Solidarity on Screen: What “Roma” Means to Domestic Workers Worldwide

“What an incredible time for this movie to come out, after #MeToo and Time’s Up,” Emmy Award-winning producer and New York Times bestselling author Nely Galan suggested to a crowd of Academy members and advocates Friday. “And yet, Latinas have always been at the end of the story.”

That evening, however, Latinas were front and center. Galan, joined by actors Yalitza Aparacio and Marina de Tavira and National Domestic Workers Alliance Gender Justice Campaigns Director Monica Ramirez, moderated a conversation after the social impact screening of Alfonso Cuaron’s groundbreaking and 10-time Oscar nominated Roma that focused on the film’s reverberations across the U.S. and Mexico, especially for Latina women.

Nely Galan, Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira and Monica Ramirez spoke to an audience in West Hollywood Friday about Roma and the impact it has had for domestic workers—and on the actors themselves. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

Roma, inspired by Cuaron’s memories of his own childhood, follows a domestic worker named Cleo through political and personal tumult in Mexico City in the seventies. Cleo oversees the care of four children and a dog; with the help of fellow domestic worker Adela, she also manages the house helmed by their parents and grandmother. Outside of the house, the two young indigenous women also navigate romance and family obligations, but at work, Cleo increasingly finds herself holding together her employing family as divorce threatens to dismantle their day-to-day lives. In the span of a year, Cleo’s employer, Sofia, played by de Tavira, becomes a single mother in an oversized home, complete with a car she can’t fit through the front gate; in private, Cleo also suffers through pregnancy complications and the growing divisions between her past in a poor village and her life in the big city.

Friday’s even was the first event in advance of the Oscars ceremony this weekend that allowed the women who brought Cuaron’s childhood memories to life on-screen to reflect on their experiences bringing female experiences to the fore. “I’m moved by the fact that I’ve honored these women,” Aparicio, who stars in the film as domestic worker Cleo but came to the set with no formal training, told the crowd. “I had thought that I was doing this in order to pay homage to my mother. but as the film has taken off, I’ve realized that really it’s become a film where I’ve paid homage to so many women.”

In fact, Aparicio paid homage to 67 million people around the world who perform domestic labor—and who, in the wake of Roma, have now finally seen themselves on screen. Despite a nearly 50-year span between the film’s origin story and its birth on the screen, much of what Cleo suffers through still rings resonant today. Domestic workers perform grueling physical and emotional labor, oftentimes in the shadow of painstakingly high expectations and in the face of unfair conditions. NDWA reports that 70 percent of the 2 million domestic workers in the U.S. make less than $13 an hour, and 65 percent don’t have health insurance; the Instituto de Liderazgo Simone de Beauvoir found that one-third of the 95 perfect of the 2.4 million female domestic workers in Mexico today are paid less than the minimum wage, and a majority face discrimination and violence on-the-job.

Galan, Aparicio, de Tavira and Ramirez at the Roma social impact screening Friday. (Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

Cuaron did not set out to romanticize or wax nostalgic about his appreciation for his childhood nanny in order to erase her own challenges. Instead, Roma broke new ground for domestic workers by providing viewers with an authentic depiction of Cleo’s life—one that is hard, but important, for all of us to watch.

“The work Cleo and women like her do is so often invisible—things that look simple, or like they don’t matter, but they do,” Ramirez asserted. “For many people, domestic workers are invisible. There has been little attention paid to the ways in which they’re contributing, every single day, to families and to our country. And this movie provides an opportunity for us to see exactly how they’re  contributing and why it’s so important that they be treated with dignity and respect.”

Roma has already had a reverberating impact. Domestic workers in Mexico recently won social security benefits from the nation’s highest court, and NDWA is leveraging the film’s Oscar buzz to generate more support across the country for domestic workers and make a National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights a legislative reality. “We have to make sure people understand that all work and all workers are valuable,” Ramirez declared. “I believe that, as we continue to celebrate the contributions of domestic workers, the more we can improve their conditions.”

Galan told Aparicio and de Tavira that she was struck by one heartbreaking scene in Roma in particular, when Sofia  comes home drunk and tells Cleo: “No matter what, we’re always alone.” But that’s not the final word in Roma. Instead, the film highlights the power and poignancy of sisterhood: Cleo and Adela lean on one another for support through their personal times of upheaval; Sofia and Cleo develop what become a literal life-saving friendship that, in real life, led to a life-long cohabitation between the two women they’re based on.

Such was also the spirit of Friday’s screening. “I so root for your success,” Galan told Aparicio and de Tavira, both now nominated for Academy Awards. “When one of us succeeds, we all succeed.” Aparicio is the first indigenous woman to ever be up for Best Actress, and says she is “still digesting” the rush of praise and critical acclaim her performance has won for Cuaron’s film; de Tavira told the audience Friday that she is proud to represent actors from across Mexico on the red carpet.

“When I saw Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma it moved me to tears,” legendary feminist and labor rights leader Dolores Huerta confessed in an op-ed for Deadline Hollywood. “Roma reminds me of that power and that seeing women, people of color and indigenous people on screen is crucial. Roma is a love letter to the women that raised Alfonso Cuarón and a reminder that the strength of women lies in our solidarity.”

Huerta’s signature send-off—si, su puede!—was echoed in the screening room Friday as well. “Together,” Galan reminded the audience before closing down the discussion, “we are everything.”


Carmen Rios is a self-proclaimed feminist superstar and the former digital editor at Ms. Her writing on queerness, gender, race and class has been published in print and online by outlets including BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, DAME, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic, the National Women’s History Museum, SIGNS and the Women’s Media Center; and she is a co-founder of Webby-nominated Argot Magazine. @carmenriosss|