The Power of Yalitza Aparicio & The Socio-political Backdrop of “Roma”

Yalitza Aparicio made history as the first indigenous woman nominated for an Oscar with her 2019 Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Aparicio turned heads with her portrayal of Cleo, a young domestic worker in Mexico City during the 1970s, in the film “Roma.”  The film’s black and white cinematography, paired with its exclusive use of Spanish, makes it easy to see why it is beloved by both viewers and critics alike.

As great as the cinematography is, however, it is the history of Mexico City in the 1970s that drew me into “Roma” and Yalitza Aparicio’s role of Cleo. The movie “Roma” is loosely based off of the director Alfonso Cuarón’s life growing up as a child in Mexico City and his beloved childhood care-taker Liboria Rodriguez (the inspiration for Cleo). Cuarón used both his experience and Liboria Rodriguez’s story to try to tell a tale as unbiased as possible. Though the history of Mexico City is not blatant in the movie, there are subtle nods to the social and political climate of Mexico City during the time it is taking place. “Roma” is situated in a complicated time in Mexico’s history. Namely, this is the time when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated the country’s government (as it had since the founding in 1929). Joy Langston, author of “Democratization and Authoritarian Party Survival: Mexico’s PRI” cites that the PRI used a variety of tactics to keep their power including rewarding people who voted for their officials, repression and electoral fraud. The setting of “Roma” is one of violence. Some of the history of the PRI include the “Dirty War,” a series of orchestrated attacks against rebels in rural Mexico in the 1960 and '70s. This was verified by an official report leaked by the Mexican government revealing massacres and rapes of entire villages. 

In the United States, we all know the history of youth movements springing up here and there throughout the 1960s and their calls for revolution. What we may not hear about is the youth movements that sprung up in Mexico City in 1968 against government repression. As Mexico was preparing to be the host of the Summer Olympics in 1968, students mobilized to protest the oppressive authoritarian rule of the PRI. On Oct. 2, in an event now known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, 10 days before the Summer Olympics were set to begin, thousands of students gathered in the Three Cultures Square in the Tlatelolco housing complex. Police and soldiers disguised as civilians were stationed on rooftops and opened fire. In a plan to trap students, soldiers were also stationed on the ground and opened fire moments after the initial shots that initiated chaos. Government officials minimized the attack, stating only a couple people got hurt. That was far from the truth according to eyewitnesses, who believe the death toll could have very well been in the hundreds.

As the plot line within “Roma” unfolds, so do the subtle hints about the socio-political backdrop of Mexico City, including PRI campaign posters and propaganda. Most notably, Cleo’s romantic partner Fermín is a member of a secret paramilitary force for the PRI. At one point Cleo goes to search for him, and the camera zooms in on the letters LEA — the President’s initials. I know, I know. By this point your eyes have glazed over in this article and you’re asking “what paramilitary force, and why should I care?” There is a history of the paramilitary force, the Halcones, and the atrocities they had committed. While Fermín is showing Cleo his martial arts skills with a shower rod, it could be inferred that he is training to be a part of the Halcones. In 1971, the Mexican government essentially collaborated with the United States in the creation of a black operations army group, the Halcones (or “Falcons” if you’re into English), to prevent future uprisings and events like the Tlatelolco Massacre from happening again. You can see this collaboration in the film when Cleo goes to see Fermín training in a soccer field. He claims that they had been trained by the gringos for a while. The film also depicts a man in a CIA cap and an American trainer in the scene. The Halcones recruited young men, most from predominantly poor backgrounds, to infiltrate campuses and protests. Authorities used the Halcones to create violence within the protests so the government could justify their own violence towards the student protests.

The ways in which the Halcones were used to perpetrate atrocities can be seen directly in the Corpus Cristi Massacre. On June 1971, after being trained by Mexican and American trainers, the Halcones attacked a group of students protesting the PRI’s regime. According to Paul Gillingham, a historian at Northwestern University with a concentration in Mexican politics, culture and violence, the government promised that these acts of violence would stay in the Mexican countryside— out of sight and out of mind for a majority of Mexican citizens. Then, the Corpus Cristi Massacre rocked the nation.

Sergio Aguayo, a professor at El Colegio de México and the President of the Board of Directors of Fundar, a Mexican democratic research NGO, states that “it was confirmation for many young people that there was no other way but armed struggle. [The government] crushed insurrections everywhere, and out of the disappeared people for political reasons emerged the modern human rights movement that was fundamental in the eroding of the legitimacy of the political system.” 

However, one of the most relevant topics when it comes to Yalitza Aparicio’s portrayal of Cleo in “Roma” is the racial and class divide in Mexico during the 1970s. Aparicio’s character, Cleo, is an indigenous woman working for a light-skinned family. Although she is invited on family vacations with them, she is seen, above all else, as a server to the family. Many consider this a result of the color of the family’s skin and the skin that Cleo has. A 2015 United Nations Report found that nearly 80.6% of Mexican indigenous populations were living in extreme poverty.

Land shortages, that were induced by the PRI, as well as the PRI’s dedication to keeping corn prices low, forced many indigenous populations to move to the city. Cleo is a prime manifestation of this, as she is thrust into being a domestic worker for this wealthier family in the city. If this story tells us anything about the socio-economic status of indigenous populations in Mexico during the 1970s, it’s that there was concentrated poverty in the cities of an overarchingly rich country. In Aparicio’s lived experience, she has felt the pressures of racism. Aparicio told HollyWood Reporter, “I've been discriminated against because of the color of my skin. When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed into certain groups, for example. Also, my mother works in a house. Sometimes people didn't see her work as dignified, and that was hard.”  Yalitza Aparicio recently was featured in W Magazine posing next to the U.S. Mexican Border Wall—  a sort of testament to how an indigenous woman of color is celebrated in the Academy while the U.S. government plays into anti-Latinx rhetoric. Alfonso Cuarón, director of “Roma,” expressed hope to W Magazine: “We create a division every day with the people around us, and Yalitza comes from a place that is easy to put aside and forget. In Mexico and elsewhere, people who look like Yalitza are immediately ­classified and deemed unworthy. Being acknowledged by the Academy has a big impact. It’s another wall. And hopefully that wall has started to fall.” Cuarón discusses the background of “Roma” as both a reflection of his own childhood as well as the current climate: “I now realize that growing up I had this perverse entitlement, I was educated that way, but it’s not anything to be proud of. Libo and I were so close, but we really came from two different microcosms. I feel terrible about that now: Libo, in my life, and Cleo, in the film, are owed a debt. “Roma” is my attempt to honor them, while showing how much we still owe.”

Cuarón described the reason he wanted to photograph Aparicio at the wall was as a form of resistance to the white supremacy the United States is exhibiting: “The wall turns people into enemies for no reason. Walls are pointless. Whether there is a physical structure there or not, I’m more concerned with the invisible wall that divides social classes and backgrounds. That’s a barrier we accept every day, without thinking.” 

Yalitza Aparicio is not only worthy of an Oscar for her movie debut, but she’s also crushing walls and shattering glass ceilings in the process. If you take anything away from this article, my hope is that you gain knowledge of just how groundbreaking, earth-shattering and proud you should be of Aparicio and the feat her nomination presents. For the first time, an indigenous Mexican woman is being recognized by the Academy for a film that perhaps may not be about the history of Mexico, but acknowledges the history that made the film possible.