Three Notre Dame historians unpack Alfonso Cuarón's 2018 masterpiece Roma

Three Notre Dame historians unpack Alfonso Cuarón's 2018 masterpiece Roma
Professor Jaime Pensado, Mr. Noe Pliego Campos, and Ms. Carolina Santillan
February 2020

Introduction by Dan Graff, Director of the Higgins Labor Program
I write this just as awards season is peaking in early 2020. A year ago at this time, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma had just been robbed of the Best Picture prize at the 2019 Oscars, though it did win Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Best Cinematography and Best Director (the first foreign-language film to win this last category). Roma tied one other as the most-nominated film of the year, and it also tied for the most Oscar nominations ever received by a foreign-language film. In short, Roma was widely celebrated, and not just by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. To me, Roma represents a major achievement as a labor film, one that explores paid domestic work from the point of view of the worker herself. This is the kind of work that remains largely invisible not just on screen but in the minds of those who don't have to perform it.

On Feb. 25, 2019, the Kellogg Institute's Mexico Working Group sponsored a Public Diálogo on History, Politics, and Aesthetics in Roma featuring several Notre Dame scholars. Inspired by that wonderful discussion, I asked three of the participants, Professor Jaime Pensado and two graduate students completing dissertations under his direction, Noe Pliego Campos and Carolina Santillan, to share their thoughts for publication here. I am honored to showcase their comments, and I am hopeful they are not too disappointed by the long and unexpected delay in getting these published.


Jaime Pensado, "State Repression and the Silence of a Conservative Middle Class in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma

Alfonso Cuarón has emerged as one of the most influential film directors in recent years in Mexico and across the world. As noted by film historian Dolores Tierney, he has successfully moved from “the Global South and Global North without really changing their aesthetics or perspectives on the processes of transculturation, migration, displacement, and loss.”

Roma is the latest and most successful cinematic achievement of Alfonso Cuarón thus far, and perhaps one of the best Mexican films of all time. Like most of his pictures, the film draws attention to the particularities of class struggle in Mexico; in this case, it as primarily embodied in the daily exploitation (and at times dehumanization) of the protagonist of the film, Cleo, a young indigenous woman from the southern state of Oaxaca working as a domestic worker for Sofía, Sofia’s mother Teresa, and Sofia’s four children in the middle-class neighborhood of Colonia Roma. 

The film focuses on 1971. This was the year Mexico experienced a second student massacre, which Alfonso Cuarón vividly captures not only by drawing attention to the life of Fermín (as most scholars who have commented on the film have pointed out), but also, I would argue, by depicting a comfortable yet oblivious middle class that had benefited from Mexico’s so-called “economic miracle,” but one that often failed to “look at” (and thus condemn) the brutal repression of the state. (In Mexican history, the “economic miracle” refers to a period of rapid urban industrialization that produced sustained economic growth from 1940 to the late 1960s. The six percent annual growth of gross domestic product during these years primarily benefited the private sector and the middle class residing in the largest cities.)

Fermín is a young man living in the slums outside of Mexico City who walks away from the short relationships with his girlfriend Cleo after she tells him that she is expecting his baby. In an earlier conversation between them, we learn that his own father had abandoned him when he was but an infant. Following the death of his mother, he spent most of his childhood in the streets, sniffing glue, drinking alcohol and engaging in a life of crime. 

Paradoxically, it is the repressive and illegal mechanisms of the state that save the precarious life of Fermín by providing him with an opportunity to improve his harsh economic situation and giving him an overall sense of purpose. Specifically, we learn that he is recruited by a paramilitary group known as the halcones (the hawks), the same group responsible for the Corpus Christi student massacre that took place on June 10, 1971, and so masterfully depicted in Roma. The paramilitary group provides Fermín with training and an unprecedented opportunity to improve his life. As an agent provocateur, he is physically trained in martial arts and “mentally” coached by Zovek, an escape artist who became famous in Mexico in the early 1970s and who Alfonso Cuarón uses as a metaphor to dramatize the circus-like politics that characterized the presidential administration of Luis Echeverría Alvarez (1970-1976). Zovek teaches the halcones to master their minds and control their emotions, an allegory, I would suggest, to the myriad efforts made by the state to manipulate public opinion. 

