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Cuarón's "Roma" and the Complexities of Domestic Labor

The phenomenon of domestic labor, both enacted in one’s own house or as an employee in someone else’s, is a peculiar site of intersection between class, race, colonial, and gender issues. In the West, despite the general improvement in gender-related social conditions during the last few decades, “research consistently shows that women still do a bulk of the housework, averaging about 70 percent of the total household tasks” (Johnson, 2010, p. 699). However, gender is not the only basis for labor division that can be enacted: Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, for instance, depicts in his 2018 movie Roma the dynamic between Cleo, a domestic worker, and Sofia, the mother of the family Cleo works for. This relationship highlights the nuances of female domestic labor and how emotional labor gets redistributed not solely based on gender roles (for example between Sofia and her husband Antonio), but also depending on other factors, like race and social class, as in the case of Sofia—white and wealthy—and Cleo—of indigenous and Mexican descent and lower class.

Through Roma, Alfonso Cuarón strives to recreate his own childhood memories about his family’s domestic worker, hence the choice of shooting the movie in black and white, which implies a recollection of the past. However, the clear and sharp quality avoids the look of old-style black and white movies: it still looks modern, because it is not meant to be a nostalgic attempt to go back in time, but a way to look back from the perspective of the present, in the same way people look back at memories. The shots are usually wide and very complex, and they never focus on one subject. Cleo, the family’s domestic worker, is the main character, but the people, spaces and events that surround her, which usually function as a background, here are just as important as the main focus of the shots. Background sounds are as loud as the main characters’ voices, they interrupt the scene like they would in real life. Together with the linear chronological order chosen to tell the story, these elements contribute to giving a documentary-feel to the movie, making it appear organic, real, and non-scripted. In a press conference held in 2018 by Film at Lincoln Center, Cuarón states that he decided to portray the surrounding world just as vividly because those details are important elements of what makes up our experiences and our memories.

Figure 1. Example of a wide shot in "Roma" (Cuarón, 2018).

Although the camera work might seem to not focus on anything in particular, the plot centers around the life of Cleo and her relationship with the family she works for in Mexico City during the 70s. From the beginning it is clear that her job extends to more than just physical tasks and also requires her to emotionally care for the family members, especially the four children—an example of how domestic labor easily becomes affective labor: "the fact that the workplace is a private home often prevents the development of a professional relationship between the employer and the employee" (Yurdakul, 2022, p. 81). Domestic work is the result of a gendered division of labor, which implies that men are responsible for production and women reproduction, like house chores. Because "female" labor mostly takes place in the house and reflects preconceived feminine traits, like the tendency to nurture and care for children, domestic work tends to be perceived as women's natural responsibility rather than paid work, and it often results in exploitation of the worker. Moreover, as portrayed in Roma, one of the least acknowledged aspects of domestic work is the emotional labor it entails, as the worker is likely to form bonds with the family she lives with and her presence complicates the maternal role in the family, since part of the mother's tasks are transferred to the worker (Yurdakul, 2022, p. 81).

The movie includes many scenes where the viewer can clearly see the fine line between Cleo's status as almost a family member, but also as an employee and a stranger. She is clearly emotionally attached to the children she takes care of, like a family member would be, and although they do care for her, they do not know her personally like she knows them. She is often witness to the parents’ fights, but as an employee she cannot interfere. One of the most representative scenes of this complex relationship is when she sits down to watch a movie with the family and lovingly embraces one of the children. In the scene she shares the same experience and space with the family, and she even blends in with them visually. However, the moment is interrupted when Sofia asks her to grab something: because of the request, both Cleo and the viewer are suddenly reminded of her status of subordination and her role of employee—not member—of the family. Visually, the gesture also splits the scene composition, since now Cleo has to stand up and move around and away from the rest of the family who are sitting comfortably on the couch.

Figure 2. Cleo and the family watching TV (Cuarón, 2018).

