I didn’t know how much it mattered to me to see Yalitza Aparicio win, until I watched her lose.
I tuned in to the Oscars on Sunday to witness history, waiting more than two hours for the best actress category to arrive. As the presenters listed some of Hollywood’s finest actresses, my anxiety took physical effect and a wave of tension humbled my shoulders into contraction. I tried to resume a confident posture as “Roma” or more specifically Cuarón, was on a hot streak winning twice by this hour, which I reasoned could only bode well for Yalitza.
Despite Glenn Close being heavily favored, I never lost hope that Yalitza would be the one holding the gold statuette and my heart would instantly resurface from the sea of panic drowning my faith. Then, they called Olivia Colman’s name and I sunk, feeling deeply disappointed and incredibly angry.
Colman won for her portrayal of Queen Anne, Britain’s last Stuart monarch and giddily delivered one of the most charming acceptance speeches I’d ever heard. She gave a shout-out to Close and shared air kisses with Lady Gaga before floating off-stage. Never once did the camera pan to Yalitza. I felt robbed and couldn’t decide what hurt more: having my Brown fangirl dreams dashed or the reductive reality of an Indigenous woman playing the maid losing to a white woman playing a queen.
Yalitza’s Oscar-nominated character, Cleo, is based on Cuarón’s former nanny, the woman he credits with raising him. “Roma” was written as an homage to Liboria Rodríguez Meza and yet it’s clear there is far more to Libo’s story than Cuarón is capable of recalling. And while no one would argue the film’s cinematic excellence, further confirmed by its win for best cinematography, many have criticized Cuarón for his myopic and self-aggrandizing depiction of the domestic caregiver.
Likewise, Yalitza Aparicio’s story remained largely untold with so much of our attention focused on what she looked like rather than who she is. And who she is, is remarkable.
Yalitza is an Indigenous woman of Triqui descent born in the San Pedro neighborhood of Tlaxiaco. The daughter of a single mother of five, Yalitza worked nearly 24 hours a day in pursuit of a preschool teaching certificate. Not long before she was discovered by Cuarón, Yalitza held several jobs in addition to a full-time schedule at school. She worked as a waitress, a job paid in exchange for meals, which she managed between classes and before graveyard shifts as a receptionist at a hotel. She worked there through the night until she had to report back to school at 8:00am.
In an interview with Mexico’s Proceso she confessed that despite the success of “Roma” she is uncertain if she will act again. After shooting the film, Yalitiza assumed her first official teaching position at a Tlaxiaco preschool. This too was a dream realized. “Al menos en lo personal es algo que siempre he soñado,” she said. At least personally, it’s something I’ve always dreamed of.
Watching “Roma” was personal for me. I felt protective of Yalitza’s character, Cleo, as I did my own mamá, an immigrant from Honduras who throughout my childhood worked as a housekeeper and nanny. She raised other people’s children. I tagged along with her often, pretending to be Mother’s Little Helper but really I was there to mark my territory. I’d help her make the beds or entertain the kids while she cooked but mostly I just wanted to be with her.
My mamá worked hard and like the film she bore witness to rampant infidelity, neglect and even death. But unlike Cleo, my mamá was not soft-spoken or stoic. She tried her best to establish boundaries but couldn’t help but become embroiled in the drama, filling in the gaps that were crucial to the children she looked after. She couldn’t avoid becoming a surrogate.
The illusion of intimacy this emotional labor established confused my mamá. Of course, it made her feel good, useful and irreplaceable. But since this kind of labor cannot be monetized, it is largely unrecognized. It’s a bonus. One that is cashed in by the employer, which ultimately made my mamá and workers like her, more vulnerable. Each time a boss would inevitably prove that being family adjacent is not the same as being family, citing earnings as an excuse for transactional behavior, she’d shrug, “It’s just a job.” Instead of expressing her true feelings, she justified the betrayal as a sacrifice for her own daughters in the name of generational progress. And because she sensed my discomfort with her lack of agency, she told me domestic work was nothing to be ashamed of. I agreed but still resented the families.
I see my mamá every week. On Sunday, as the Oscars played in the background, our conversation turned to dreams. I asked my mamá to tell me hers. She said she never had one, claiming that all she ever wanted was to raise her daughters well and quickly got up from the table to clear our plates.
I listened respectfully but I know that’s a lie. I remember that my mamá wanted to be a dancer. To this day, nothing makes her come alive more than expressing the rhythm of music through movement with her body. And no one rivals her on the dance floor.
Women like Libo, Yalitza and my mamá, Cilia, are complex and extraordinary. They shouldn’t be reduced to generic tropes, even in the name of good intentions. I don’t know better than Cuarón how Libo felt. Nor do I assume that my mamá and Libo shared the same feelings just because they held the same broad vocation. I just know, as a woman, as a Brown woman with Indigenous roots and as the daughter of a domestic worker, there is so much more to the story than “Roma” lets on. And that is a tale that no man can tell.