A domestic helper who shaped director Alfonso Cuarón’s own childhood was the inspiration behind his new Oscar-nominated film, "Roma."
Most famous for hits like "Y Tu Mamá También" (2001), "Children of Men" (2006) and "Gravity" (2013), Cuarón’s new limited release, black-and-white film set in Mexico City is a more intimate look at the day-to-day life of maid and nanny Cleo Gutiérrez, who cares for a white, middle-class family through her own personal troubles and political unrest.
Cuarón later explained Cleo’s character was modeled after a woman who played a similar role in his own life, Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, an indigenous Mixtec woman who joined his family when he was just 9 months old.
“Libo, like so many domestic workers, they go beyond a normal job and take on all these roles that are supposed to be covered by the parents,” Cuarón said in an interview with Variety.
Cuarón explained the film has been in the works for more than a decade, and was conceptualized since the release of his first feature film "Sólo con tu pareja" in 1991.
“Ninety percent of the scenes represented in the film are scenes taken out of my memory,” he told IndieWire. “The characters, they exist in real life. It’s people that I love deeply. I had to take a journey through my own memories, through the labyrinth of memory, and also conversations with the people who were there and who experienced those events with me."
Just as portrayed in the film, Cuarón recalled fondly his morning routine with Rodriguez, whom he often called mamá. He recalled Rodriguez having taken him to see movies as a boy, including "Marooned" by John Sturges, which he credits to his early beginnings as a young film connoisseur.
And, just as Cleo did in the film, Rodriguez witnessed Cuarón’s own father’s departure from the family.
When shown an early version of the scene in "Roma," “She kept crying, and she said, ‘No, no. Poor kids. Poor kids.’ She wasn’t even looking at her own pain,” Cuarón recalled.
Cuarón explained that it wasn’t until his adulthood that he appreciated Rodriguez for more than her role as his caretaker and said the film was an illustration of his “own guilt about social dynamics, class dynamics, racial dynamics.”
“I was a white, middle-class, Mexican kid living in this bubble. I didn’t have an awareness,” he said. “I [had] what your parents tell you — that you have to be nice to people who are less privileged than you and all of that — but you’re in your childhood universe.”
Cuarón recalled Rodriguez recounting times when she was cold and hungry as a child, or being visited by witch doctors in her village when she was feeling sick, but could never picture the events being more than bedtime stories.
“You have a very utilitarian relationship with your loved ones. You’re afraid to stop and see their weaknesses. But it started to be clear she had another life,” Cuarón told Variety.
The contrast is illustrated in the film in the moments Cleo speaks Mixteca with the other domestic helper Adela, a language Rodriguez would have spoken coming from the village of Tepelmeme in Oaxaca – a stark difference from the big city in which the movie was based.
Yalitza Aparicio, a first-time actress who starred as Cleo, said in an interview with Vox she had to learn the language for the film, despite being indigenous herself.
“I realized it was really a great opportunity to present it to the world — not just the cultural diversity of Mexico, but also the linguistic diversity of Mexico,” she explained. “One of the things that I came to appreciate by having to learn it is that there is something significant and important about keeping the purity of the language, because we’re losing it.”
Previously, Rodriguez made cameos in other Cuarón films, including his 1991 debut, in which she acted as a background character combing a young girl’s hair.
Roma is the recipient of 113 film awards so far, including two Golden Globe awards and four BAFTA film awards. It is now up for 10 Academy Awards later this month.
“I feel very proud that the film is producing these reactions and touching everybody’s heart,” Rodriguez told Variety. “If I could be like a messenger peace dove that goes all over, that would be my dream, because that’s what I feel inside of me. I would like to do something for everybody in the whole world.”