Roma: Domestic Work Researchers Respond to Highly Acclaimed Film, Part II

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 second part of the blog that will offer critiques of 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.

Silence and Oppression in Roma

By: Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra

Cuarón’s contribution is aesthetically beautiful, and I think that is part of the work’s strength. This film approaches the topic of domestic work and labor exploitation of poor women’s bodies in a naïve way, but it does put this topic on the agenda in Mexico and the rest of the world. Domestic workers throughout Latin America are not treated in accordance with norms of human rights and labor law,[1] and for this reason the mere existence of this film is positive.

Roma—albeit timidly—reflects the hypocrisy of employers (particularly women employers) who think that they treat their domestic workers as “part of the family.” One scene that illustrates this is when Cleo gets taken to the beach after losing her baby, and without being able to fight her pain—or her obligation to work—she has to devote herself to caring for her employer’s children. The act of caring for them, while taking a break from her cleaning tasks, is not something her employer sees as work. This caring requires Cleo to risk her own life, as she goes into the sea without knowing how to swim. The message (to borrow Judith Butler’s language): there are bodies that don’t matter.[2]

Unlike Cutuli, I do think that in Roma the voice of the subaltern can be heard—through silences, through gestures, through solitude. The scarce use of oral language reminds us of the value of silence among the indigenous communities of Latin America, who have a distinct but powerful oral tradition. That not-voice, that prolonged, seemingly futile silence on the part of Cleo, ends up revealing the precise position of indigenous women and domestic workers in Latin American societies. These workers are often neither seen nor heard by the families they work for, by the state, or in the making of laws and justice. As I show in my research, it has been a long road from “servant” to “worker,” and changing labor laws is just the first step.[3] This devaluation of domestic work and its minimal social recognition are lightly touched on in the film.

The film also evidences the mistreatment and long work days that are combined with bursts of intimacy and kindness on the part of the family. But it shows how workers are confined to the worst space in the house, aren’t allowed to turn on the lights at night, and have to eat separately. Pay is never mentioned—the woman employer is bankrupt because the husband does not provide money, and yet somehow they keep the household “help”—which hints at a slave-like work arrangement. Oppression is presented as so natural that the workers’ own concerns about their lives and futures are difficult to imagine, as when Cleo finds out that her mother lost her land and does not respond. Cuarón delicately downplays these signs of oppression while exposing the sins of the privileged classes. He implicitly shows the operation of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy and the clash of values that these systems cause in our societies by allowing these labor arrangements to continue.

Verónica Jaramillo Fonnegra, Investigator, Center of Justice and Human Rights, Universidad Nacional de Lanús (Argentina). Verónica’s research focuses on domestic work legislation in Argentina.

[1] Valenzuela, María Elena and Claudia Mora (eds.). 2009. Trabajo doméstico: un largo camino hacia el trabajo decente. Santiago: Organización Internacional del Trabajo (International Labor Organization).

[2] Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of ‘sex’. New York: Routledge.

[3] Jaramillo, Verónica. 2014. “En los papeles: De servidoras domésticas a trabajadoras. El caso argentino.” Estudios de Derecho 71(158): 197-217.


Roma’s Cleo as Third World Woman


By: Tallulah Lines

Cutuli perfectly expresses one of the principal reasons that I found Roma such a perplexing film when she observes that “Even in the act of recognition, the worker’s words are absent.” Roma is billed as a film inspired by the life of a domestic worker, but despite Cleo being the film’s protagonist, we really learn nothing about her personhood, her sense of self, or her individual identity. While we watch other key characters develop and change, including Sofía and even Fermín (the father of Cleo’s baby), Cleo occupies the consistent and unique identity of domestic worker throughout her interactions with all of the other characters.

This one-dimensional portrayal of a domestic worker is not unusual, but it is certainly problematic, and it is worth unpacking why we can so readily accept the claim that this film is about Cleo’s life when we really learn nothing about her. The historic invisibilization of domestic workers, devaluation of housework in general and paid domestic work in particular (largely because of prejudices regarding gender, race, and class) and domestic workers’ association with the ‘private’ sphere have all contributed to a fixed portrayal of domestic workers which denies them recognition as self-reflexive and complex individuals. To follow an argument first conceptualized by Mohanty in 1989, and still relevant today, domestic workers are the epitome of the “third world woman,” the intentionally racialized descriptor Mohanty argues encapsulates a Western conception of women typically from the Global South. Discussing academia, but relevant to popular culture too, Mohanty (2003) observed “that much of present-day scholarship tends to reproduce particular ‘globalized’ representations,” of women such as domestic workers, and that this is problematic because “although these representations of women correspond to real people, they also often stand in for the contradictions and complexities of women’s lives” (Mohanty, 2003: 247).

It is important to concern ourselves with questions about Cleo’s sense of self and her own perception of her identity because of the decolonizing value in doing so. Obscuring the contradictions and complexities of her personhood contributes to the dehumanization that makes it easier to deny fundamental rights to domestic workers and perpetuates the same race, class, and gender discrimination that has persisted in paid domestic work throughout centuries. For domestic workers themselves, “self-reflexive collective practice in the transformation of the self, reconceptualizations of identity, and political mobilization [are] necessary elements of the practice of decolonization” (Mohanty, 2003: 14). The reactions to Roma, both critical and popular, are testament to the fact that now is the right social and political juncture to deepen the discussion around paid domestic work. Reconceptualizing the identity of domestic workers must be a core part of this conversation.

 Tallulah Lines ,Research Assistant, Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York (UK). Tallulah’s research focuses on identity among domestic workers in Mexico.

[1] MOHANTY, C.T. (1991). Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses. In C.T. MOHANTY, A. RUSSO and L. TORRES (Eds.). Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, pp. 51 – 81. Mohanty’s essay was first published in 1989 and has been republished several times since then.

[2] MOHANTY, C.T. (2003). Feminism Without Borders; Decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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