23rd August 2019
Warning: The following blog contains some spoilers about the film Roma.
A little plaque marks the gated home where Roma was filmed. The home immortalized by Roma is located at Tepeji 22 in Roma Sur neighborhood of Mexico City and it sits directly in front of director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood home. The house is a long way from Hollywood, but no doubt all those commercial flights passing over his childhood home portrayed in the film are non-stops to the future of Alfonso’s brilliant career as a filmmaker.
When Alfonso Cuarón won the Academy Award for Best Director for his 2018 film “Roma,” no one was surprised. Not only was it a beautiful movie, but it blended classic filmmaking with a groundbreaking theme. As Cuarón clutched his Oscar he said, “I want to thank the Academy for recognizing a film centered around an indigenous woman.”
In fact, the lead actress for Roma, an indigenous school teacher from Oaxaca named Yalitza Aparacio, was only the 4th Latin American woman ever nominated for an Oscar, and her recognition was even more rarified by her being the first indigenous woman to receive such an honor.
She did not win the Oscar, but the attention she drew by being nominated as the protagonist of this award-winning film brought long-overdue focus to the indigenous woman in Latin America. As many now know, her character Cleo was based on the real-life nanny/housekeeper of director Alfonso’s childhood in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City.
Alfonso Cuarón noted in his acceptance speech that she was one of more than 70 million domestic workers in the world working in the shadows of society. Yet despite his acceptance speech reaching for universal themes, this was truly a personal story about a woman from Oaxaca. She left such a mark on Cuarón’s childhood that it inspired the film.
While immigration debates grab headlines in the United States, few realize that internal immigration is much more prevalent within Latin America. This equation often exposes sharp cultural contrasts between the people of the countryside and city and at times even the clash of distinct languages and values.
Roma’s compassionate portrait of Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparacio, is in many ways a revolutionary centerpiece for a Hollywood product and not just for ethnic reasons. It was Cleo’s monumental patience, stoicism, judgment-free love and selfless world view – played with such natural subtlety and nuance by Yalitza – that led many European and American film critics to label her role “otherworldly” or “saintly.”
Yet for those who know Latin America well, her part is not the least bit uncommon. The role Yalitza Aparacio played is being lived by thousands of indigenous women across Latin America today – to zero public acclaim. Perhaps her character possesses traits born out of necessity, the product of a half-millennium of poverty and discrimination against native peoples in the Americas. Yet the fascination with Yalitza’s Cleo is no doubt also a product of the stark contrast her character presents to a corrosive egoism that drives much of the modern world.
Roma’s script is brilliant – the dialogue notable for what is unsaid, as sparse words carry incredible weight. This lean script, combined with sweeping, seemingly endless camera pans build tension from a quiet trance at its start into an emotional crescendo by the end of the film.
In the key scene of the movie, after saving the life of children she was caring for by wading into heavy surf despite not knowing how to swim, Yalitza’s character Cleo breaks down in tears on the beach. She refuses to recognize her own heroism, but rather is awash with emotion for a perceived lack of compassion for the new life she lost when she gave birth to a stillborn daughter. It is the height of humility that she is overcome with her own perceived shortcomings at the very moment she displays heroic bravery and compassion.
It is safe to say if Yalitza did the film in English she would have taken home the Oscar, but she performed the role in a mixture of Spanish and Mixteca, a principle indigenous language of Oaxaca. At the end of Roma, just before the credits roll, Cleo is finally accepted as a member of the family and her adopted family decides that instead of vacationing in Disneyland, they are going to visit her village in Oaxaca.
At Wild Frontiers Travel we extend the same invitation.
First up is a visit to Mexico City (where Roma was set and filmed), then we provide what the film only hints at – a glimpse into the life of indigenous communities in Oaxaca, the most diverse of Mexico’s 32 states. Oaxaca is not only the most culturally diverse state in Mexico, but also incredibly rich biologically. It represents just 5% of the country’s landmass but houses over 50% of the wildlife species in Mexico.
Yalitza and her character Cleo are part of the Mixteca community, the second largest of 16 native groups in Oaxaca. The Mixteca shares linguistic roots with the dominant indigenous community in Oaxaca (historically and in present day numbers), the Zapoteca, who are the focus of our active culture trip in Oaxaca.
Zapoteca history dates back to the 6th century B.C. and by the time of Christ had grown into a highly sophisticated and predominate force in Oaxaca that would last for well over 1,000 years. The name Zapoteca is a Hispanicized evolution of a label given to them by the Aztecs, but they call themselves the Be’ena’a, which means the Cloud People, a popular name they actually share with the Mixteca.
And it is into the clouds we invite you to hike with Wild Frontiers, to meet the Cloud People and learn more about their traditions, lives, food and culture, while enjoying the magnificence of their cloud forest nature.
A profile of the Cloud People would not be complete without seeing one of their civilizations’ most impressive works. Monte Alban is one of Mexico’s most remarkable archaeology sites and rarely missed by anyone who travels in Oaxaca. However, if one was to visit the Coliseum in Rome and discover that functioning Romans villages still existed in the mountains outside the eternal city; who could resist a chance to visit them?
That is what Oaxaca offers.
Thanks to the film Roma, the indigenous people of Oaxaca have received a world spotlight. There is hope that this light leads to an interest in their culture that helps preserve it. The more value we give something, the harder it becomes to destroy.
Monte Alban is not in Rome and the Cloud People are definitely not Romans, but the film Roma has inspired us to invite you to experience the magnificence of both past and present Oaxaca.