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  • Writer's pictureEmilio Vazquez Reyes

ROMA and the conversation around representation

While the other passengers on my flight were performing a mix of snoring, reading, watching Netflix, or watching the clouds go by, I was busy writing the fourth draft of a screenplay that I plan to adapt into my final project. However, I began to hit a roadblock. This film tackles issues of identity and immigration as the film is heavily influenced by aspects of my life, but a question arose. How do I maturely handle these topics as an artist of color? It wasn't until I decided to rewatch one of my favorite films for inspiration on one of the flights back home. As a first-generation Mexican-American, a question concerning the way we Latin Americans are involved with the American film industry has plagued my mind for years, that being: What matters more in the film industry? Inclusivity or representation? Should Latin Americans focus more on how much we are being represented on the silver screen or the way that we are represented? One film easily solves this debate with its landmark status as one of the most important films of the past decade, and for reasons, many Americans wouldn’t notice. In 2018, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron released the semi-autobiographical and character-driven drama titled Roma. It was released to critical acclaim, earning him the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, 4 BAFTAs at the 72nd British Academy film awards, and 3 Oscars at the 91st Academy Awards, including best director. This film is the perfect example of how to accurately represent and include not only Mexicans in film, but other minority groups as well.

Roma follows the story of Cleo, a housemaid to a middle-class family after the patriarch of said family abandons them. From her perspective, the audience gets to see Cleo navigate life through Mexico City in the politically unstable backdrop of the early 1970s. Without any straightforward story structure found in traditional American films, Roma can be more flexible in how we get to see life in such a pivotal time in Mexican history as the story unfolds. Through his patient, disciplined, and naturalistic directing style, Cuaron focuses less on the grand and large-scale set pieces and more on the humanity and simplicity of the lives of our main characters. All of these masterfully constructed components eloquently tell us about Mexican life without any stereotypes that American audiences have become numb to watching. Furthermore, it introduces an unfamiliar yet important era in Mexican history to American audiences. In the climax of the film, Cleo and Teresa, the grandmother in the family, go furniture shopping for Cleo’s soon-to-be-born child. Their shopping experience comes to an abrupt halt when the masterfully mixed sound design of yelling, glass shattering, and gunshots from outside breaks the innocent chatter of shoppers. The muffled screams of the student demonstrators and war cries of the paramilitary forces vibrate the thin windows of the furniture store. The camera does not shake, but rather slowly pans to reveal the extent of the destruction seen on the street. We see the mayhem from Cleo’s perspective, placing us in the shoes of the onlookers. Cuaron places the camera on the top floor with the rest of the spectators, showing us the massacre from the top floor. Their gasps of disbelief grow more audible than the gunshots outside. Although this event was shot from a distance, the audience is still able to see the number of dead bodies scattered across the road amidst the gun smoke as Cleo and Teresa make their escape from the main street. All of this expertly shows us a time in Mexican history that people had forgotten, or worse, turned a blind eye to. Furthermore, the craftsmanship in this scene tells us how to depict events at this scale of controversy and horror. Whenever a tragedy at this scale is depicted in American films, directors and writers tend to overdo these scenes to exploit this tragedy for an audience response without truly understanding the impact of these events since they do not understand the true extent of its impact and sensitivity. However, Cuaron again flexes his sympathy for his audience and respect for those who suffered this massacre through his purposeful and mindful direction. No close-ups of the students getting sprayed with bullets or beaten to death are present during this segment. The film does not take advantage of this scene as an opportunity to make a blatant statement about any political or societal messages, but instead shows us things as they were. This conscious decision helps make the film historically informative while still keeping any artistic merit that the film was going for. Cuaron was able to craft a careful yet bold scene that shines like a beacon on how to not only tell forgotten stories from foreign countries but how to do it respectfully and without exploitation.

This brings us back to our main debate of representation or inclusivity. The answer: both. The American film industry, more specifically corporate studios, focuses more on including people of color to gain public support without accurately telling their stories. For inclusivity, how does Roma include Mexicans? It shows how Mexico, specifically Mexico City, is a melting pot of many cultures. Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cleo in the film, is of Mexican Indigenous descent. Like her on-screen counterpart, she is both Mixtec and Triqui and speaks the Mixtec language in the film. The family she works for dawns a mix of Eurocentric and Latin American physical features, contrasting heavily to the physique of many Mexicans shown in American pop culture. The cast is all Mexican, adding an extra layer of authenticity to the performances, but we also see more Mexican citizens of all colors and races. Main, side and background characters range from having Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, Eurocentric, or African physical features, signifying how Latin Americans look vastly different from how many may think. As for representation, how does this film depict us Mexicans? Simply put, it depicts us as people. Roma breaks every stereotype that Latin Americans, specifically Mexicans, fall under in American films. The main characters don’t live in poor, rural desert towns, but instead in upper-middle-class suburbs within a sprawling metropolis. They aren’t gangsters or drug dealers, but instead doctors and biochemists. This film is historical in the sense that it sets an example of how to include and represent Latin Americans in film. We are more than how the American film industry sees us. We are people with our own struggles. We have our own history with its own ugly corners. We are humans. The more we are represented as humans in popular media, the more we will be treated as such outside of it.

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