Her response, as reported to Valdes, was “How barbaric. I did it because he’s my child. It’s something done for love.” That also describes the filmmaker’s incentive for making this film: “something done for love”. The film tells the story of a life and a love that for many viewers will be easy to remember and hard to forget.