Yalitza Aparicio’s rise to fame proves how little the industry cared about indigenous voices until now, and how quickly we’ve dismissed them.
The film Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is currently headed towards the Oscars in multiple categories. But the most notable one of all is Best Actress, which the extremely talented Yalitza Aparicio is nominated for.
Roma is currently on Netflix, so you have no excuse not to watch it. It’s true that it’s nothing like a fast-paced Hollywood blockbuster, and is more about immersing you in another time and place through the daily life of a young domestic worker in 1970s Mexico City. It’s about family relationships, the strength demanded of women, and the historical moment Mexico was in at the time.
While it feels slow because of how immersive it is, that doesn’t make it any less interesting — and in an industry bent on making Latin America a homogenous monolith that never left the 1700s, Roma stands out as an accurate depiction of just how modern life was in the 70s for Mexicans… and how primitive other parts of that life were (and continue to be) for both Mexicans and everyone else.
But while the film in itself is a masterpiece, it’s had a powerful impact on the way we look at today’s society. Aparicio was cast as Cleo, the domestic worker tasked with cleaning and caring for the children of a high-middle-class household, a reality that is still very much present in much of the Americas. And unlike 99% of female leads in Latinx film — and a great percentage of film in general — she does not have pale skin.
It’s important to acknowledge that there is no one way to be Latinx. The population of Central and South America is incredibly diverse, with multiple races and languages represented, and those differences have no effect on whether a person is Latinx or not. But the truth is that movies and television featuring Latinx characters always seems to prioritize representing tall people with pale skin, straight hair, and very thin figures… a depiction that contradicts the diversity of the continent.
Mexico’s cinema and television industries are both so powerful that they have had a large role in setting the tone for cinema and television throughout Central and South America. And in these cinematic alternate versions of Latinx life, people with indigenous features only ever seem to be assigned roles as secondary characters — often poor, domestic workers, who have no agency of their own. Their stories are not considered important enough to tell.
That’s why Roma’s positioning of Cleo as the main character is so powerful, given that Aparicio is both a domestic worker and an indigenous woman (her father is Mixtec and her mother is Triqui). It gave a voice to a character that has always been considered secondary, both on film and often in real life. In the film, Cleo speaks Mixtec language with her friends, and we finally get to see what life looks like from her point of view.
Aparicio did not study acting, but was a preschool teacher before starring in Roma, her first movie. And yet her talent is undeniable; her performance in the movie proves that she clearly deserves an Oscar.
However, Aparicio’s sudden rise to fame has been met with a fierce backlash from racists everywhere, who are attempting to denigrate her for being an indigenous woman rightly celebrated for her talent. It’s shameful to see how much racism persists among movie audiences, and it’s certainly been eye-opening: somehow, in all our talk about representation, we almost always forget to mention Native American representation. We should be talking about this more.
But Aparicio’s performance has had an incredibly positive effect on a population that was previously silenced. Domestic workers throughout Mexico are speaking up about the abuses that still exist in many countries (including the United States). Being a domestic worker is a thankless and often brutal job, and as painful as Cleo’s life is in Roma, it’s still far better than the lives of most women in her position today. Thanks to this movie, people are beginning to have more conversations about how we treat women working these jobs, and how little rights they still have.
Tonight will tell if Aparicio will win the Oscar for her stellar role, but she has already succeeded in a great way through her example. She has shown that Latinas don’t have to be tall, pale and willowy to be movie stars; that maybe we can finally stop holding ourselves to European standards of beauty and see the beauty in our indigenous roots. And that maybe we can finally start creating more opportunities for indigenous faces to be seen on screen — and for more of their stories to be told.
Aparicio’s presence on the red carpet will mean a lot to a great number of people watching, but it will be nothing if we don’t change something fundamental about the way we think and act as an audience. Roma was a good movie, but if the Oscars is the last we hear of indigenous representation, then we’ve learned nothing from all of this.