Can estadounidenses watch a 'foreign film?'
On Cuarón’s Roma
Me interesó revisar lo que los críticos opinaron sobre Roma porque habla de qué película es la que se vio en México. Y no fue una, fueron muchas; aunque los consensos sean abrumadores. En los demás países seguramente habrán visto otras películas.
I was interested in going over what the critics thought about Roma because it says something about the film that was seen in Mexico. And it was not one, there were many [Roma s]; although the consensus is overwhelming. In other countries they will surely have seen different films.
The night I saw ROMA I didn’t really want to see ROMA. Yes, I wanted to see ROMA, everyone was talking about ROMA, but the particular night I had planned to see ROMA I ended up in a good conversation over a good beer with a good friend whose opinion I respect; we were talking about the respective ways our most recent relationships with ‘good’ men had come to an end.
This friend and I respect our respective exes. This friend and I have remained, more or less, friends, if distant ones, with our exes, each of whom identified and identifies as feminist. Still, the men had, in the end, made mistakes stemming from their particular social conditioning as men, mistakes that—no matter which way this friend and/or I approached what had happened —were the results of people we thought ‘knew better’ making mistakes we had never made, that we could not fathom making, doing things we had never done, that we could not fathom doing: the acts, the words that came then and afterward, were, for each of us, in the end, unforgivable.
mid-14c., “to commit an offense;” late 14c., “to misunderstand, misinterpret, take in a wrong sense,” from m is - (1) “badly, wrongly” + take (v.) or from a cognate Scandinavian source such as Old Norse mistaka “take in error, miscarry.” Perhaps a blend of both words. The more literal sense of “take or choose erroneously” is from late 14c. Meaning “err in advice, opinion, or judgment” is from 1580s.
Neither of us wanted our relationships to end; neither did the men. Each couple had been together for over 5 years; each had expected many more to come. My friend and I understood that the mistakes the men had made were in large part unconscious, a result of their particular social conditioning as straight men, in the United States. We knew they felt bad for what they had done, for the hurt they had caused. We tried to forgive them. But we ended up in the same situation: staying in the relationship ultimately meant sacrificing self-respect. We were unwilling to do so. We were disappointed.
When the time came to pay our tab and head towards the theatre to see ROMA, I had wanted to keep talking about what this disappointment meant. About how to love men, as women; about whether or not it was possible. My friend had had enough. She wanted to see the film. We went.
We exited the theatre almost stunned.
Well, she said. I looked up at the sky. Look, I said.
The film is obviously brilliant. But I am not sure I liked it.
My friend was more enthusiastic. It was so beautiful, she said.
Yes, I said, vaguely.
For me, on that particular night, ROMA had been, above all else, a film about all the quotidian ways in which men are de mierda cagado by/under/a causa de/debido al patriarcado. More precisely how, given a structural advantage, those in power take advantage of and perpetuate systems that grant and have granted them a dominant position within the hierarchy. How, sometimes by turning a blind eye and sometimes by sheer outright denial of the facts, it becomes possible to refuse to accept—much less hold oneself accountable for—the results of actions with undesirable or regrettable consequences. And lastly, how it is the particular social world into which we are born, the particularized enmeshment of power relations, that sets the conditions of possibility for the extent to which we are able to reach our creative potential—y/o externalize our own inevitable suffering onto others.
Upon leaving the Cineteca su padre dijo: Well, machismo exists; racism exists; violence exists; the state has failed us.
I have learned nothing new.
The young poet who just won México’s most prestigious prize told my friend he fell asleep.
The most consistent complaint men have given me: It’s boring. Ni una mujer me ha dicho eso.
Walking out of the theatre & into the night, I was reminded of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, un poemario que me eché a llorar when I read it for the first time.
I bought multiple copies that I passed around to my friends, sometimes people I had barely met.
Have you read Terrence Hayes’s new book, I asked my friend.
The scene I could not get out of my head that night was the father in the elevator in the hospital, when Cleo is about to give birth. The father says he would like to be there in the delivery room but “they”—the women—wouldn’t allow it; the female doctor, upon hearing him say this, says it’s fine, he can in fact be there in the operating room. And then it becomes clear the father had no intention of being present. What he was invested in was appearing as if he wished he could be present. He wanted people, including Cleo, to think that he is, at base, despite whatever else they knew about his personal indiscretions, a good man in the moments that count. He references women as the reason for his inability to be one. It’s a move men make all the time, in life, in art. A man gaslights. A woman frowns. The world turns about its axis.
The wife blames the dissolution of her marriage on Cleo’s failure to pick up the mierda of the dog the pareja never bothered to properly house train. Fermin calls Cleo a pinche gata. The woman from the second house, in the country, goes on and on about the other maid.
