(Warning: Spoiler alert for Roma ahead)
There is a scene in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, Y tu mamá también, where the main protagonists, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa are traveling through the Mexican countryside oblivious to the campesino world passing outside their car window. Suddenly, the narrating voice interrupts the endless flirtations between the characters as Tenoch stares at a town where his indigenous nanny, Leo, comes from, the woman he called mother until the age of four. In his mesmerizing new film, Roma, Cuarón returns to Y tu mamá también to pick up the story of this other, the other indigenous mothers who raise the children of the middle class and rich Mexicans, a story that has yet to be fully explored in Mexican cinema.
Cuarón sets his story in 1970-1971 in the district of Mexico City called Roma, and paints in black and white the parallel everyday lives of a middle-class family and its indigenous servants. What is refreshing is that the director presents the story from the point of view of one of the maids, Cleo. As we follow her daily routine behind the scenes of everyday family life, Cuarón takes us into the bilingual spaces where these invisible people forge the urban sustenance enjoyed by their white masters.
Through great acting, directing and camera work, Cuarón intricately weaves the lives of the domestics with that of the family they serve, showing the class differences at same time that we note that in human terms they have much in common, especially Cleo and her mistress, Sofía, both of whose lives begin to unravel after the men in their lives abandon them. The ama de casa is left with a family of unruly children and little money and Cleo with an unwanted pregnancy. At first, a social distance that causes friction between them separates the mistress and servant but their trials and tribulations as abandoned women soon begin to bond them together.
The personal struggles of the two women are subtly and symbolically set against scenes of the political and social upheaval that La Madre Patria is also going through. “Siempre estamos solas”, says Sofía to Cleo in a pivotal scene, which emphasizes that sense of disruption, vulnerability, and violence present for all women in Mexico regardless of class or ethnicity depicted in this film. Cleo’s situation, however, is further compounded by her indigenous background and uprooted existence; far from her village in the countryside, she is at the mercy of men and of her mistress as well. Forced by the circumstances, Cleo must choose whether to return to her native town also beset by political turmoil or confront her new urban reality and try to convince the father of her unborn child to marry her, but soon finds out his more sinister side that leads to a horrible experience and leaves her traumatized.
Sofía and the children convince Cleo to make a trip with them to the beach in Veracruz where she will have to confront once more a hard decision which will either redeem her or end disastrously.
Roma goes beyond Y tu mamá también, and is also far ahead of all the crappy, falsified female representations in telenovelas. It is a beautiful film that gives us a view of the social texture of a country in which the indigenous female strands are embedded and recognized for the important role they play in everyday life of the city. They are represented fully with an inner and outer existence, at work and at play and with a complex intimate life. However, the success of Roma ultimately rests on Cuarón skillful film narrative in which he shows that despite class, social, or ethnic differences, Indian and White Mexican women (Afro-Mexican too) suffer similar fates at the hands of men; and that the survival of the family is not only dependent on the resilience and strength of females, but on their understanding of the human bonds that unify them.
A different version of this postcard was previously published under the title, “The Ties Between ‘Roma’ and ‘Y tu mamá también’ You Overlooked” that appeared in Cultura Colectiva, a Mexican digital magazine in December 2018.