Playing Cleo in director Alfonso Cuaron’s Spanish-language film Roma was for Yalitza Aparicio much more than putting herself in the shoes of another woman. For the lead actress of Mixtec origin praised for her moving portrayal of a domestic worker, it was personal: that was her mother’s occupation.
“For me it has been very important to grow up knowing about my mom’s work and that she was always at every moment supporting me and teaching me to have this strength,” she said in a recent interview.
Her mother raised Aparicio and her siblings alone after their father left the family when the actress was about 15-years-old.
Aparicio had never seen a Cuaron movie or acted. She had to look for photos of the director online to be able to recognise him when they met for the first time. Up until that moment she planned to be a pre-school teacher.
She accompanied her sister, who was the one originally interested, to the audition in the southern state of Oaxaca. Aparicio ended up being the one called back.
Her mother accompanied her to subsequent meetings, worried that it could all be human trafficking ruse. Once she had the part, Aparicio recruited her friend and fellow teaching student Nancy Garcia, who plays domestic worker Adela in the movie.
‘I tried to make a tribute to that job that I feel is so important’
Cuaron had embarked in a quest to find a woman who reminded him most of Liboria Rodriguez, his childhood nanny to whom he dedicated the film. Rodriguez is also from the southern state of Oaxaca, one of the poorest of Mexico and also one with the biggest indigenous population of the country, but she is of Zapotec origin, while Aparicio is Mixtec. The film includes dialogue in Mixtec.
If Roma ends up winning the Oscar for best foreign language film, it would be also a victory for the 68 indigenous languages spoken in the country. In the movie, Cleo and Adela are scolded by one of the children for speaking their language.
“I tried to make a tribute to that job that I feel is so important,” Aparicio said. “I see it as what many women do in real life: they enter a home to work and give their hearts and their all as if it were their own family even though they have their own lives and sometimes difficult ones.”
In spite of her lack of acting experience, Aparicio has dazzled audiences. She leads a list of best performances of 2018 in Time magazine and was also included in a similar list from the New York Times. On Sunday she will compete for the Critics’ Choice best actress award alongside Emily Blunt, Glenn Close, Toni Collette, Olivia Colman, Lady Gaga and Melissa McCarthy.
The role of the domestic worker, which in many movies is secondary, takes on a whole new dimension in Roma. Aparicio achieves scenes of great expressiveness in spite of having little or no dialogue. From the first scenes she maintains an enviable complicity with the children she cares for while facing the complaints of her employer and a profound romantic failure.
In her acting debut, Aparicio meshes perfectly with Marina de Tavira, who plays Sofia, her employer and a mother of four who is abandoned by her husband. De Tavira, whose roles in the television series Las Aparicio, Capadocia, and El Senor de los Cielos, made her the most experienced hand in a cast where many actors had no credits.
Finding real life inspiration
One thing the whole cast had in common was Cuaron’s decision to break with his previous practices and try a new and different tactic: he never gave the actors the whole script. The director filmed the scenes in chronological order, and gave the actors instructions for the day that sometimes contradicted each other. That was the case in the scene where Sofia asks her children to write a letter to their absent father.
Cuaron told de Tavira that it was especially important for her character that her son Tonio (Diego Cortina Autrey) write a letter. But before filming started on the scene, Cuaron whispered to the young actor that he should leave without writing anything. The result was genuine reactions to unforeseeable situations. Cuaron has said he did it that way because that’s the way real life is.
Just as Aparicio connected to the script through her domestic-worker mother, de Tavira had a personal connection: she lived through her parents’ divorce in real life in the 1980s, a decade after the era depicted in the movie.
Even then, divorced women faced stigma in conservative Mexican society and normally had to take over full responsibility for childcare, de Tavira said.
“The way I remember it, and the way Alfonso talked about with me too, the woman felt guilty and she was also blamed by society for the break-up of the marriage, and you had to look at the children with pity, not empathy, as if they were going to grow up twisted, as if something was wrong,” said de Tavira.
“It was even the subject of religious condemnation. If you were Catholic, for example, a divorced woman could no longer take communion. There is this big stigma attached to it as a woman’s failure.”
‘We hope things will change little by little’
Despite the differences in their backgrounds and social class, in the movie Sofia and Cleo grow close in their disappointment after their husbands and boyfriends abandon them. In an era marked by movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo, for gender equality and against sexual harassment, both actresses hope that situations like the ones depicted in Roma can change.
“The role of fatherhood has to be strengthened,” de Tavira said. “We talk a lot about the empowerment of women, but we don’t talk much about educating to be a man, how much they are harassed and society demands they be violent and very strong, and that being very manly also means abandonment.”
“We hope things will change little by little,” Aparicio said. “Just because you are a woman doesn’t mean you have to suffer more. We have to get that idea out of our heads.”