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The Story Behind Roma

Alfonso Cuarón’s film magnificently portrays an overlooked life in 1970s Mexico City.


Latin America’s poor, black, and indigenous women perhaps best understand what it means to be marginalized. Although one in four wage-earning women in the region are household workers—around 18 million—almost all work informally, silently, and under unpleasant conditions. “She changed houses many times and felt at home in none,” Eduardo Galeano wrote in a 2012 poem for International Domestic Workers Day. “At last, she found a place where she was treated as a person. / Within a few days, she left. / She was starting to like it.”

In recent years, Latin American filmmakers have turned attention to the long overlooked narrative of the domestic worker. Both Hilda, a 2014 dramedy about a young, mestiza nanny who is held captive by her white employer, and Muchachas, Juliana Fanjul’s 2017 documentary on maids in Mexico City, have zeroed in on the divide between household worker and employer. Lila Avilés’s La Camarista, released earlier this year, highlights the daily life of hospitality employees in her documentary-style depiction of a hotel chambermaid. In most of these films, directors have explored questions of class and race, albeit from a perspective “limited by their material interests and social class,” as María Mercedes Vázquez Vázquez, author of The Question of Class in Contemporary Latin American Cinema, has told Remezcla. This growing trend in cinema grapples with tangled, complex social dynamics from a familiar, domestic space.

Even a well-intentioned film can perpetuate tropes of maids and nannies as meek, petty, and unremarkable. “They’re not Mary Poppins. They tend to come from a poor educational background,” Sebastian Silva, the director of La Nana (2009), a Chilean movie inspired by his experience with live-in maids, said nine years ago. “They take care of you, feed you, dress you, but they don’t teach you.” That attitude bleeds into the film, which often portrays the family maid, Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), as a stubborn and irascible caregiver, who locks every nanny hired to help her out of the house, and at one point even throws the family’s cat over the fence to sabotage one of them.

In that respect, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the latest film to center on domestic workers in Latin America, is both refreshing and masterful. The film draws on Cuarón’s childhood memories and also those of his nanny, Liboria Rodriguez, an indigenous Mixtec woman from the village of Tepelmeme in Oaxaca, and presents a stunning and at times brutal portrait of everyday life in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City during the early 1970s. Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio in a breakout performance, is a live-in maid from the southern state of Oaxaca who works for a family of six and a sometimes-present grandmother. She sweeps floors, scoops dog poo, and hand washes laundry, taking the occasional break to play dead with the youngest child, Pepe, or to join the family as they watch late-night television.

Cleo gets up early in the mornings to wake the kids—three boys and a girl—for school, and also stays up late at night to tuck them into bed and turn off the lights. She’s there, standing off-center, watching as Sofía (Marina de Tavira), Cleo’s employer, squeezes her husband in an awkward embrace before he climbs into his car to drive to the airport for a work trip in Quebec. She’s there, again, when Sofía, distraught after a phone call with her mother, catches Paco, one of her teenage sons, eavesdropping on her conversation and smacks him in retaliation. He falls to the floor, crying, and she does, too, to console him. “Why are you still there?” she glares at Cleo. “Don’t you have anything to do?”

She’s there, too, in the evening to open the garage gates for Sofía, who, in her husband’s prolonged absence, returns from a drunken night out in her husband’s gigantic Ford Galaxy. She veers into the driveway, slamming and scraping the car against the concrete walls before slipping out. “No matter what they tell you,” Sofía slurs, clutching Cleo’s face by the doorway, “we women are always alone.” Her words linger, as Cleo, frozen and expressionless, stares back. There is a fleeting recognition of the two women’s shared pain, but it’s immediately overshadowed by their lopsided relationship. Sofía walks into the house, up the staircase and to her room, as Cleo stands outside, out of focus, looking in.

The concepts for Roma can be found in Cuarón’s work from over a decade and a half ago, in his seminal 2001 film Y Tu Mamá También—a raunchy, semi-autobiographical story about two adolescents, played by Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, who convince a married Spanish woman fed up with her husband’s infidelities to road-trip with them across Mexico. Within months of its release, the film had become a cult classic for audiences abroad. Critics praised Cuarón’s visceral and layered storytelling, social analysis, and political commentary. “It is as if the American Pie DVD had a director’s commentary by Susan Sontag or JK Galbraith,” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote in 2002. Y Tu Mamá También and similar movies from the time—such as Alejandro Iñárritu’s brilliant Amores Perros (2000)—paved the way for an ambitious, probing movie like Roma, which is now considered a contender for Best Picture at the upcoming Academy Awards.