In 1968 Mexico became the first Spanish-speaking and Third World country to host the Olympics, a sign of international approval, no doubt, that Mexico had achieved not only real economic progress but also political stability. These aspirational dreams, however, were vehemently shattered on October 2, 1968, the night of the student massacre at the Plaza of Tlatelolco that left an undetermined number of people dead at the hands of an ill-informed military. The President at the time was Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970), and his Secretary of Interior was Luis Echeverría Alvarez. Once in the presidential office himself, the latter made every effort to distance himself from the Tlatelolco massacre and his predecessor, and thus—like Zovek—also manipulated public opinion. But students remained resilient, and while many opted for armed struggle in the aftermath of the 1968 massacre, others continued protesting in the schools and in the streets.

In response, Echeverría launched a two-pronged strategy. In an effort to co-opt the left, he championed a policy-oriented rhetoric of Third Worldism and led a “democratic opening” that included the release and selected amnesty of political prisoners, the removal of the Law of Social Dissolution from the Constitution (used since the 1950s to imprison dissidents), the creation of a new and more independent press, a substantial investment in public education, and the welcoming of political exiles from other Latin American countries. At the same time, however, his administration launched a brutal repression against all political dissidents. Yet, in Mexico City—where the democratic opening was widely celebrated — Echeverría could not afford the overt use of military force, so detrimental in exposing the brutality of the state in 1968. Instead, he preferred the more covert form of repression that included apocryphal propaganda, the formation of paramilitary units composed of lumpen youth who had been excluded from the “economic miracle,” and the systematic employment of agents provocateur inside the schools, whose violence the media often portrayed not as a mechanism of state repression, but as an example of student-on-student violence which demanded law and order.  

The comfortable middle-class family depicted in Roma is oblivious to the repression taking place across Mexico during the administration of Luis Echeverria -- and for the same reason perhaps also complicit. The family represents an entitled (and often white) middle class which fails to recognize that its myriad privileges almost always depended on the exploitation of the popular (and darker) classes beneath it. The matriarch of the family, Sofía, is abandoned by her cheating husband, and to cope with her pain she uses Cleo “as a verbal punching bag,” in the words of film scholar Olivia Cosentino. Even more relevant to my argument, we learn that she is a young professional who presumably attended the university during the turbulent decade of the 1960s, yet she is completely insensible to the political activism that is taking place in the universities, culminating in the fierce crash during the Corpus Christi massacre carried out by the halcones

In contrast, in a key scene of the film, the mother of Sofía, Teresa, expresses awareness of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, and on her way to a furniture store with pregnant Cleo to buy a baby crib she witnesses the student protest of 1971 and hopes that “they don’t beat them again.” (Before Teresa makes these comments, we see her reading the newspaper, whose coverage was likely critical of those protesting in the streets.) Minutes later, Teresa witnesses the Corpus Christi massacre from the window of the furniture store. The halcones then break into the store to kill a group of students escaping the brutal attack in the streets. Fermín is one of these agents provocateurs who points his gun at Teresa and Cleo; after making eye contact with the future mother of his child, he takes off running and abandons her once again.

This poignant moment in the film forces Cleo to go into premature labor. It is only after a series of gruesome scenes of Cleo’s experience on the way to and at the hospital that we see Teresa directly affected by state violence. Realizing that she does not know Cleo’s full name (as asked for at the hospital), she becomes emotionally distraught, and her guilt is palpable. But it is Cleo who is the real victim. Once in the emergency room, Roma reaches its climax as the young Cleo agonizingly delivers an unborn child in the cold and lonely hospital room attended by a medical team that responds to the physical needs of Cleo but is completely negligent to her emotions. In the aftermath, Teresa remains remarkably silent for the remainder of the film and never reaches out to Cleo to see how she is coping with the excruciating loss of her baby. For her part, Cleo eventually returns to her job as a gracious domestic worker. 

Once back at home, we see Sofia sympathizing with Cleo’s sorrow, but she says nothing about the political circumstances that sent Cleo to the hospital. She invites her domestic worker to join the family on a trip to a beach in Veracruz, where Cleo painfully admits to Sofia (after saving her kids from drowning) that she never wanted her baby to be born. Sofia pauses in silence and then with her kids she gives Cleo a hug to affirm that she is part of her family. 

