Two civilizations mean two civilizational programs, two ideal models for the society sought after, two different possible futures. Whatever decision is made about reorienting the country, whatever path is chosen to escape from the current crisis, implies a choice for one of those civilizational projects and against the other.
—Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, México Profundo: Reclaiming a Civilization
In the warmer sections of the Tibetan Plateau and some tropical Asian forests, the Cordyceps—a type of fungus—grows and survives in a very unusual way. In the winter, its spores lodge into the bodies of an insect host, spreading into its digestive tract and later its head. As the spores mature, they take control of the infected body and begin re-modulating its brain activity. By the spring, when the fungus has reached maturity, the hosting body is all but a shell, obedient, docile, inert, available as a food supply, fully colonized.
The slowness of the process belies its violence. By snatching the body first, then altering its vital functions, its perception of the world, the fungus turns the host into a mere receptacle for the younger spores which will then spread and disseminate in their turn. Violent as it may be, however, the cycle is somewhat painless. It realizes itself by keeping the host alive, plunging it into disorientation and confusion and, ultimately, a slow erasure.
Early on in his life, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuarón wanted to become a pilot or an astronaut. In more ways than one, he has succeeded with his latest project, Roma. In the film, produced by Netflix with limited theatrical release, Cuarón becomes the pilot of his former nanny’s gaze. The quasi-autobiography of the director’s childhood during the year his father left the family is rendered through the eyes of Cleo, a teenage Mixtec woman charged with the children’s care. Cleo’s character is based on Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, an indigenous woman who in 1962, at 17 or 18 years of age, joined the Cuarón family as a full-time nanny. The “Roma” of the title is a reference to “Colonia Roma,” the upper-class Mexico City neighborhood where Cuarón’s family lived during the sixties and seventies.
“When Cuarón started the filmmaking process,” reads a lengthy cover feature on the Mexican director in a recent issue of Variety magazine, “there were three elemental aspects that came to him that he refused to question: Roma would be centered on Rodríguez; it would be taken from his own memories; and it would be filmed in black and white.”
Cuarón made the decision to lead his film with an indigenous woman. It is an important one: non-white, non-Western protagonists are a rare presence in Hollywood. But what was the need to impose his gaze, his own memories, on her? When Cuarón decided to show Roma as a referential film, close to an autobiography, he was making a narrative choice. But when he imposed his gaze on an indigenous, migrant woman, his choice became both moral and political.
Cleo’s perspective, Roma viewers may expect, should line up with that of a 17-year-old Mixtec migrant. Newly arrived in Mexico City from her native Tepelmeme, she enters the urban labor market the only way she can: as an invisible domestic worker. As the West and its cities push out into rural, indigenous land, displacing its communities, indigenous people start moving into urban centers. But their visibility as ambulant workers creates conflicts with authorities, which is why most of them end up working for cheap in upper class households, Séverine Durine and Rebeca Moreno Zúñiga discuss in their 2008 study of the migratory flows into Monterrey. As a statistical perversity of Mexico in the 1970s, most of the indigenous speaking population thus becomes concentrated in the wealthier areas of the wealthiest cities.
Since early in the film, Cuarón shows us a Cleo who works nonstop in the household; who shares a 6’ x 6’ room with another maid and an ironing board. She doesn’t seem otherwise connected to her family, her culture or her land.
Central to the film are Rodriguez’s external attributes, her behavior, the semblance of a point of view, how she sees the family which employs her. But Cleo’s point of view is problematic: based on a flawed interviewing process with the now 74 year old Liboria Rodriguez (“He was getting all this information without me knowing what it was for”), Cleo’s gaze becomes a haphazard combination of Cuarón’s memories and those of Rodriguez filtered through Cuaron’s own recollections. In short, they are his gaze reflected in Cleo’s eyes.
The calibration of Cleo’s point of view, described by the director in his Variety interview, is accomplished in three steps: an original memory is extracted from the source (Rodríguez); the memory is combined and processed through his gaze; the memory is finally applied to the character (Cleo).
He was getting all this information without me knowing what it was for,” Rodríguez says through a translator while discussing the film for the first time with any journalist. “‘How do you remember this, Libo?’ he said. ‘Help me remember and understand.’ Then it started to become weird. ‘Libo, what did you used to wear? How did you dress?’ Things like that. I never imagined everything I’m living right now, that a film would be based on me.
