ICYMI, “Roma” has swept Oscars nominations; the Alfonso Cuarón-led Spanish-language film is nominated for 10 awards in next month’s ceremony, tying “The Favourite.” The film, a Netflix original that makes the streaming service the first to have a project nominated for Best Picture, is a take on socioeconomic and familial conflicts in 1970s Mexico City. A semi-autobiographical film based on Cuarón's life, the director cast 25-year-old Yalitza Aparicio (even younger at the time of filming) to portray Cleo, a housekeeper to a wealthy family. The role is the actress’s first, but it’s won her a Best Actress nomination from the Academy (Salma Hayek is the only other Mexican actress to be nominated in this category, for “Frida”), so it’s time you read up on her.
Aparicio’s family comes from indigenous Mexican heritage: Her father is Mixtec and her mother is Triqui, making her a blend of two native Mexican peoples. Why do we care? Because she’s the first woman of indigenous roots (nearly 20 percent of the Mexican population identifies as such) to be recognized by the Academy. Aparicio said herself for Vogue México that it’s a giant step in the way of representation: “People are knowing other faces of Mexico -- it’s something that makes me so happy and proud of my roots.”
“I'd be breaking the stereotype that because we're indigenous we can't do certain things because of our skin color. Receiving that nomination would be a break from so many ideas,” she told The New York Times. “It would open doors to other people -- to everyone -- and deepen our conviction that we can do these things now."
When Edith, visibly pregnant, decided to skip the casting call, she sent Yalitza in her place. “I didn’t want to do the casting,” she told The Guardian. “My sister pushed me because, in our community, they have never come before to ask us to be in films.”
"My sister thinks that I'm shy and don't speak that much. So she wanted me to go through the experience. And also because she was very curious, as there has never been a casting before in our hometown. I didn't want to do it, but I did,” she told Deadline.
It’s a good thing she went, though. Cuarón told the NYT that after nearly 3,000 auditions, she was what he needed to portray his childhood housekeeper, Libo Rodriguez.
“I was starting to get a bit nervous until suddenly Yalitza walks into the office, and it was that presence -- kind of shy but very open,” he said.
In fact, Aparicio holds a degree in early childhood education; she wanted to work in a preschool. Two years ago, when “Roma” began the early stages of concept and production, Aparicio had just finished the program. She almost didn’t take the role, only agreeing because she had to wait a bit before application season began for teachers. Even then, she only got to teach for five months while the film was in the editing process.
“She says, ‘Well, I think I can do it. I have nothing better to do,’” Cuarón shared.
And now, even with the massive success of “Roma,” she’s unsure if she'd call herself an actress.
Aparicio’s mother, too, was a nanny and housekeeper, working as a single mother. Domestic work (usually grueling in nature) is common for Mexico, especially for its indigenous population. As a result, the Aparicio family didn’t live comfortably, and Aparicio said that she drew from her own and her mother’s experiences in order to bring Cleo to life.
“When I was younger, I used to help her so she could finish earlier. I wanted to be like my mum; as strong as her. She was my role model,” she said, “The film is like a tribute to women in general -- these invisible women are always there in the home, taking care of the children.”
Between being required to learn some dialogue in native Mixtec, which she doesn’t speak, to filming a scene in the water when she didn’t swim well, Aparicio really went face first into a job she wasn’t prepared to take in the first place.
“At first it was kind of scary and overwhelming, but I had to pretend like the cameras weren't there," she told Variety. “And as time went on, I got very good at that, at imagining that I was on set by myself, just performing day-to-day tasks.”