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The Lasting Impact of Yalitza Aparicio, Star of ‘Roma’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) stars as Cleo in “Roma” (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón.
Yalitza Aparicio (left) stars as Cleo in “Roma” (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón. By Courtesy of Netflix
By Molly M. Martinez, Contributing Writer

Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning film “Roma” is a watershed moment for both the Mexican and international entertainment industry. Yalitza Aparicio’s rise to fame is a step toward the representation that Oaxacan people have been excluded from on the film screen, as she is the first indigenous woman to have been nominated for an Oscar. This is just one of the many firsts that she has accomplished: She was also one of the first indigenous women on Vogue Mexico’s cover. The entertainment industry will recognize her name for years to come because of her impact. Aparicio, a former educator in her town of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, did not even aspire to become an actress, yet the work she has done is nothing short of momentous for the indigenous people of Mexico.

Mexican society has a long history of dealing with colorism that is rooted in its colonial history. In the 1700s, Spain established an elaborate caste system in order to categorize the population and assert dominance and white supremacy in the New World. They assigned indigenous people to the bottom of the social ladder, with those having mixed blood or mestizo blood relegated somewhere in the middle. Hundreds of years later, the ramifications of this caste system still affect the indigenous people of Mexico. Spanish literacy rates are low among indigenous people, making it difficult for them to vote for their own representatives. There is de facto discrimination against indigenous people in Mexico, which is more apparent in the entertainment industry, where there is a lack of diversity in the skin tones and ethnic backgrounds of the celebrities and light-skinned people dominate magazine pages.

This is why Yalitza Aparicio is creating such a stir. There has been major backlash against Aparicio’s newfound fame: Celebrities in Mexico have been critical of her talent and her merit for the Oscar, one even going so far as to use an anti-indigenous racial slur. Despite the negativity that Aparicio has faced within Mexico’s own entertainment industry, Latina Americans are unifying behind Aparicio in support of the representation she is working toward, from a professor raving about the emotional impact Aparicio has made on her students to immigration activists raving about the welcome representation Aparicio brings to darker-skinned Latinas. They recognize the harmful stereotypes borne of anti-indigenous sentiment that have been passed down through generations.

Yalitza represents two important successes for both women and the indigenous people of Mexico. Many in Mexican society fail to recognize the extent of the domestic duties that fall upon the woman of the household, who also struggle with cultural expectations to be passive homemakers. Cleo, the domestic worker that Aparicio plays in “Roma,” is a beautiful portrayal of the overlooked feminine strength that “machismo,” an entrenched and historical ideal of proud masculinity, undermines. “Roma” recognizes the silent struggles of indigenous women who are domestic workers and forge connections with their employers’ families, but are never truly a part of them. Change is slow but underway; currently, there is a Congressional bill being proposed called the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, which caused Cuarón to make a public service announcement in support of basic job protections for domestic workers.

In a more general sense, films like “Roma” and stars like Yalitza Aparicio urge us to recognize those who work closely with us but often go unappreciated. No one does so more poignantly and subtly than Cuarón does in “Roma.” One scene depicts Cleo snuggled up with the kids whose parents she works for, giving the audience a sense of the intimacy that domestic workers develop with the families they work for. However, before she can settle in, Cleo, reminded of her place, must quickly respond to a request for tea.

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