MEXICO: Roma (2018)


The Start of a Much-Needed Shift in Indigenous Representation

by Jimmy Grebenstein

Please read the crafter statement before watching the video essay.  Thank you.

Since the Golden Age of Mexican cinema between the 1930s and 1950s, the representation of people of indigenous heritage has not been the most positive. Often painted as villains, criminals, thieves, or simply characters with inadequate qualities, actors of mixed and indigenous backgrounds struggled to find roles that allowed them to truly represent themselves. Watchers of similar backgrounds were left to deal with the stereotypes that would come from this constant portrayal.

The famous character, “La India María,” portrayed by actress María Elena Velasco Fragoso, appears in many different films and was a popular representation of indigenous women in Mexican Cinema. Appearing in sixteen different films and a television series, she appeared as a pop culture icon in her time. However, her portrayal of the character somewhat infantilized the indigenous women in the eyes of consumers. Indigenous people were seen as incompetent, ditzy, and clumsy, as La India María was very so often portrayed (Mercer). Her repeated appearances strengthened this harmful stereotype, leaving indigenous folk with this negative image of themselves, not only in the eyes of others, but as an internal view as well.  Around 28% of the population of Mexico is of predominantly indigenous origin. 62% of the population is classified as “mestizo,” which describes a person of mixed Indigenous and European descent (“Mexico Destination Guide”). People of some indigenous descent make up the highest majority of any race in Mexico, so why is the portrayal of the majority constantly negative?

In the film, Roma, watchers can see a different type of portrayal when looking at someone from indigenous heritage. Actress Yalitza Aparicio, who is of Mixtec and Triqui heritage, portrays a maid, who goes by the name of Cleo, that works for an upper middle class family in Mexico City. At first, it is clear to see that some members of the family see her simply as just hired help. As the movie progresses, Cleo proves to the family, and the audience, that she is more than that. She portrays herself in a caring, positive, loving, and almost heroic manner, which allows her to earn the love and trust of the family she takes care of. The children of the family are enamored by her sense of caretaking for them, and appreciate her very much. Therefore, clips in the video essay depict Cleo where she is either caring for the children, showing love for or being shown love by the family, or overall has a positive vibe and impact on the overall movie. This portrayal is remarkably different from past portrayals of indigenous people.

The significance of Aparicio’s role goes beyond the spectrum of this movie, but applies to representation of indigenous women in the cinema world overall. In presenting the character in this way, her actions that would be seen as small background options are brought to the forefront of the movie (Kogonada). Her genuine actions of love and care are seen as something more than the gesture of a hired maid, and as someone who deserves a part in the family. In Aparicio’s methods, she indirectly shifts the perspective of indigenous women from what once was filled with purely negative thoughts to an improving modern perspective. She is seen as a hero after saving the family’s children from rough ocean conditions, and simply providing care for the family beyond her hired duties in a time of need, such as when the parents were struggling with a bout of infidelity and marital issues. Alfonso Cuarón’s depiction of indigenous Mexican women allows cinephiles to ponder what the significance of this portrayal would be in the long run.

While Aparicio’s role does leave a positive note to ponder, racism still persists in the field of cinema. Due to Aparicio’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress, racist tweets and other derogatory messages were sent to her during the aftermath of the film (Mercer). The fact that she, as a darker-skinned indigenous woman, was portrayed in a positive light did not sit well among many in the Mexican population. The racism that resulted from this nomination proves that directors need to provide significantly more positive portrayals of indigenous people in cinema if there is talk of any change being made on the perspectives of many. Those who wish to see a shift in representation in Mexican cinema must actually work towards the change. This work is nowhere near close to being complete, and should not be treated as such. Improvements with portrayal, representation, and so much more will truly result in beneficial change.

Positive representation allows for people to feel seen, respected, and treated better as a whole. It is something that is needed for a less racist future of Mexican cinema, and cinema on a worldwide scale.

Works Cited