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The Depiction of Culture in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”


Roma is a 2018 film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who based the story upon his childhood memories. The semi-autobiographical narrative focuses on Cleo, a servant woman working for a middle-class family, whose character is inspired by Cuarón’s caregiver. The movie is set in the 1970s in the neighborhood of Colonia Roma, located in Mexico City. Roma was largely acclaimed by the critics for its portrayal of class and racial structures in Mexico of the 1970s. The director does a successful job at addressing the historical events of the time by focusing on the depiction of two diverse Mexican classes unified by the presence of the central character of the movie. The film challenges the common stereotypes of Mexican women to narrate a story built upon the director’s childhood memories.

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Class and Cultural Divisions

The central character of the film is Cleo, an indigenous housekeeper who works as a maid for the family of Sofia. The communications between Cleo and her employers reveal the differences between their statuses. Being set in a specific era in Mexico City, the film is not just Cuarón’s autobiographical narration. It is also a commentary on the historical and political situation of this period. According to De la Mora (2019), Indigenous people had to work for criollos and mestizos, the two ethnic majorities in Mexico, “for no compensation other than room and board” (p. 47). The character communications display these class distinctions through the use of particular language elements.

Cleo addresses the family with the necessary respect, speaking in Spanish to them, although her native language is Mixtec. This is an example of communication competence because the central character adjusts her conversation behavior to adapt to particular social and cultural groups. This distinction is important to notice as it highlights not only the class division but also the cultural contrasts within Mexican society. De la Mora (2019) states that “it is when Cleo communicates with her co-worker Adela in Mixtec that her voice is strongest” (p. 50). Cleo exhibits a strong sense of identity, being most confident when speaking her native tongue. This further adds to the racial division among the members of the community, which is one of the central themes of Roma.

The Breakaway from Stereotypes

The communications between Cleo and the children of Sofia are based on unconditional love. The children develop strong attachments to the housekeeper and see her as a second mother figure. The epitome of their relationship is the scene at the beach. Although Cleo is unable to swim, she jumps into the water to save Paco and Sofi. Her rescuing the children is an act of selfless love for the family. Such bonds between a domestic worker and the employer’s family are not stereotypical for a household of this kind (Marcantonio, 2019). Cuarón does not use conflict in his depiction of the social interactions between the family and the maid. Instead, he conveys love past the structures of oppression, which is not a stereotypical view of such relationships.

Cleo’s confession that she did not want the child who she lost earlier in the movie, is a breakaway from the stereotypical view of Mexican women. Traditionally, women in Mexico have been portrayed as serving a function of giving birth and subsequently raising their children. Cleo’s statement symbolizes her desire for autonomy as a human. According to Marcantonio (2019), the confession is a “powerful moment of tension and emotional relief” (p. 43). Significantly, this happens during the beach scene, while sharing an embrace with Sofia and her children. The central character sees them as her own family and again acts as the second mother figure to the children.

Critique of the Stereotypical Trope of the Central Character

Cleo is the key character of the film; however, several critics believe that her personality and behaviors are reduced to a generic trope. Specifically, Brody (2018) suggests that her character is a common depiction of working-class people through the eyes of upper-middle-class cinematographers. Cleo is portrayed as a “strong, silent, long-enduring, and all-tolerating type” (Brody, 2018, para. 4). In the film, Cleo does not talk much, although she is the central figure of the story. It can be seen as an element of the class distinction, especially appropriate in the presence of the family she works for. However, even with her friends, Cleo does not share most of her thoughts. It might seem unclear why the main character does not voice her experiences, which are significant in the narration.

Although Cleo does not talk much, she is not silenced. Marcantonio (2019) states that “Roma is almost entirely structured around Cleo’s point of view and her experiences” (p. 41). The film uses visual language to convey the events of the story from Cleo’s angle. She does not need to talk for the viewer to understand her feelings because they are open for interpretation. The director alludes to the fact that the viewer is not entitled to hearing Cleo verbally share her experience. Cuarón does not intend to break the fourth wall by including the viewers in the discussion of Cleo’s most personal thoughts. Instead, these contemplations happen off-screen, suggesting the role of the viewer as a bare observer.

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The film Roma explores the themes of class and culture within the Mexican society of the 1970s. The director addresses common stereotypes to tell a story of one woman who is a strong character capable of experiencing profound feelings of selfless love. The movie incorporates a focus on cinematography to examine silence as an element of the narration. All these aspects are combined in Roma to narrate a version of Cuarón’s childhood memories.


Brody, R. (2018). There’s a voice missing in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”. The New Yorker. Web.

Marcantonio, C. (2019). Roma: Silence, language, and the ambiguous power of affect. Film Quarterly, 72(4), 38–45. Web.

De la Mora, S. (2019). Roma: Reparation versus exploitation. Film Quarterly, 72(4), 46–53. Web.

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