Winner of a Golden Globe and recipient of several Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Roma, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, follows a year in the life of a domestic worker and the Mexico City family that employs her. Although the film has spawned many conversations among critics and audiences, and even domestic worker advocates, the voices of expert researchers of domestic work in Latin America have often been absent. Spoilers abound!
Here is the first part of a blog that will offer critiques of the film by members of RITHAL (a network of researchers who study domestic work in Latin America). If you are interested in learning more about RITHAL, please contact Erynn Masi de Casanova. Casanova also provided the translations from Spanish to English for some of these essays.
“Labor” and Care in Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma
By Romina Cutuli
“Labor” is, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, that set of activities as trivial as they are necessary for sustaining life. In what seems to be an anthropological constant, we observe the delegation of a particular social group—because of class, race, and gender—to carry out these activities. This intersectionality is crystallized in the character of Cleo. Beyond the praise of film critics and the disappointment of some mainstream audiences, what does Roma tell us about domestic work? Among the critiques I’ve seen online, one is constant: the film’s slow pace. The cadence of Cleo’s labor, its ephemeral and thus repetitive character, is our first impression of the cinematographic experience. The tasks get repeated, as do the reasons for going back and doing them again. These are so many snapshots of the repetition, intensified by an ending that suggests a cycle. Here comes the spoiler alert: the labor will take place day after day, without any of the magic we see in other film genres, in which repetition can be undertaken through supernatural means.
It’s nature that imposes this labor on us, says Hannah Arendt. Nature reminds us of our animal-ness and keeps us from transcending death. As Arendt anticipated and Katrine Marçal gracefully put it, “work” and “action” need this “labor” to happen first. Care implies constant presence, as Gorz notes. Cleo is there to serve breakfast, to pick up clothes, to save a life by risking her own. Unlike the case of a firefighter or a doctor, the economic cost of her permanent presence is amortized over time and the true value of her labor is never calculated. To build a world of things, to leave our mark and make our aspirations reality, we have to avoid domestic work, either by living a simple, childless life, or perhaps, through the commodification of domestic work as gendered and low-cost.
And here emerges another aspect of the intersectional inequalities expressed in Roma. These unequal relationships are necessary so that some people can transcend the everyday. So that Antonio, barely in the film, can run in the rain like a love-drunk teen, Sofía (his wife and Cleo’s employer) has to manage the daily life of the home and four children. So that Sofía can work full-time in publishing, have time let down her hair and time to herself, there must be a Cleo. A young, poor, indigenous woman, the last link in a chain of inequalities. The freedoms of some are possible only through the bondage of others, and material socioeconomic inequalities ensure that these types of social relations reproduce themselves.
Sofía’s freedoms are curtailed so that Antonio can be free. For Sofía to maintain some bit of freedom, there have to be poor, marginalized women whose only means of subsistence is selling their labor power round the clock in other people’s homes. When you put it like that, the injustice is inexcusable. We look for gentler ways to describe how some people are able to rise because of the invisible work of others. So we have the idea of an “ethic of care.” Women’s personal sacrifice becomes recognized and idolized, for example, in Cuarón’s “homage to the women in his life”—as people have described Roma. This recognition is the paltry recompense for women’s low-paid or unpaid work. Morever, this homage does not come from women who dedicate most or all of their lives working for others, with few employment alternatives, but is created and consumed by those who do have a choice. This essentialized view of the cost-free devotion of the poor woman worker, quiet and ever-present, is the sugary coating that helps us swallow the hard pill of inequality: inequality that benefits the subject who does have a voice. Gratitude covers over the inequality that never changes and is never questioned.
