Why you should care

Because she’s as unlikely a star as Hollywood has seen in a while.

OZY first reported this story in January, 2019. On February 24, 2019, Alfonso Cuarón won the Best Director Oscar for Roma, starring Yalitza Aparicio.

On the black-and-white screen, Yalitza Aparicio’s character, Cleo, calls urgently for Sofi and Paco to swim back closer to shore. A resounding panic builds in her voice. Realizing that the children she cared for are struggling in the powerful current, she plunges into the churning waves. Cleo drags the two back to the safety of shore, where they collapse on the sand, sputtering for breath.

When Aparicio, now 25, shot this scene for the 2018 film Roma, confronting the pounding waves sparked a real and visceral fear. She, like Cleo, cannot swim. Aparicio had agreed to do the scene, but there’s no ocean in her hometown of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, in Mexico. “So suddenly I found myself in front of that ocean and those huge waves, and I was very, very afraid,” Aparicio told Vox.

This similarity is just one of the myriad ways in which Aparicio authentically embodied her character in a film that blurs the line between reality and performance. In Roma, Aparicio stars as a live-in housekeeper to a middle-class Mexican family — with four children, a mother and largely absentee father — in the 1970s. The plot was shaped by the real-life experiences of writer and director Alfonso Cuarón. Roma attracted widespread acclaim as soon as it emerged on the circuit, with Cuarón picking up two Golden Globes on Sunday for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film. Roma also won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 2018.

Aparicio’s mother raised the four children, and Aparicio ultimately pursued a teaching degree to lift the family from poverty.

Chatter is bubbling about whether it will become the first foreign-language film to snag Best Picture at the Oscars, and meanwhile, Aparicio has been called a breakout star to watch. “Cleo is the heartbeat of the house and the film,” wrote Simone Hattenstone in The Guardian.

Not too bad for someone who’d never acted on screen before.

Cuarón was determined to cast a Cleo who encapsulated both the physicality and spirit of Libo Rodriguez — his childhood nanny, to whom he dedicated the film. His casting team searched far and wide across Mexico City, as well as the states of Oaxaca and Veracruz, before stumbling upon Aparicio. She had never heard of the renowned filmmaker and only knew about the casting call because of her sister — the far more outgoing sibling.

But the character piqued Aparicio’s interest, and their resemblances made it easy for her to pour herself into the role. Like Cleo, Aparicio grew up in a low-income family, and her mother was a domestic worker. She’s no stranger to the ways in which women often shoulder the invisible burden of home labor, particularly in Mexican culture, which is still influenced by machismo. The film’s two main male characters bear little responsibility when it comes to childcare; similarly, Aparicio’s father left home when she was a teenager. Aparicio’s mother raised four children, and Aparicio ultimately pursued a teaching degree to lift the family from poverty. While she has no formal acting training, she has said teaching isn’t unlike her experience in Roma. She’s just setting an example for far more people than a roomful of preschoolers.

In more ways than one, Roma makes invisible forces seen. First and foremost, the film celebrates “a character that’s been invisible in most cinema and also society,” Cuarón told The Hollywood Reporter. Besides Spanish, Roma also features the language Mixtec, which is local to Aparicio’s area. She isn’t fluent, but she learned it for the film — and in doing so realized she could showcase “not just the cultural diversity of Mexico, but also the linguistic diversity of Mexico,” Aparicio told Vox. And across social media, fans vigorously celebrated the fact that an indigenous Mexican woman was featured on the cover of Vogue Mexico.

Beyond Aparicio’s and Cuarón’s backgrounds, Roma thins the veneer between story and reality as a result of Cuarón’s directorial choices. Like neo-realistic filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, he cast non-actors with professionals to yield performances driven by reaction rather than action, Hattenstone noted in The Guardian. Aparicio’s friend Nancy Garcia was cast as a maid and Cleo’s roommate to portray an authentic relationship. In a hospital scene, those hired to play actors and doctors were real actors and doctors, Aparicio told Vox. Cuarón also shot in sequence and often didn’t provide the cast with a script or reveal complete scenes until just before filming.

Roma can be streamed on Netflix or watched in theaters, which has led to some criticism, like when a reporter asked Cuarón backstage after his Golden Globes best director win whether the combined release marked the “death of independent cinema.”

“My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release?” Cuarón replied with frustration. He went on to call attention to the theatrical experience’s gentrification, according to Variety.

“I, as a filmmaker, am fortunate that there are companies out there like Netflix supporting independent voices, and especially international voices,” says Caroline Baron, a Golden Globe–winning film producer. Whether those films translate across borders and resonate with audiences in other countries, however, is another question.

As an untrained actress, it remains to be seen whether Aparicio can show the same prowess in roles that divert from her lived experience. While Baron, for one, says Aparicio is clearly a natural and hopes that she continues to act, she could elect to finally put her teaching degree to use instead.

But as the Oscars roll closer and Roma’s accolades pile up, Aparicio is delivering a lesson to people of all backgrounds who are eager to see a new face across their screens.

Read more: Meet the Black Panther — Chadwick Boseman.

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