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Graphic by Luis Alberto Rodriguez

Roma: A Nostalgic Trip to a Latino’s Upbringing

Alfonso Cuaron’s intimate family drama set in 1970s Mexico tells a story shared by many Latino families, one of loyalty, tragedy and hope. Some spoilers ahead.

Feb 16, 2019

As a Latina woman, seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s film, Roma, felt as if I was watching old videos of my childhood as well as those of my parents and grandparents. Although my childhood was in the early 2000s, Cuaron’s remembrance of his own upbringing in the 1970s isn’t far from those of many Latin American families, past and present. Through the perspective of Cleo – played by Yalitza Aparicio – the stay-at-home housekeeper for a white middle class family, Cuaron reveals a narrative rarely portrayed before in film: the complex lives of domestic workers and the impact they have on the families they help raise.
In Latin America it has been, and continues to be, common for white middle-to-upper class families to have a live-in domestic worker, usually of indigenous or African descent. Despite being an example of the contemporary division between races in Latin America, Cuaron doesn’t hide this persistent racial division, but instead provides an intimate look into this disparity. Cleo, based on Cuaron’s own childhood nanny, cleans the house, does the family’s laundry and takes care of both the children’s and adults’ needs. From an external perspective, Cleo could be considered a servant. However, her role in the family goes much deeper than that. She is like a second mother to the children and as the film progresses, she becomes a support system for their mother, despite her own personal sufferings.
Cleo loves the children as her own and they love her back. They don’t see Cleo as their employee, but rather as another maternal figure. Unlike the adults, the children are unaware of Cleo’s real position in their home, a reality present in many homes in Latin America. I had a similar experience with our stay-at-home domestic worker growing up. Despite her being employed by my family, I never thought of her as my employee; on the contrary, just like the children in Roma, my siblings and I considered her to be another maternal authority figure. Therefore, after seeing Cuaron’s film, I noticed the similarities between Cleo’s story and my own nanny’s, similarities also present in the stories of other Latin American domestic workers.
One scene that especially struck me was near the end of the film when Cleo saves two of the children from drowning in the sea, despite not knowing how to swim herself. The love and selflessness in this action – which could have killed her – reminded me how my nanny would often risk her safety for my siblings and me. In a subsequent scene, Cleo starts crying for her stillborn child while surrounded by the mother and the children, I was taken back to when my nanny lost her own teenage son, a son she had left back home to care for my family. She had left to provide for him; yet she sacrificed valuable time with him – time that she gave to us instead.
I believe Cuaron included this heartbreaking scene, together with Cleo’s life back at home, to highlight the sacrifices and obstacles she endured while caring for a family that wasn’t her own. Cleo’s life was split into two spheres; one revolving around her loyalty and support toward the children and their mother, and the other revolving around her private life: her first love, her pregnancy and her tragedy. Ultimately, both lives collide during the late stages of her pregnancy when tragedy strikes as she delivers a stillborn child. Unfortunately, when both of her lives converged just like what happened with my own nanny, one sphere of her life collapsed in favor of the other.
Thus, going back to the ocean scene, when the mother and children hug Cleo and confess their love for her, the audience sees Cleo’s true impact in the family. After having been there for the family for years, they were now returning the favor in her time of need. She was part of the family, she had always been, despite the implicit social class division. Like what my nanny had been for my family, Cleo was the anchor of the family, the one who took care of the children while the mother was heartbroken and the one who kept the house together, despite her own personal struggles.
After the hug – captured beautifully by Cuaron – the audience can see that everything will be okay for Cleo, despite her personal issues, as her second family would always have her back. But Cleo still remained a domestic worker in the eyes of the society, representing the unfortunate reality in Latin America, where domestic workers are considered second-class citizens by outsiders. Nonetheless, Cuaron’s film, to which many Latin Americans can relate, is a love letter to a woman who loved him and helped raise him, despite sharing neither DNA nor social class.
Sara Maria Monsalve is a columnist. Email her at
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