She wore pink flats and had long black hair. I thought her pretty. A simple floral pattern covered the sheets on her bed where I liked to lie down. That’s what I remember about Lucy, the domestic worker who lived with my family in Monterrey, Mexico. I must have been 5 when she left. We were playing in the garden when she told me she was returning to her town. I have a notion that I implored her to come back soon. I do not think of Lucy often, but when I do, I miss her, even if I cannot recall her face.
After Lucy, there were Concha, Esther and Fanny. However briefly, all were bits of what Libo was to the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and what Cleo is to the prosperous family in his acclaimed movie “Roma.” These women play central roles in the lives of many middle-class Mexicans, not just Cuarón and his generation, but also millennials like me and the centennials growing up today, even half a century after the time depicted in the movie. Mexicans use the euphemism “la muchacha,” Spanish for “the girl,” for this combination of housekeeper, nanny and caregiver. It’s complicated, this relationship between domestic workers and the families that thrive because of them: A quasi-organic intimacy exists between patrons and muchachas, but we don’t truly understand how much we owe them, and how much we don’t give back. “Roma,” with its ambient silences and steady lens, acts as a kind of prelude to an overdue reckoning.
Last week, “Roma” received 10 Oscar nominations, including for best picture and best foreign film. Yalitza Aparicio, an indigenous woman acting for the first time, is a nominee for her portrayal of Cleo. As critical and popular notice for “Roma” has grown, some people in my social networks have turned recollections of their own Cleos into well-meaning if somewhat superficial recognition. “Ay shout-out to Fulanita, you’re awesome, thank you for always being there for us!” read one Facebook post. Casual sentiments like that can ring hollow, much like the last scene in “Roma”: As Cleo is seen walking around picking up the children’s dirty laundry, they rave about her saving their lives but quickly move on, asking that she make them a banana smoothie.
Since Aparicio entered the spotlight, I have also seen more than a few comments along the lines of “Look, how nice of them to bring the chacha (the help) with them to the red carpet,” or “She may be wearing a bougie dress, but she still looks like a chacha.” Because despite “la muchacha” serving as a key figure in a middle-class family’s well-being, the label is used as a slur, an insult where Mexican racism and classism converge; where dark skin is associated with poverty, and poverty with domestic work, and domestic work with failure.
There is this collective lie we unconsciously tell ourselves that “we’re helping them out” by employing them, that it’s some sort of favor, and that they’re better off with us than back in their “distant” rural towns, which are often actually quite close by. It’s a lie we tell ourselves as a society to avoid thinking that this shouldn’t be an informal no-benefits job. They don’t want or need to be “adopted,” to paraphrase a woman in a recent video on Al Jazeera’s Spanish network; what they need is to have their rights respected.
Even nowadays, it is common to hear “Whitexicans” say things such as how hard it is to find “good help” and “I’m keeping this maid even though she’s not very good, but at least she’s not a thief.”
Domestic workers interviewed for the AJ+ en Español video were asked to describe their worst employer experiences. They cited things such as being forced to sleep on the living room floor or having water poured in their ears if they woke up late. It was also not unusual for patrons to force them to eat elsewhere.
I can’t write all this without explicitly acknowledging the privilege of growing up in a household where we have constantly had the support of domestic workers. If it’s a parent’s “job” to raise us, then seeing us become self-realized adults is the reward (or so my mom has told me), but what is the reward for someone who came looking for a job but instead, in addition to folding our underwear, is put in a position of emotional responsibility?
My grandmother suffered a cerebrovascular accident and died in the arms of Francisca, the woman who had been working for her for over three decades. She was the last person to see my grandmother alive, the last person she spoke to. Francisca may have been that close, but she did not enjoy the same economic and legal privileges as the rest of the family.
The situation of domestic workers is precarious. It was only last month that the Mexican Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for employers to opt out of enrolling them in the social security system. The court has given the government three years to create a new system for Mexico’s more than 2 million domestic workers — housekeepers, gardeners, cooks and drivers, 9 out of 10 of whom are women. Under the new requirement, employers must enroll them in social security and they would also have access to the public health system.
“Roma” has been described as a memory film, its every detail particular to Cuarón’s Mexico City of the early 1970s. But it is as much about the present as it is about memories because while a lot has changed in Mexico, a lot has not. The violence, corruption, inequality, classism and sexism at the center of every conflict in “Roma” are still here.
Every theme has a contemporary equivalent: absent male figures and the effects of abandonment; invisible women; a hegemonic state; marked underdevelopment; the exploitation of marginal groups and an ever-present threat of violence. Maybe some small towns near Mexico City have paved roads now, but it is still not uncommon to see tejabanes (shacks made out of discarded wood and metal) along those paved roads. And maybe problem young people in poor municipalities are no longer being recruited by the government to infiltrate peaceful demonstrations, but they are recruited by the drug cartels.
With Aparicio headed to Hollywood and the red carpet next month, I hope privileged Whitexicans can take a moment to reflect on our relationship with racism and classism. If we can have the gall to be proud of her, we can also have the courage to confront our own abusive behavior toward the people who have helped us build our lives in turbulent times.