Back in Mexico City the film comes to an end. We see Cleo attending to her daily domestic work, and we learn that Sofia is starting a new professional career in a publishing house (and thus, no longer waiting for her husband to return home). We also see the content grandmother Teresa, happy to see that everyday life is finally returning back to a sense of normalcy. The father appears more irrelevant than ever, but the work of Cleo is as crucial as ever for the future sustainability of the family.

In sum, in Roma, we never see Teresa asking Cleo how she is coping with her pain. We also do not see Sofía trying to make sense of the violent repression of students that sent Cleo to the hospital and likely contributed to the death of her baby. Such silence and unwillingness to see the multiple manifestations of state violence, ranging from repression to economic exclusion of the nation’s popular classes, was not uncommon in conservative Mexico. The same attitudes were evident in the aftermath of both the 1968 and 1971 student massacres. The latter left dozens of students dead. With a few exceptions, the agents provocateur in charge of this massacre and represented in the film by Fermín were never punished for their crimes.

In 2002 Echeverría became the first former president called to testify before a Mexican court to answer for his presumed participation in the Tlatelolco massacre. Four years later he was placed under house arrest also for his key involvement in the Corpus Christi massacre, and he was charged with genocide. Yet, three years later, a federal court ordered the absolute freedom of Echeverría and dismissed all charges against him. Today the former president is 97 years old and legally absolved of all of his crimes. Political sectors of society continue to protest, and every year on October 2 they organize rallies to commemorate the student massacres and demand justice for those responsible for the 1968 and 1971 crimes. But the majority of Mexico’s middle and upper classes remain oblivious and outright indifferent, a complicity captured so brilliantly by Cuaron in Roma.


Noe Pliego Campos, “'Sólo amor para dar (Only love to give)': Labor and Love in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma"

Employers trying to stifle unionizing efforts tell their employees that unions hurt the workplace team, or -- even worse -- the workplace family. This language is also used by employers to demand uncompensated labor from their employees. As such it places the onus on workers to give up their time, health, and energy to support the workplace team/family. Yet, because most labor usually does not happen in a home, the worker can draw a line between that labor and the control they exercise in other spaces, especially their domestic and familial spheres. That line of distinction is difficult to strike when it comes to domestic workers, as Alfonso Cuarón’s shows in Roma, a film drenched in labor relations.

It is hard for Cuarón to not show these labor tensions because Roma focuses on Cleo, an indigenous domestic worker, who labors for a white Mexican middle-class family in 1970s Mexico City. There is also her best friend and co-worker Adela, as well as the nameless male driver, all of whom work in the same domestic space. The film also features others performing labor, from doctors to saleswomen to soldiers; but Cleo’s labor is different. She labors in an intimate and domestic sphere and as such she forms intimate bonds with her employers, which leads to a constant ebb and flow from laborer to family member and back.

Cuarón uses a combination of shots and diegetic sound to illustrate the blurring between laborer and family member in domestic and intimate sites of employment. This is best illustrated in an early rooftop scene. As Juan Gabriel sings “I don’t have money, only love to give” from a portable radio, Cleo washes clothes and sings along on the rooftop of her employers’ home. The song’s lyrics, about a romantic relationship between a poor man and his wealthier girlfriend, also allow for an understanding of the question of love and labor. Cleo as a domestic worker must provide labor for a family. But because it is for a family and in the intimate space of the home, there is also an exchange of love that happens. This exchange of love is constantly on unequal footing due to the employee/employer hierarchy, a power relationship further polarized by racial and class differences. Furthermore, these lyrics can be modified to say “I have no rights, only love to give” because love, in this very exploitive situation, is what she depends on. She depends on this family to care just enough about her to not abuse her more than she already is.

This scene then moves from focusing on her in an explicit space of labor to one that also becomes a familial space. Two young boys invade the shot and play with toy guns as she continues to work. Eventually, a brother leaves, and in her interaction with the youngest boy she states, “I like being dead.” The camera then moves up and across to show multiple domestic workers on rooftops doing laundry. In Cuarón’s previous films, such as the winning Y Tu Mamá También (2001), film scholar Jim Collins argued at a University of Notre Dame panel discussion, a moment like this one would have included a voiceover telling viewers about Cleo’s origins and the thousands of rural indigenous women who worked as houseworkers for middle- and upper-class Mexicans. Here, though, Cuarón moves in strictly visual terms from the personal to the familial to the societal, thus centering Cleo’s lived experience into a larger context of exploitation, a reminder of the constant back-and-forth movement between laborer and family.