Cleo’s relationship with the parents is just as complicated. Her interactions with Sofia are always friendly and affectionate, but it does not seem like Sofia shares her thoughts and her life with Cleo because she thinks of her as a friend. Cleo lives and works in their house, therefore it is inevitable that she participates in their life, but they—the adults at least—only let her in on family business because she is not worthy of having things hidden from her. Cleo is not perceived as an equal member of society who might judge them and their life, therefore her invisibility allows them to be comfortable around her. Moreover, her separation from the family is not just determined by her status as an employee, but also her social position since she is a racialized individual. She is an indigenous, lower-class woman while the family is white and medium-upper class, and these social classes represent further forms of separation that distance Cleo from the family dynamic and act as reminders of her condition as domestic worker. Cleo's situation is a common one in Latin America, where the internal migration of lower-class indigenous individuals from rural areas to cities fuels the economy of domestic labor (Yurdakul, 2022, p. 84). This dynamic unveils the multiple subordinate identities—poor, indigenous, female—that can coexist in an individual and that complicate the initial distinction between male and female labor: "the domestic worker and her employer, albeit both being women, stand in different intersectional positions of the matrix" (Yurdakul, 2022, p. 83).

Despite the different social standing, Cleo and Sofia still share a close relationship, which is especially representative of the complex sentimental connections domestic labor creates, and of the unrecognized emotional burden it entails. Sofia is empathetic towards Cleo and helps her with her pregnancy; nonetheless, she is also strict and often reproaches Cleo just as an employer would do. It is interesting, however, how the only times Cleo gets scolded are not a result of actual mistakes she makes: Sofia often redirects her own anger and frustration, usually caused by her husband, towards Cleo. This happens on two different occasions, when the husband first leaves and when he tells Sofia that he is not coming back. Such instances are testimonies of how emotions and sensations travel and affect other people too, and of the way Cleo is inevitably absorbed in whatever atmosphere the family creates.

Figure 3. Cleo and Sofia talking while Cleo holds Sofia's son (Cuarón, 2018).

Moreover, her position as a domestic worker is interesting because of how it redistributes the emotional labor of the two female figures and official caretakers of the house and children. “Employing a domestic worker enables the household to engage with positive feelings, which affect the household and its members in animating ways, while the domestic worker takes on the negative affective burden ingrained in this work” (Gutierrez-Rodriguez, 2014, p. 48). The emotional exchange between the family members and Cleo is not balanced or equally reciprocated, and the level of involvement her work forces on Cleo requires her to assume the typical burdens of parenting, which Sofia only partially contributes to.

In conclusion, Cuarón’s movie Roma offers a detailed and intimate portrayal of Cleo’s role and place in the household she works in, bringing to light the complex emotional dynamics entailed in domestic labor, especially when performed as a job and not in one’s own house. “That embrace is as much a hug and a cage”, says Cuarón (Film at Lincoln Center, 2018) about the movie’s cover photo that portrays one of the last scenes of the movie, where Sofia and the children are hugging Cleo after she has saved them from drowning. Cleo is emotionally involved with the family, but it is also undeniable that such a connection does not only come with positive feelings, and uneven dynamics are proof of the complexity of the discourse on emotional labor intrinsic in domestic work when more axes of diversity other than gender are involved.

Bibliographical References

Gutierrez-Rodriguez, E. (2014). Domestic work–affective labor: On feminization and the coloniality of labor. Women's Studies International Forum, 46, 45–53.

Johnson, J. A. (2010). Using gender: The personal, interpersonal, and emotional strategies of domestic labor. Sociological Spectrum, 30(6), 695–724.

YouTube. (2018). "Roma" Press Conference. YouTube. Retrieved February 24, 2023, from

Yurdakul, A. (2022). From Black Girl to Roma: Domestic workers and the intersection of race/ethnicity, class, and gender. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 81(1), 79–90.

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Sara Manente

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