In 'Roma,' A Director Re-Creates The City — And The Caretaker — Of His Youth

Dec 13, 2018
Originally published on December 13, 2018 10:28 am

In his new film, Alfonso Cuarón brings back to life the middle-class neighborhood where he grew up — the street vendors, the barking dogs, the occasional parade. It lends the film its title: Roma.

He also chronicles the daily rituals of the woman who cleaned house and helped care for him and his three siblings. Roma focuses on Cleo, a character based on Cuarón's real-life nanny and housekeeper: Liboria Rodríguez, known as "Libo."

"We called her mamá," Cuarón says. "She came into my life when I was just a newborn. ... She would wake me up, prepare breakfast. She would take us to the movies. We would go with her to the market."

Rodríguez came from a small village in the state of Oaxaca. Cuarón remembers spending hours with her in the kitchen as she cooked for the family and told stories about her own childhood — far from cosmopolitan Mexico City.

"She would talk about her hardships," he says. "Remembering as a child being cold — my concept of being cold was the day that I didn't bring my sweater when I went to the movies. Or being hungry — my concept of being hungry was that day they that took so long to have dinner ready, or whatever, you know? Or she would talk about her father to be tended by the witch doctor. Of course for me, [it] was so exciting the whole idea of a witch doctor, and I was not considering the lack of health services that she would have."

Cuarón is now 57. He won two Oscars for Gravity, in both directing and editing. He's also known for his films Y Tu Mamá Tambien and Children of Men, and directed a Harry Potter movie.

His newest film, however, is more personal: a meticulously constructed, black-and-white, 1970s period piece set in Mexico City, and acted in Spanish. It's a tribute to his childhood and the woman who helped raise him.

Cuarón says it took time for him to recognize the economic class and racial differences that permeate Mexican society. He says he came to realize he grew up with what he calls a "perverse relationship of convenience" — Libo was part of the family, but also the hired help.

"In the same breath it's: 'We really love you, but go and wash the clothes, and bring the Twinkie wonders, and make a smoothie for me,' he says. "But at the same time, when everything goes wrong, it's your fault. 'Why you didn't clean the dog poo?'

"She has three seconds of sitting with the family to watch TV — but on the floor," he adds. "And soon after she's starting to enjoy herself, to be told to bring some tea or coffee."

Cuarón wanted to depict a more realistic domestic worker — not the fair-skinned maid with meticulous braids and starched uniforms of melodramatic telenovelas: "the very beautiful domestic worker that makes it because the prince of the house notice[s] her and takes her from rags to riches," he says.

In the 1990s show María Isabel, for instance, the indigenous maid marries a wealthy widower. That's a typical narrative.

"And it's also always played by a very white actress," Cuarón says. "In Mexico, that is a deeply racist country, even if some people try to deny it. ... The other kind of archetype would be the one that is mean and steals. Something is missing in a house. The first one to be blamed is the domestic worker."

By contrast, in Roma, Cleo scrubs floors and washes laundry by hand. And she chats with her friend in Mixtec — an indigenous language from Oaxaca.

Cleo also falls for a young man who turns out to be a member of Los Halcones, a government-supported paramilitary group. She witnesses the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, when Los Halcones killed over 100 student protesters. Cleo suffers her own traumas, but she's also a hero.

Cuarón used almost all first-time actors for Roma, casting his film with people who resembled those from his memories. After auditioning thousands for the role of Cleo, he found his leading lady in 24-year-old Yalitza Aparicio.

Aparicio says she'd never imagined that she might be the lead in a movie. She had just finished studying to be a preschool teacher in Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca when her sister requested that she accompany her to the casting call. Instead of her sister, who was pregnant at the time, she got the gig.

She says she had no idea who Alfonso Cuarón was, and had never seen his movies. But the director says he recognized in her the same face and spirit as his Libo.

And Aparicio says Cuarón entrusted her to portray Libo authentically — to demonstrate that such women do exist. Her own mother was a domestic worker, and she notes that many women leave their rural communities to clean houses and care for children — often leaving behind their own sons and daughters.

Yalitza Aparicio's portrayal is much appreciated by women like Perla Jiménez, an art historian who lives in Oaxaca. She says that Aparicio's appearance in the movie, with brown skin like her own, seemed to be proposing a new standard of beauty.

Jiménez's heritage is Zapotec, another indigenous culture of Oaxaca. She thanks Cuarón for celebrating indigenous women and all domestic workers. The movie dignifies their work, Jiménez says — work that is sometimes hidden and seen as shameful.

Roma actress Marina de Tavira agrees. She portrays the mother, Sofia, who has a troubled marriage.

"She's going through a very stressful moment, and she has a very complex relationship with Cleo," de Tavira says. "Even if it's an employer-employee relationship, it's also very intimate and very family-like. She struggles with that, because she's also a silent witness of all the pain she's going through."

Like her character, the actress is also a single mother, and she relies on a woman named Guadalupe to help her raise her son Tadeo.

"Because women together can bring up children in a very, very special way and help each other," de Tavira says. "Guadalupe and I know exactly the clock of Tadeo, and we're remembering each other about his medicines, about what he's going to eat. I mean, we're like two brains working in the same direction."

Outside the Cine Tonalá movie theater in Mexico City's Roma district last weekend, 13-year-old Danae Quiroz said the movie made her reflect on Mexico's classism and racism toward domestic workers.

Her father, Andrés Quiroz, said that he was glad the movie breaks stereotypes. The main character of Roma doesn't end up with a prince, he says. Instead, she earns a family's love and respect.

