Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA was one of the biggest films of 2018, if you can remember anything before the monstrosity of 2020. It got 10 Oscar nominations and scored 3 wins: Best Foreign Language Film (the first Mexican entry to do so), Best Cinematography, and Best Director. In addition to being extremely beautiful and thoughtfully made, ROMA carries a brilliant feminist message about care: who performs it, who receives it, and how it is valued or devalued by others. This is a particularly prescient topic during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the performance and reception of care have been deeply disrupted. This leaves us all too aware of the deeply one-sided and transactional nature of care in our society. Care is not typically seen as legitimate labor, and when it is a paid job, it is woefully undervalued. Those who practice care work are most often women and POC and are expected to put so much of their energy into caring for their employers that they cannot possibly give the same care to themselves or their own families. However, since care is essential to human wellbeing, this puts those caregiving individuals and their families at a disadvantage. ROMA perfectly shows the asymmetry of care and the trauma experienced by women, especially women of color, from caring for others without being cared for themselves.
ROMA is a semi-autobiographical film about Cuarón’s upper class upbringing in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. The main character is not Cuarón, however, but one of the indigenous live-in maids, Cleo. Cleo does everything for the family, it seems. She cleans from sunrise to sunset, wakes each child up individually and helps them dress, feeds them (and the parents), and plays with them. She scoops dog poop off of the driveway every day. As the film goes on, we see how more and more of Cleo’s time is taken from her and given back to the family, even when she isn’t technically working. Cleo and fellow maid Adela only have time in the evenings for a bit of small talk and some light exercises, and these they must do in the dark, as their employer Sofia doesn’t like them using electricity for themselves. We hear Cleo’s mother is unwell, but she lives all the way in Oaxaca, so there is no time for Cleo to visit. She goes on “vacations” with the family but must care for the children nearly the entire time, so it really isn’t much of a break for her. Despite the integral nature of Cleo’s work, it fails to secure her a high status in the family. Sofia’s husband, Antonio, complains about the state of the house, clearly unaware of how hard she works all day. And Sofia talks down to Cleo, like she is one of her children, even making Cleo ride in the back seat of the car and allowing one of her sons to sit in the front.
The clearest disparity in care work for Cleo comes when she finds she is pregnant. The father, Fermín, does not seem to think he owes Cleo anything for her condition, and even threatens her with violence should she or her child ever cross his path. Fermín calls her a “servant” in a derogatory way, implying it is preposterous she should expect any sort of care from him when she, by trade, cares for others. Cleo’s employers are much less cruel, but barely more generous. While Cleo is not fired for her pregnancy, as she feared, she is not given any accommodations for her condition, and must perform all her normal duties until the day of her delivery. The film does not touch on this next element explicitly, but it is evident given the demands placed on Cleo’s time by her employers that her future child would barely receive any of her time or attention. And while Sofia can have her mother live with her as an extra caretaker in addition to Cleo and herself, Cleo has no such options. Without personal time, her own lodgings, or familial connections, Cleo and her child would be quite alone and neglected.
This is not to say that everything is going well for Sofia. She herself is a victim of a lack of care, as Antonio is largely absent and does little to care for the family. She is connected to Cleo through the absence of their children’s fathers, showing that the gendered disparity in care is present regardless of socioeconomic status. Time and time again, the onus of care falls on women—just as it has during our current pandemic. Without schools and daycares, vital social services especially for working parents, households have had to find other ways to care for children. More often than not, this means women—not men—leaving the workforce (or working from home in a limited capacity) in heterosexual parenting relationships to stay home with the kids. Single mothers, too, may find the need to cut hours in work, education, or other self-betterment to care for children.
ROMA is an important reminder that we all need to be cared for, even and perhaps especially those of us who normally provide care. It is essential work; caretakers are absolutely essential workers. Even though Cleo finds balance and even contentment in her work, we see her suffer greatly from neglect. Now more than ever, it is important for us to reach out to others and share the burden and joy of care. Our future depends on it.
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