The blurriness between laborer and family member is consecrated in the film’s final scenes. After Cleo confesses to not wanting the stillborn baby she delivered, her employers/family express their love for her as they hug her. This confession follows Cleo’s brave act of saving two of the children she cares for from drowning. Then, back in Mexico City, the children settle down into the house as Cleo carries their luggage and puts together a pile of clothes for laundry. As she performs these tasks, the children tell their grandmother that Cleo saved two of them, and then they begin to demand snacks. Cleo’s position as family and labor here becomes most visible. Yes, she saved them, and they expressed their love for her, but she is also their worker.

Within a Mexico that disregards indigenous women and leaves domestic workers open to abuse, Cleo doesn’t have money or any rights. She must employ a type of love that lends itself to exploitation to survive.


Carolina Santillán, "The Labor of Motherhood in Roma"

Although based on director Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood memories, Roma offers a broader representation of middle-class life in Mexico during the 1970s. It is also a film that centers women and their indigenous and middle-class labor in terms of motherhood and women’s work. As Cuarón mentioned in one of his Oscar acceptance speeches, these type of roles and/or stories typically have been “relegated to the background” of films, so bringing them to the center gives us a new perspective of how the women of Roma  — and women in Mexico more generally — maintained, resisted, and re-imagined the patriarchal and middle-class notions of women and motherhood.

The first type of motherhood we see represented in Roma is the post-revolutionary concept of motherhood. In this case, this matronly role is embodied by the character of Señora Teresa (played by Verónica García). In the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), as Nichole Sanders has argued, women in Mexico were increasingly constructed as the mothers of the nation — traditional, conservative, morally aligned to the Catholic Church, and preservers of the colonial patriarchal structures of the household. These formations continued into Mexico’s period of modernity and economic development (1930s-1960s). In Roma, we observe how Sra. Teresa administers the household. She purchases groceries, oversees the children, and supervises the time and labor of domestic workers Cleo and Adela’s. We also see the colonial, patriarchal, and hierarchical arrangement between employer-employee during the hospital scene when Cleo is in labor. Theresa only knows Cleo’s first name, not any other information. Thus, to her, Cleo is only an employee.

Sofía (played by Marina de Tavira) represents another category of motherhood – that of the modern middle class. As Louise E. Walker has argued, the 1960s and 1970s in Mexico witnessed a restructuring of social classes that produced a burgeoning middle class. As the daughter of Sra. Teresa, Sofía still carries some manifestations of post-revolutionary motherhood, such as overseeing the health and well-being of the children and retaining the characteristic employer-employee distance with Cleo and Adela, but she also suggests changed social and cultural circumstances. For instance, her middle-class social connections with Americans are very valuable as she is dealing with her marital problems. Likewise, because of the development of modernity and feminism in Mexico in the long sixties and seventies, we see how Sofía embraces some independence and begins to take control of her life and her family. At first, she works part-time as a biologist, but eventually she decides to work full-time in a publishing house in order to be the main provider of the household. And although Sofía cares for Cleo and allows her to stay with them after the latter becomes pregnant, the patriarchal power structure remains because Sofía continues to see her as the help.

This finally leads to the third form of motherhood we see in Roma -- the exploited indigenous motherhood so often ignored by films and academics. This motherhood is portrayed by Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo. Cleo’s motherhood is one that struggles to exist in middle-class society. As viewers, we see this struggle in the form of premonitions. For instance, there is an earthquake as Cleo is observing the newborns in the incubators. Furthermore, Cleo’s motherhood lasts less than a minute in the hospital, and although in the end we discover that Cleo did not want her child, she still grieves. Her grief continues until the beach scene, when her and Sofía’s fear of losing the children to drowning gives way to a rush of emotions. In the end, we see how Cleo seemingly settles for being content with her role as a domestic, as Sofía’s children provide her with the love and opportunity of motherhood that she was not able to have for herself, and even if Sra. Teresa and Sofía still see her as the help.

Overall, Roma helps us better understand Mexican society and culture in the 1970s. It also depicts the complexity and contradictions of indigenous and middle-class motherhood. It is welcoming to see this type of labor portrayed in the big screen, and hopefully Roma is just the first of a new, flourishing genre.


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