Uncompensated emotional, physical, and existential labor assumed by women—of all socioeconomic classes—maintains a decadent and dysfunctional system founded in hierarchized inequality—the racial bourgeois capitalism inseparable from settler colonialism—on a continuum that varies from baseline to highly functional.
This feminized labor is, of course, not equal. The persisting legacy of colonialism is maintained in the hierarchy of Cuarón’s upper-middle-class home, where Cleo, as an indigenous woman has access to the least amount of power.
She is expected to act as a surrogate mother to the children, performing both the physical and emotional labor of raising them while the mother is allowed to do the intellectual and economic labor of being a biochemist.
That Cuarón, a man, had made a film so obviously self-conscious of all of this was validating, I could give the film that.
I moved to Coyoacán shortly after seeing ROMA, in a move that had been planned for over a year but happened to coincide with the film’s release. When I arrived, it was still in theatres and there were still posters everywhere.
One day I was in the car with a few friends when I got a text from my Spanish teacher.
Chicos, ayer en mi otro trabajo hubo recorte de personal, y al único que corrieron fue a mi compañero Pepe. Pobre Pepe, ¡ le tocó bailar con la más fea !
Isn’t this idiom muy machista, I asked my friend’s godfather.
NO! he said immediately.
We pulled into the estacionamiento, the guy who gave us the ticket was trying to sell us a carwash and services to have some minor dents on the car fixed. A long conversation, un debate, ensued. Spread out at the car’s four cardinal points, my friends and I waited around while the two exchanged cordial attempts aimed towards getting the other person to acquiesce.
You always talk to the valets, the waiters, etc., commented my friend, un estadounidense por nacimiento y Mexicano por nacimiento.
I have to show them who’s boss, quipped back my friend’s godfather, smiling.
It’s an odd prospect for someone from the EEUU. If someone is driving a car and another person is parking the car, the power structure is quite clear. If the valet offers additional services that are subsequently declined and persists, the dueño, if he does engage at all, is likely to pull rank and threaten to complain to the manager, the company, etc. Not so acá.
We men are always insecure, always trying to prove ourselves, my poetry professor tells me after we read Rulfo’s “El lugar dónde ladran los perros”.
Isn’t that dicho you told us a bit machista, I asked the teacher.
Nawww he said. The idea is…
And isn’t that a bit machista?
Well, I suppose so, he said.
On the second date, I related the story. It took him a minute to understand my point. Then he said: Get this.
The other day, I was with a few friends. And this saying came out of one of my friend’s mouths, without thinking— salió automaticamente —he’s from Madrid.
In Spain, there’s a saying. My date stumbled over the saying, looking at me, then looking away.
It’s muy fuerte, he said. The saying, it’s really bad. He glanced up at me again. I did my best to raise an eyebrow. It goes, he said, then stopped. It goes, O follamos todos o la puta va al río.
My eyes widened.
Yeah, he said, yeah. Yeah, he said nervously. So, like, um, when there’s only one slice of pizza left or something. We all get a fuck or the whore goes in the river.
Oh, I said. So like one for all and all for one, and all that, only not.
Yeah, um, only not. So the thing is. The thing is, we spent an hour and a half trying to convince this guy from Madrid that, um, maybe he shouldn’t say this phrase. An hour and a half.
Y se quedó desconvencido.
A oídos de muchos españoles, por ejemplo, nada hay de ofensivo en la frase mencionada. La intención del hablante que la emite, por supuesto, no es o violar tumultuariamente a una trabajadora sexual o asesinarla. La intención simplemente es comunicar que el reparto de un bien debe ser equitativo. ¿Qué problema hay en ello? Tuve ocasión reciente de corroborar esto al discutir la dolorosa frase con un amigo español. La proferí, atónito, esperando su respuesta.
Mi amigo me vio y aseveró: “Claro, frase muy popular, ¿y qué problema tienes con ella?” Que a una persona inteligente y preocupada por la realidad social, como en estima tengo a mi amigo, no le aparezca evidente la violencia de la frase muestra cómo el uso cotidiano a lo largo de generaciones va haciendo dicha violencia cada vez más difícil de detectar. El lenguaje nosacostumbra poco a poco.
In the ears of many Spaniards, for example, there is nothing offensive about the phrase mentioned. The intention of the speaker who issues it, of course, is not to rape a sex worker or to murder her. The intention is simply to communicate that the distribution of a good must be equitable. What’s wrong with it? I had the recent occasion to corroborate this by discussing the painful phrase with a Spanish friend. I uttered it, stunned, waiting for his answer. My friend looked at me and said: “Sure, very popular phrase, and what problem do you have with it?”