In this transaction—according to a New York Times profile on the director, Rodríguez refused monetary compensation—Cuarón leverages his familial access and plunders the memories of his former nanny to use them as raw material. But before finding value in her story, he must infect her gaze and hollow out her point of view. In line with the extractive process that connects the West with the non-Western world, the sourcing of Roma’s raw material is based on an extractive matrix: the resignification of these memories, and the imposition of a new form—a new narrative—of a different order back onto the original source. This added value process can never be neutral, even when reduced to pure economics. Values added are always symbolically and culturally determined.
In a cinematic equivalent of live action role playing (LARP), Cleo is Cuarón’s appropriation of both Libo’s exterior attributes—her language, her looks, her clothing—and her story. But ultimately what we see is Cuaron gazing at himself—his family narrative as he would like it resolved and immortalized—in her exquisitely wrought reflection.
The hollowing out of Rodríguez’s point of view, and the refilling of that shell with a westernized gaze—Cuarón’s own—remains at the foundation of the narrative that carries the movie and indemnifies Cuarón’s family from any improper mistreatment of Rodríguez.
Cleo looks exactly like Rodríguez, her emotions burst off the screen. But aside from appearances, Cleo and Rodríguez are nothing alike.
The formation of a new, tolerable point of view—a colonized gaze—is key to Roma’s success in the eyes of American critics, and the reason why the movie is ultimately so disturbing. Cuarón—male, white and upper class—controls the axis of information distribution. Even during filming, he withholds the narrative and the process from the actors. Total control allows the film to present a worldview that flat-lines the potentially unsettling, politically- or class-laden points of view that Rodríguez might have brought to light, but Cleo can’t.
While Cuarón insists on presenting his film as some sort of a happy-ending testimony, in which the embrace of a white family redeems and protects the native Mixtec woman, the film creates a cognitive dissonance that isn’t easily explained even by its most ardent champions.
The New Yorker review of the movie is titled: “Alfonso Cuarón Bears Witness to Peril With Roma.” Interestingly, the idea of “bearing witness” lies at the core of a Latin American literary genre known as testimonio, a narrative tradition fully formed in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. With all its flaws, testimonio aimed to give “voice to the voiceless,” by emphasizing a collaborative effort between story-bearer and storyteller. In recent years, however, the genre has come under scrutiny by John Beverley and others, due to its own inner contradictions: it is always a lettered, white scribe writing the story of the illiterate native subject who has actually lived it in the flesh.
The emotional climax in Roma is a long scene in which Cleo gives birth to a stillborn child. It begins in the Zócalo area, at the exact time of the Corpus Christi Massacre—a turbulent backdrop depicting the clash between thousands of student demonstrators and a paramilitary, government-funded group known as “los Halcones” that killed at least 120 of the student protestors.
In a state of shock after witnessing the shooting of a teenager, Cleo realizes that her water broke; soon after, she goes into labor. She is taken to the hospital by the grandmother of the family, and is fast-tracked past the in-take bureaucracy thanks to her employer’s connections. In the operating room, Cuarón’s camera doesn’t mince visuals as Cleo gives birth to a stillborn girl. The scene, and particularly this final heartbreaking and inconceivable loss, is handled with unflinching and harrowing directness—and yet it’s precisely this moment that serves, indirectly, to indemnify and redeem Cleo’s employers. They did all they could, we are assured, they gave Cleo work, they didn’t fire her when she got pregnant, they took her to the hospital for a prenatal visit, they rushed her through emergency. It doesn’t matter that Cleo was overworked while pregnant, carrying suitcases, making errands, cleaning after her employers. It doesn’t matter that she had no relatives or close family support during pregnancy or at birth. The character’s gaze doesn’t focus on these details, nor does the film acknowledge the context: an unjust social dynamic that predominantly afflicted migrant indigenous women in México since the 1970s, leading to a steep rise in infertility and an increase in infant mortality. It doesn’t register how these women got there and what they lost in the process: how they had to change the ways they worked, ate, built their familial and social bonds after being displaced to cities where their spouses or their relatives had been relocated. And finally, it doesn’t draw the connection between these conditions and the employers whose class the conditions benefited.The director’s gaze does, however, extract the emotion of loss, and features it in full-screen mode, aesthetically beautiful and—because?—unburdened of its direct causes. In so doing, it gives a pass to the white family, and to the predominantly white leadership of Mexico responsible for the death of entire generations of indigenous people. (Mexican researcher Germán Vázquez Sandrin discusses some of these issues in a paper from 2013).
On a narrative level, the birth scene works as a pretext to make Cleo even more connected to (or dependent on) the white family, her white saviors. No questions asked.
