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Making their work 'visible': Oscar-nominated 'Roma' spurs domestic workers to activism

"'Roma' makes the struggles of the domestic worker visible," one U.S.-based activist said. “Behind closed doors, we are very vulnerable to exploitation."
Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marco Graf as Pepe, and Daniela Demesa as Sofi in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron.Alfonso Cuaron

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” has become a wellspring of conversation starters leading up to Sunday's Oscars. What does it mean if the streaming giant Netflix takes home the award for best picture? How has “Roma” revealed the race and class rifts in Mexico’s culture? Was the movie's acclaimed director, Alfonso Cuarón, in the right to tell a story based on the domestic worker, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who helped raise him?

Between these conversations, U.S. domestic workers are using the movie about Rodríguez's life as a young, indigenous housekeeper in 1970s Mexico City to educate the larger public on the issues surrounding their profession and to press for legislation that would improve their working conditions.

“It’s so rare to see a story or a movie about a domestic worker — I think Roma makes the struggles of the domestic worker visible," said Rosa Sanluis, a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which was invited early on by the film's producers, Participant Media, to see the movie, hold screenings and even attend the premiere at the Venice Film Festival. “Behind closed doors, we are very vulnerable to exploitation," Sanluis said.

Image: Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NWDA), with "Roma" director Alfonso Cuaron and NWDA member Rosa Sanluis.
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, with "Roma" director Alfonso Cuaron and NWDA member Rosa Sanluis.NWDA

On Sunday night, the alliance will host a screening of the Academy Awards in Los Angeles with the well-known actresses and activists Tarana Burke, Diane Guerrero, Rashida Jones, Eva Longoria and Olga Segura.

“The NDWA wants to have that presence there so that the public and press can see that the work of domestic workers is essential in millions of homes in this country,” Sanluis said.

In the film, Cleo (played by best actress nominee Yalitza Aparicio) works for a middle-class family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. She’s shown almost constantly working, tending to the household’s four children, cleaning up after their neglected dog and heaving laundry from bedrooms to the roof, where she washes everything by hand and then hangs it all to dry. Even though the kids are close to their nanny, there’s tension in the household. For Cleo, it means a set of stressed-out employers who are clearly fond of her but also scold her occasionally as they're dealing with their own frustrations.

The movie shows the family's affection for Cleo, but the divide between the light-skinned family and the indigenous employee is always there. When watching television with the family, Cleo sits on the floor, visually placing herself lower than her employers who are on the couch. After a long day, when Cleo and the other domestic worker in the home, Adela (Nancy García), want to exercise a bit before going to bed, they have to do it by candlelight — the grandmother doesn’t want them using the house’s electricity.

Ai-jen Poo, the alliance's director, hopes that with so much of the world’s eyes on “Roma,” her organization can get some attention as well. The advocacy group, which started around the time of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, now represents about 2 million domestic workers across the country.

If people are compelled to take action after “Roma,” said Poo, the alliance's website offers resources for domestic workers and employers, like insurance for domestic workers.

“It allows for house cleaners who have many different clients to get access to benefits for the first time, including paid time off, health insurance and accident insurance,” she said.

In addition to individual resources, Poo said the alliance will propose new legislation in the coming months that would establish a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.

Cuarón, the movie's director, is also lending his voice ahead of the attention surrounding the Oscars. In a public service announcement this week, Cuarón voiced his support for the NDWA’s efforts as well best hiring practices as outlined by the organization.

According to Poo, 90 percent of the alliance’s membership is made up of women. “We work to address the social issues that shape the conditions for this workforce,” she said. “Everything from raising wages, getting access to benefits, to offering training and community support opportunity for the workforce.”

Sanluis, who worked for decades as a domestic worker in Texas' Rio Grande Valley before becoming a community organizer with her group, Fuerza del Valle, said information is key.

“We need to know our rights, especially in cases of stolen salaries,” said Sanluis of her work in Texas. Because the valley is close to the U.S.-Mexico border, "the employers will sometimes threaten workers with immigration services," she said.

Poo said that the need for better resources for domestic workers is a pressing matter in the U.S., as the demand for domestic workers grows.

“The baby boom generation is aging, and we need more elder care than ever before. Millennials are starting to have children at a rate of 4 million babies born per year, so we need more child care,” she said. “The demand for this work and this workforce is going through the roof, but the jobs are completely unsustainable because people don't have access to benefits and the wages are incredibly low.”

While Poo, Sanluis and others in their organization will be rooting for the movie on Sunday night, they are grateful for what it has been able to illuminate.

“I would be so happy if ‘Roma’ won,” Sanluis said. “But I’m also so happy in what this movie has accomplished so far. I hope it will help us as we’re getting ready to propose our bill of rights; this would help workers and not leave any of them behind. There’s eight states and a municipality that has some protections, but in Texas, we have nothing. This national effort would protect us all.”

"We’re the same as other workers," Sanluis said. "Yet there’s no recognition of our labor in this country.”