Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” was a global phenomenon in 2018, turning a black-and-white, Spanish-language Netflix movie into a must-see event the world over, winning three Academy Awards, and shedding light on a pocket of Mexican life rarely seen on screens. But it wasn’t always an easy road, as the film’s star Yalitza Aparicio recently recalled in a New York Times op-ed, published Saturday as part of the paper’s Big Ideas series focused on the value of art.
“I never thought that a movie alone could prompt social awareness and change,” wrote Aparicio, adding that “that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly people in my home country of Mexico were talking about issues that have long been taboo here — racism, discrimination toward Indigenous communities and especially the rights of domestic workers, a group that has been historically disenfranchised in Mexican society.”
However, Aparicio said that the kinds of prejudice challenged by the movie, in which she stars as a Mixtec maid working for an upper-middle-class family in Mexico City, plagued her in real life once she received a milestone Best Actress Academy Award nomination.
“Although discrimination is not often spoken about in Mexico, it is a very real problem. According to a 2017 poll conducted by Mexico’s national office of statistics, 65 percent of Mexicans think that few to none of the rights of our Indigenous communities are respected,” Aparicio said.
Aparicio is the first Indigenous American woman, and the second Mexican woman after Salma Hayek for “Frida,” to receive a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
“I have firsthand experience with this kind of discrimination. After I was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying Cleo, racist comments began to circulate on social media. Commenters questioned why I was nominated, making references to my social and ethnic background,” Aparicio said. “An Indigenous woman was not a worthy representative of the country, some said. It was hard for me to see and hear these sorts of statements.”
Still, Aparicio said there was redemption to be found in the experience of the movie, which put a major spotlight on Indigenous people and eventually inspired legislative change. “But real conversations were happening because of [the racist statements]. Eventually, these discussions highlighted the cultural and political importance of diversity in society, art and the media,” she said. Aparicio also reminded that in May 2019, just a few months after the Academy Awards ceremony, the Mexican Congress approved a bill granting two million domestic workers rights, protections, and benefits.
“Cleo had a very profound effect on my life, and playing her placed me on my current path: I am using my newly discovered activism to improve social conditions in Mexico, champion gender equality and promote diversity wherever I can,” Aparicio said. Currently, she’s taking a break from working in movies, serving instead as a UNESCO goodwill ambassador for indigenous peoples.