Inequality becomes silence. Cleo’s voice is literally absent, but Cuarón’s is not. He speaks to her, about her, and through her. Her silence leaves room for the powerful to speak. In Roma we hear once again the same voice already expressed in legislative debates, newspaper articles, and even academic research. Even in the act of recognition, the worker’s words are absent. The domestic worker is always someone we have, not someone who is, in our class-marked discourse. The romanticized view of this unconditional devotion, which asks little or nothing in return, is the voice of privilege. The end of the film suggests a trace of first-person experience, when Cleo dares to put into words an unconfessable feeling. They go home, the patio is full of excrement. She takes the clothes up to the roof to wash them. She gives up her life so that others can live, love, and suffer. And win Golden Globes. In Roma, once again, the subaltern could not speak.
Romina Cutuli, Assistant Investigator, CONICET, Work Studies Group, Center of Social and Economic and Social Research, Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata (Argentina). Romina’s research focuses on labor markets and public policy in relation to domestic work in Argentina.
The Troubling of “We”: An Intersectional Perspective on Roma
By: Jaira J. Harrington
In one memorable scene from Roma, Sofía proclaims, “We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.” Yet this “we” is only conveniently explored by Sofía when she can sense herself losing the legitimacy, power, and stability that she has enjoyed as the woman of the house. The parallel lives that Sofía (employer) and Cleo (domestic worker) lead only intersect when Sofía brings up salient questions of women’s solidarity across difference. Using an intersectional lens to examine this gendered “we” can reveal both convergences and how race and class create distance.
Cleo is of indigenous descent. Despite the internal dramas of her work life in an affluent neighborhood of Mexico City, she is not immune to the larger political conflicts of the time. The land rights of her people and family are under constant threat, and at one point she hears her mother’s property has been seized. With little room to process her personal and communal grief, she is expected to quietly manage these issues and emotions along with her employer’s personal difficulties. She absorbs misdirected aggressions from Sofía as they both work through their problems.
I don’t mean to downplay the pain and trauma both women experience. They’re both emotionally, economically, and physically abandoned by their male partners whose personal visions for their futures did not include the women who were mothers to their children, born and unborn. Yet, the differences in their lived experience of pain and desertion are striking.
When Sofía accepts that her husband has moved on and will no longer financially support her and her children, she chooses to work at a publishing company. Cleo could not even conceive of such an option in her position of relative economic dependence. While Sofía has the support of her mother, Cleo relies on her fellow in-house domestic worker friend, Adela, but mainly takes this journey alone. Cleo’s closest kinships are in the remote rural towns from which she has been isolated due to her work. The family she works for becomes her own, but this intimacy has boundaries. These boundaries are most evident during a difficult childbirth, where Cleo is shown without the support of her employer-family and is truly left alone.
With an intersectional analysis that fully acknowledges the multiple identities that constitute the lived experience of both women, the gulf between them becomes clear. Though we have two narratives of enduring struggle, the options for a young, poor, rural, indigenous, unmarried domestic with an unplanned pregnancy are completely different than those of a financially established, educated, married, and wealthy elite white woman. The universal experience of “we” that Sofía invokes between herself and Cleo is a rhetorical lacuna that women of color experience with remarkable regularity.
Roma brings to light a broader feminist issue of solidarity across difference. The silencing of distinct oppressions among and between women is worth a critical re-imagining. An unexamined “we” undermines feminist politics when it ignores the power dynamics within the category “women.” An intersectional perspective can give us the tools to see the multiplicity of oppressions and the potential spaces for liberation for all women.
Jaira J. Harrington, Assistant Professor of Global Interdisciplinary Studies, Villanova University. Jaira’s research focuses on domestic workers’ movements in Brazil.
 Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. University of Chicago Press.
 Marçal, Katrine. 2017. Who cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A story of women and economics. Pegasus Books.
 Gorz, Andre. 1995. Metamorfosis del trabajo. Editorial Sistema.
 Domestic workers’ social, economic and political precarity is well-documented by the International Labour Organization: https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/domestic-workers/lang–en/index.htm
 Cleo’s harrowing experience with childbirth is common for indigenous women around the world. For more information on global research on indigenous women, childbirth complications and infant mortality, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has the following study: https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/resource-pdf/factsheet_digital_Mar27.pdf