That an intelligent person, concerned about social reality, as I esteem my friend to be, the violence of the phrase does not appear evident shows how daily use throughout generations is making said violence increasingly difficult to detect. We become accustomed to language little by little.
The first time I went to the Cineteca, ROMA was spelled out in giant yellow letters in the courtyard. I wasn’t there to rewatch it, but instead to see a collection of short films by the director Roberto Fiesco. The event was part of a regular series, free and open to the public, in which a film is shown every Thursday and the director is in conversation with the audience and answers questions at the end. One of the films people were most wanted to talk about was “Estatuas,” in which a mother and a son, dressed in a Zapata costume, make a corrida from the outskirts of DF to a particular statue of Zapata for a celebration of Zapata. The son has won some sort of contest and is going to recite a poem whose refrain is “tierra and libertad” to the mayor or city official. Knowing the mother will have the unique opportunity to speak with the official directly at the event, various people from her municipality stop her along the way to give her envelopes with messages and other civil requests to pass along. Already running late and constantly stopped in the street by someone new who has someone for her to give to the state, mother and son run, they take particular bus routes, they hop on peseros, they cross bridges, they run again. When they arrive, a janitor is already cleaning up. Although it appears at first they’ve missed the celebration, the janitor explains that in actuality the city official never arrived and so the event has been canceled. The mother and the janitor sit in two of the many empty chairs and watch the son recite the poem. FIN. A man in the audience who had known Roma well in the 1970s congratulated Fiesco on this filmic engagement with the Ciudad de México; unlike Cuarón, he pointed out, the routes Fiesco’s characters take are real; they correspond.
Anyone who knows the city well enough, he pointed out, could tell the difference.
But this critique of Cuarón, he said, was incredibly minor; in truth he loved ROMA. In fact, he said proudly, turning around so he could see everyone in our respective rows, he had seen the film five times already. Fiesco, whose production company is named after a particular bus route in CDMX, smiled and pointed out that, yes, the corrida was true—up until the Zapata statue. They had been unable to access the correct one, so they made do with a different Zapata. From here, the audience started talking about the film’s implicit engagement with the subject of migration, the movement of mother and son from the outskirts towards the center; how along the way they pass through disparate neighborhoods belonging to all social classes. How, like ROMA, the film is an homage to CDMX, but unlike ROMA Fiesco’s cortometraje is not centered on the classed space of a particular colonia in the 1970s; rather “Estatuas” emphasizes the multitude of differently-stratified barrios (and forms of public transport) that make up the present-day city. As we filed out of the theatre into the night, we came across the giant yellow letters again; they were unavoidable, from our vantage now positioned backward: AMOЯ.
Forbes Mexico estimates that Netflix spent between 10 and 20 million US dollars promoting the film, an advertising budget that far exceeds the total cost of the majority of films made in Mexico.
Aquí es también donde términos muchos más despolitizados y problemáticos como «homenaje» o «carta de amor» empiezan a colarse.
This is also where much more depoliticized and problematic terms like “homage” or “love letter” begin to creep in.
Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ is a gorgeous love letter to Mexico
Roma: Alfonso Cuaron's love letter to 1970s Mexico is a stunning achievement
“Roma” is set in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood in which Cuarón grew up, and it’s a gorgeous love letter to an alternately cloistered and turbulent childhood.
Roma is assuredly a love letter from Cuarón to the Mexico of his childhood, but it is also a missive of infinite adoration and respect to the women who raised him.
More than anything, this film is a “slice of life,” a love letter to women, and a celebration of quotidian life in the midst of the shocking abandonments of women and children by men.
Roma: A Love Letter to the Strength of Women
ALFONSO CUARÓN’S LOVE LETTER TO HIS NANA
Roma is a love letter to your family’s maid, Libo.
“Roma is a love letter to your family’s maid, Libo,” declares, for instance, The Guardian, inadvertently reminding us how violent love letters can be.
c. 1300, “ceremony or act of acknowledging one's faithfulness to a feudal lord; feudal allegiance,” earlier “body of vassals of a feudal king” (early 13c.), from Old French omage, homage “allegiance or respect for one's feudal lord” (12c., Modern French hommage), from homme “man,” in Medieval Latin “a vassal,” from Latin homo (genitive hominis) “man” (see homunculus). Figurative sense of “reverence, honor shown” is from late 14c.
At the Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia, Yalitza Aparicio shared her experience with the film’s casting process. When she revealed that at first she thought she was at risk of falling victim to a human trafficking network, the press burst out laughing. She has not repeated the story, which didn’t make it to social media. When alluding to this moment, where they didn’t give her the name of the director or the details of the film, she has since said she thought it was a trampa, a trick.