A second, central scene takes place during a vacation to the beach. Sofía, the matriarch of the white family which employs Cleo, invites her to rest and relax after her miscarriage. Cleo is still tasked with the care of the family’s children, two of whom she must rescue from a raging ocean while unable to swim herself. The directorial gaze, however, doesn’t acknowledge the power dissymmetry, the burden of responsibility, or the legal obligation that would compel an Indian “sirvienta” to risk her own life for her boss’s children. The gaze only emphasizes the emotional connection between the nanny and the children, a link which, albeit understandable, likely bore only some weight in Cleo’s radical action. Cuarón, however, presents her choice as a universal act of pure love and redemption. In Mexico of the 1970s, a place in which migrant indigenous women had to remain invisible, the death of two white children would have been catastrophic for Cleo. But Cuarón resolves the scene by receding and naturalizing Cleo’s position of servitude, while front-loading her attachment to the white family.
Through his nanny’s eyes, Cuarón presents Cleo and Sofía as parallels and equivalents in their womanhood. The loss of Sofía’s marriage due to her husband’s betrayal and the miscarriage of Cleo’s baby bring the two women closer, as they share the care and upbringing of Sofía’s children. What Cuarón’s device conceals is the dispossession and suffering that has been imposed on the native Mixtec woman, deterritorialized in a city two hundred miles away from her home, family and potential partners. Mixtec indigenous people built Mexico City’s subway system in the sixties and seventies, and were part of the Bracero program, which shared day laborers across the U.S. border. They were the most important migrants among the indigenous communities in Mexico, and ranked also among the poorest and the most discriminated against. To this day, the percentage of indigenous people who live in poverty in Mexico is nearly double that of the general population, according to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL)—76.8 percent versus 43 percent, respectively. In the film, we hear that Cleo’s mother is about to lose her land to developers encroaching on her town. But pregnant Cleo decides not to visit her mother because “she wouldn’t understand.” We are told that Cleo’s mother considers her daughter a traitor, but neither that accusation of betrayal against the Mixtec nation and her community, nor the reasons for her own migration, find space in Cuarón’s imposed gaze.
Narratively there is nothing wrong with a director investing a character with his or her own point of view. It is, however, disingenuous to vest a character with a point of view while obscuring the process through which that gaze was construed. And it is plainly dishonest to present as a testimonio a mostly hegemonic, Western, colonial point of view, as representative of an oppressed, indigenous, female minority. Indigenous women in Mexico’s seventies were forced into semi-slavery in urban homes by the same white, upper and upper-middle classes who were also forcing the indigenous people out of their land. In Roma, however, Cuarón’s memories are conflated with the partial recollections he elicits from his former nanny, a conflation that allows the class and racial struggles in the original context to not only recede into the background, but to be actively replaced by a new, positive narrative that says more about the white family than about the central character. Cleo is, ultimately, a whitewashing device.
Roma, the shell, is extraordinarily beautiful. Black and white, smooth and elegant. Gleaming with natural light, airliners in flight reflected in water puddles, forest fires and lavish Christmas dinners. Sofía’s family is also beautiful and likable, just like Cuarón may remember his own. But brimming with an emotion that is dislocated from its true source (dispossession, poverty, oppression, colonialism) and reattached to a new spurious one (the love for her white employers), Cleo’s point of view becomes alien and, as such, disturbing. In order to make the tensions in Cuarón’s childhood more tolerable, and the colonial process less evident, “Roma” must present “indigenous” while showing a portion of Mexican history from a neutral, apolitical perspective.
Roma can pass as a beautiful story about Cuaron’s nanny, but only to those who relate to his upbringing or to those characters who embody the family’s American land-owning friends and equals. For most other Latin Americans, Roma is a horror film, a muzzle, which resonates close to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Sofia is the Mexican incarnation of Missy Armitage, Get Out’s head hypnotizer. But for Cleo, there is no hope of getting out, as confirmed by the film’s unhappy conclusion.
To Cuarón’s credit, he’s an impeccable strategist. The same skill that helped him successfully negotiate an unprecedented theatrical release with Netflix and that has already garnered his low-budget art film Oscar buzz, has also allowed him to dazzle some American critics and audiences who are sophisticated enough to know the differences between an L, a G a B, a T and a Q, but still can’t distinguish between working class and elite Latin Americans, indigenous or not.
Roma spelled backward is “amor,” Spanish for love. Cuarón’s film may be based on the same building blocks of love but, as mirror image, it can certainly leave transposed emotions.