Roma is a beautiful film of Indigenous erasure
Joseph M. Pierce
Roma is a piece of cinematographic artistry that cements Alfonso Cuarón as one of the most accomplished visual storytellers of our time. Roma is sumptuous and tender. And yet, I hate this film. Vehemently.
I am a professor Latin American studies, so I understand a bit of the history that Cuarón is portraying. I am also Cherokee. And as an Indigenous person, when I saw Roma my first reaction was rage—a feeling like helplessness and deception and longing all at the same time, a feeling that welled up inside and burned.
I hated seeing an Indigenous woman, Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio, negotiate her circumstances with such grace. Or rather, I hated the circumstances themselves, the colonial history that endures in Cleo, and which she bears with silent dignity.
Maybe I felt rage because what I saw in Cleo the impossibility of Indigenous life. Maybe because I saw in Roma not sensitivity, but the continuation of an imaginary that can only see Indigenous women as the surrogate life force of a still-colonial society that is oblivious to its hubris, and its past, and its ongoing indifference toward the survival of Indigenous women. It may seem contradictory, but Roma is a film that both stars an Indigenous woman and harnesses indigeneity to do the work of white supremacy at the same time.
While Roma dwells on the quotidian — banal moments of silence and of implicit understanding of place, station, duty — those moments are infused with meaning because of the impossibility of Cleo’s life within such constraints. For all its aesthetic mastery, Roma is essentially an upper class mea culpa.
More to the point: Cuarón mines Indigenous life for its allegorical power to connect elite families, at the expense of Indigenous peoples. Roma invokes a Mexico of 1970 that is incapable of imagining that Cleo is anything other than a source of feeling for other people, for people other than herself—because, of course—she has no one but herself. Roma’s affective fabric depends on Cleo’s silent endurance.
The film reprises a line of thinking that was taken up with more nuance in La teta asustada “The Milk of Sorrow” (2009 Dir. Claudia Llosa), which dwells on the transmission of intergenerational trauma during and after Peru’s Armed Internal conflict (1980-2000). Fausta (Magaly Solier) is a Quecha-speaking domestic servant in the home of Aída, a white upper class pianist. But while La teta asustada portrays memory as the engine of indigenous agency, in Roma, memory is circumscribed to the domain of melancholic projection.
In Roma’s pivotal hospital scene, Cleo admits, crying that she did not want her child. How are we to take that line? (Querer in Spanish is both to want and to love). I did not want, but should have wanted. I did not want, but wanted to want. I did not love but had no way of loving this child that could never have been anything more than a burden. This is the role of indigeneity in the film: Cleo’s body is only ever a source of emotional debt, yet another resource from which to extract emotional value.
Perhaps this is where my sense of rage comes from. The rage of seeing myself in her, and in that stillborn child. The rage of seeing her child die while her master’s children live.
The film’s pathos is not aimed at people like me, I have realized, but for those who can transit the colonial imaginary as agents of history, rather than its collateral damage, or its residue.
This is the rage of being an Indian watching Roma. I see myself reflected in a future that can only ever be stillborn in this time, in this place, in this land of conquest. Despite its gesture toward empathy, this is a film that does not celebrate Indigenous presence, but mines our capacity to endure in spite of our constant erasure.
It is not so much that the film is insensitive to Indigenous peoples. Quite the contrary, Roma depends on the pain we embed in our bodies and in our memories, the pain of our colonial past that is both present and future. I hate Roma because it turns Indigenous pain into the condition of possibility of our existence as objects of a history that will never be ours.
Joseph M. Pierce is Assistant Professor in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literature at Stony Brook University. His research focuses Latin American literary and cultural studies, Indigenous studies, queer studies, and hemispheric approaches to citizenship and belonging. His book Argentine Intimacies: Queer Kinship in an Age of Splendor, 1890-1910 is forthcoming from SUNY Press. He is co-editor of Derechos Sexuales en el Sur: Políticas del amor y escrituras disidentes (2018, Editorial Cuarto Propio), and his work has been published in Revista Hispánica Moderna, Taller de Letras, and Critical Ethnic Studies. He is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.