Arantxa Luna: En México, este es el horror normalizado: una grave declaración espontanea que dio risa y que no apareció de inmediato en encabezados o tuits retuiteables. Pareciera que las declaraciones en pro de un mejor país deben salir en entrevistas planeadas, en simulacros de un tipo de activismo político pensado para Instagram.
Samuel Lagunas: Yo también estaba ahí y pude escuchar a una mujer blanca, que en su conversación alternaba inglés y español, murmurar después de su carcajada: «¿Apoco eso pasa?».
Arantxa Luna: In Mexico, this is the normalized horror: a serious spontaneous statement that caused laughter, that did not appear immediately in headlines or go viral. It would seem that statements in favor of a better country should come out only in scripted interviews, in simulations of a type of political activism designed for Instagram.
Samuel Lagunas: I was there, too, and I could hear a white woman, who alternated English and Spanish in her conversation, murmur after her laugh: “Isn’t that happening?”
The term Aparicio used to refer to human trafficking—red de tratas de blancas—is colloquial.
The French “traite des Blanches”, c. 1830, synonym for prostitution; the implicit reference of the black slave trade highlights its commercial dimensions.
A double erasure, then.
The Mexican government is currently informing people to use the term “trata de personas” [human trafficking] in place of “trata de blancas” [trafficking of whites]: The term trata de blancas has been discarded, since it does not make visible the problem of this crime, and has been replaced by trata de personas for the purpose of describing sexual or labor-based exploitation.
It points out: The history of this crime is extensive and dates back to the commercialization of African and indigenous women seen as labor, in servitude, and as objects of sexual satisfaction...
The popularization of the term dates to the World Wars when the sexual trafficking of white-skinned European women was in high demand.
Sadly, this crime began to grow over time, as a business that generates millionaire profits due to increasing demand; it is for this reason that traffickers began to commercialize not only white women, but any woman, girl, boy and adolescent, so as to meet consumer demand.
On Valentine’s Day, the Mexican businesswoman Lupita Arreola took a video at the dinner party she hosted. Her husband, the telenovela actor Sergio Goyri, was recorded in the background talking to several people also at the dinner table. Of Aparicio he said: una pinche india que dice, “sí señora, no señora”, y que la metan a una terna a la mejor actriz del Oscar.
Just hours before, Cuarón had referred to Aparicio as: one of the best actors I have ever worked with, it is a mistake and it is racist to think she is not acting.
It is limiting a woman only because of her indigenous background; this woman has nothing to do with Cleo, this woman created Cleo, he said in an interview with Carlos Loret de Mola.
My Spanish teacher told me about Goyri’s comment. She was in a hurry, and I was taking up her time, and she was speaking quickly so I couldn’t understand everything. At first, I assumed Arreola had gone live on Instagram without realizing what her husband was saying.
No, my teacher clarified. The wife took the video and then posted it afterward.
I don’t have much of a memory of my childhood, which was white, upper-middle-class, suburban, and troubled. Before I went to preschool, my parents hired a Mexican-American woman named María to watch me while they went to work or sometimes on certain evenings when they went out. María also did the dishes, the laundry, and other domestic work. This I don’t remember her doing; I imagine she did most of it while I was napping or reading or watching cartoons or after she had put me to sleep. The most distinct memory I have of her presence is a time I was playing outside on the private street of the gated condominium community Vallejo Villas, where we lived before my parents could afford to buy a house. María warned me not to ride a certain toy so fast, and I ignored her advice. I fell; I split my chin open. I ended up with several stitches and I still have a scar. I remember María putting me into a bathtub while the blood was pouring from my chin. I watched it streak the white sides of the tub and pool down the drain. She sang to me in Spanish as she called my mother. I remember my mother in the hospital, making sure it was a plastic surgeon who sewed my face back together.
If he kills her off as she tries to save these two bourgeois brats, I remember thinking, I am going to walk out of this theatre.
When I was old enough to go to school, my parents no longer needed María to babysit me but they retained her for domestic work. She would come once or twice a week to clean up the house. The day before María was scheduled to arrive, my mother would tell me to “straighten up”. I would resist, in terms that reflected the class position into which I was being socialized.
When I said things like “That’s her job, you pay her for it, why should I do it” my mother responded by calling me a selfish spoiled brat. But she never, as far as I can recall, made the appeal that “straightening up” might make María’s job easier, and that that might be a nice thing for me to do.
Even at that age, which couldn’t have been older than seven, it was obvious to me that what was most important to my mother in the face of María’s imminent arrival was to maintain an illusion that our family was cleaner and more organized— civilized was a word that was used—than we actually were.
When things started to get really bad, María stopped coming. I haven’t seen her since. If I were to write her a love letter, I wouldn’t know where to send it.
I don’t even know her last name.
Whitney DeVos is a scholar, translator, writer & editor based in Mexico City.