Nina Gregory edited this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Oscar-winning director who stranded us in space and transported us to Hogwarts now invites audiences into his childhood home. Alfonso Cuaron's new film "Roma" is named for the middle-class neighborhood in Mexico City where he grew up. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports the film pays tribute to the woman who helped to raise him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: With sounds of street vendors, barking dogs and spontaneous parades, Alfonso Cuaron recreates the Roma of his childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

DEL BARCO: Cuaron also chronicles the daily rituals of the woman who cleaned house and helped care for him and his three siblings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMA")

DANIELA DEMESA: (As Sofi) Buenos noches, Cleo.

YALITZA APARICIO: (As Cleo) Buenos noches, Sofi.

DEL BARCO: The movie focuses on Cleo, who is based on Cuaron's real-life nanny and housekeeper Liboria Rodriguez - Libo.

ALFONSO CUARON: We call her mama. She came into my life when I was just a newborn. She would wake me up, prepare breakfast. She would take us to the movies. We would go with her to the market.

DEL BARCO: Rodriguez was from a small village in the state of Oaxaca. Cuaron remembers spending hours with her in the kitchen as she cooked and told stories about her own childhood far from cosmopolitan Mexico City.

CUARON: She would talk about her hardships, remembering as a child being cold. My concept of being cold was the day that I didn't bring my sweater when I went to the movies - or being hungry. My concept of being hungry was that day that they took so long to have dinner ready or whatever - you know? - or she would talk about her father to be attended by the witch doctor. Of course, for me, it was so exciting - the whole idea of a witch doctor. I was not considering the lack of health services that she would have.

DEL BARCO: The 57-year-old filmmaker says he now recognizes their class and racial differences. And he realizes he grew up with what he calls a perverse relationship of convenience, with Libo being part of his family and the hired help.

CUARON: In the same breath, it's, we really love you. But go and wash the clothes and make a smoothie for me. When everything goes wrong, it's your fault. Why didn't you clean the dog poo? On one hand, she has her three seconds of sitting with the family to watch TV, but on the floor.

(LAUGHTER)

CUARON: And soon after she's starting to enjoying herself - to be told to bring some tea or coffee.

DEL BARCO: In "Roma," Cuaron wanted to depict a more realistic domestic worker than those seen in, for example, classic, melodramatic telenovelas - fair-skinned maids with meticulous braids and starched uniforms.

CUARON: The very beautiful domestic worker that makes it because the prince of the house notices her and takes her from rags to riches.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MARIA ISABEL")

ADELA NORIEGA: (As Maria, speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "I'm your servant, the Indian who arrived at your house," she says. And he whispers, "unfortunately, that's true. But I've learned so much from you." In the 1990s show "Maria Isabel," the indigenous maid marries a wealthy widower - a typical narrative.

CUARON: Always played by a very white actress. In Mexico, that is a deeply racist country, even if some people try to deny it. The other kind of archetype would be the one that is mean and steals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CUARON: If something is missing in a house, the first one to be blamed is the domestic worker.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

DEL BARCO: By contrast, in "Roma," Cleo scrub the floors, hand-washes laundry. And she chats with her friend in Mixtec, a Oaxacan language. Cleo also falls for a young man who turns out to be a member of Los Halcones, a government-supported paramilitary group.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ucachi.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, yelling).

DEL BARCO: Cleo witnesses the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre, when Los Halcones killed more than a hundred student protesters.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

DEL BARCO: Cleo suffers her own traumas, but she's also a hero.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROMA")

APARICIO: (As Cleo) Sofi.

DEL BARCO: Cuaron cast "Roma" with almost all non-actors who resemble real people from his memories. After auditioning thousands around Mexico, he found his leading lady in 24-year-old Yalitza Aparicio.

APARICIO: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Aparicio says she never imagined she'd be the lead in a movie. She'd just finished studying to be a preschool teacher in Oaxaca when her sister asked her to accompany her to the casting call.

APARICIO: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: She says she had no idea who Alfonso Cuaron was, having never watched his movies. But the director says he recognized in her the same face and spirit as his Libo. And Aparicio says Cuaron entrusted her to portray Libo authentically.

APARICIO: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "This movie shows that such women do exist," says Aparicio, whose mother was a domestic worker. She notes that many women still leave their communities to clean houses and care for children far away from their own families, often leaving behind their own sons and daughters. Yalitza Aparicio's portrayal is much appreciated by women like Perla Jimenez, an art historian who lives in Oaxaca.

PERLA JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "To see Yalitza with brown skin like mine," says Jimenez, "the movie is proposing a new standard of beauty and is breaking stereotypes." Jimenez, whose heritage is Zapotec, thanks Cuaron for celebrating Indigenous Mexicans and all domestic workers.

JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "The movie dignifies work that is sometimes seen as shameful," says Jimenez. "Roma" actress Marina de Tavira agrees.

MARINA DE TAVIRA: These are women that tend to be invisible.

DEL BARCO: de Tavira portrays the mother Sofia, who has a troubled marriage.

DE TAVIRA: She's going through a very stressful moment. And she has a very complex relationship with Cleo. It's also very intimate and very family-like. She struggles with that because she's also a silent witness of all the pain she's going through.

DEL BARCO: Like her character, the actress is also a single mother and relies on a woman named Guadalupe to help raise her son Tadeo.

DE TAVIRA: This film also is putting question marks on our parenthood because women together can bring up children in a very, very special way and help each other. Guadalupe and I know exactly the clock of Tadeo. And we're remembering each other about his medicines, about what he's going to eat. And I mean, we're like two brains working in the same direction.

DEL BARCO: Outside the Cine Tonala movie theater in the Roma neighborhood last weekend, 13-year-old Danae Quiroz said the film made her examine Mexico's classism and racism against domestic workers.

DANAE: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Her father, Andres Quiroz, says he was glad the movie breaks stereotypes.

ANDRES QUIROZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "The main character of "Roma" doesn't end up with a prince," he says. Instead, she earns a family's love and respect. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.