But there’s also a direct link between the story told in Y Tu Mamá También and Roma. As the trio in the earlier movie drives south along the semi-arid ridges of Oaxaca, skirting small towns, the movie’s brash, teenage protagonist Tenoch (Diego Luna) notices a sign. It marks Tepelmeme, the birthplace of his nanny, Leo, who had moved to Mexico City when she was 13. “Tenoch realized he had never visited Tepelmeme,” the narrator explains. The scene reflects Cuarón’s realization, as he recently told Variety, that he knew relatively little about Rodriguez’s life in Tepelmeme or about her existence outside the confines of his home.

He didn’t take up this theme in Y Tu Mamá También, though the film does offer glimpses of the troubled country that exists just beyond its focus. The movie’s narrator alludes to the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas (When the two teenage protagonists approach Tenoch’s sister, who is marching at a student protest, to borrow the family car, she agrees on the condition that she get it the following three weeks to deliver food, clothes and medicine to Chiapas) and the pernicious effects of Mexico’s modernizing tourism industry (“By the end of the year, Chuy”—a fisherman the travelers meet at the beach—“and his family will have to leave their home to make way for the construction of an exclusive hotel,” the narrator says.). In several scenes, Cuarón’s camera wanders to paint vignettes of nannies and waitresses shuffling in and out of kitchens to serve meals, whether they are in an upscale home, or at a modest off-road restaurant in rural Mexico.

In Roma, Cuarón’s sublime cinematography follows Cleo, providing snapshots of her life while simultaneously telling a larger story about Mexico City. While she tends to Sofia’s family, the film’s pristine black and white images depict a country in the throes of modernization. The city’s streets are loud and bustling with honking cars and yelling salesmen. Commercial planes fly overhead, teenage boys argue over movies and NFL teams, and bedroom posters celebrate the 1970 FIFA World Cup, held in Mexico only months earlier. In one scene, a group of young men rehearse rock and roll music with an electric guitar, drums, and amps by a shack and a chicken coop in Neza, a rapidly expanding slum on the outskirts of the city.

When Cleo is off on her own accord, an even darker side of the country becomes plainly visible. The government, Cleo’s friend notifies her, is seizing her mother’s land in Oaxaca. One day, while she is out shopping, a student protest erupts, and she is caught in the fray of a vicious crackdown by a mob wielding kendo sticks and firearms in what was remembered as El Halconazo, or the Corpus Christi massacre, in which around 120 people were killed. Later that night, while Cleo is at the hospital, doctors and nurses murmur about armed individuals running into the hospital’s emergency rooms to kill off protesters.

Cuarón also uses Cleo’s story to examine Mexico’s socioeconomic fabric. In certain cases, class divisions throughout Roma are clearly marked, as when Cleo interacts with Sofia’s family. But in others, especially within working-class circles, those lines are blurred. When a fellow maid drags Cleo to a New Year’s Eve party and Cleo asks her if they should invite the others, she remarks: “We don’t want those city nannies here, they feel fancier than their bosses.” In another, her former lover, a working-class Mexican of indigenous descent, scornfully calls her a “pinche gata”—a derogatory term for domestic workers in Mexico.

Cuarón’s reliance on his relationship with Rodriguez lends a touching honesty to these moments. Latin America’s nanny-inspired cinema can often border on class voyeurism, a reality of which Cuarón seems fully conscious. “It was probably my own guilt about social dynamics, class dynamics, racial dynamics,” he recently told Variety. “I was a white, middle-class, Mexican kid living in this bubble. I didn’t have an awareness.” That guilt is palpable in Roma—the film is both a majestic tribute to Rodriguez and a pointed rumination on the social structure of Mexico both in the 1970s and today.

By the end of Roma, there’s a sense that Cleo, for better or worse, has finally joined Sofia’s family. The children embrace Cleo as a second mother, telling her they love her and falling asleep on her shoulder on a drive home. They even suggest planning a family trip to Oaxaca, to visit her village. But the film ends at that, without divulging any information about her hometown, her family, or her life outside of Colonia Roma. We are left, like Tenoch, staring out of the car window at Tepelmeme, at Cleo, at Rodriguez, at a Mexico beyond Cuarón’s reach. That is a story he can’t tell.

Correction: a previous version of this article misstated the category in which Y Tu Mamá También was nominated for an Academy Award in 2002. It was nominated for Best Original Picture, not Best Foreign Language Film. We regret the error.