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Yalitza Aparicio Of 'Roma' Speaks Out On Barriers Facing Indigenous Women

“If I do something wrong, they might think we are all that way. So I have to take good care of that image, our image,” the actress said.

Yalitza Aparicio, the breakout star of Alfonso Cuarón’s critically acclaimed film “Roma,” made history as the first indigenous woman to get an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Now she’s using her win to speak out on barriers indigenous women face in cinema and society at large.

“I know that everything that I am doing — if I do something wrong, they might think we are all that way. So I have to take good care of that image, our image,” the actress told the Los Angeles Times in an interview.

Aparicio ― a 26-year-old born in Oaxaca, Mexico, of indigenous Mixtec and Triqui descent ― was a newcomer to acting when she was selected to play the lead role of Cleo in Cuarón’s film. The semi-autobiographical black-and-white movie tells the story of a domestic worker and the family she works for in early 1970s Mexico City.

The Netflix film has earned 10 Oscar nominations, including Aparicio’s historic nod, and launched her into international stardom, with her making waves on the cover of Vogue México. Aparicio had just finished her degree to become a teacher when she was selected for the role.

Aparicio’s father is Mixtec, and her mother is Triqui, and they worked as a street vendor and domestic worker respectively, reported the Times. She said she heard a lot of messages from people growing up seemingly meant to limit her expectations in life due to her gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status.

“People would tell me, ‘Why do you study?’” she told the Times. “One, you are a woman. Two, you don’t have the right color. Three, your economic station doesn’t help. You’ll end up getting married and becoming a servant.”

“I could stay in this jar where they say I belong,” she added, “where they tell me, ‘You can only be a servant,’ that you can’t aspire to more.”

Yalitza Aparicio poses at the Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel -- Feb. 4, 2019, Beverly Hills, Ca
Yalitza Aparicio poses at the Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon at The Beverly Hilton Hotel -- Feb. 4, 2019, Beverly Hills, Calif. 

Aparicio’s role in “Roma” has sparked a much-needed conversation about the status of Mexico’s indigenous people, who have long been discriminated against.  

Around 20 percent of the Mexican population self-identifies as indigenous, per a 2018 United Nations report, which also details how indigenous people in the country face “serious challenges in the exercise of their human rights,” including “profound” inequality, poverty and discrimination.

The film has also brought to the fore issues of class and the all-too-frequent exploitation of domestic workers. Aparicio’s own mother was a domestic worker.

To prepare for the role of Cleo, Aparicio met with Liboria Rodriguez, Cuarón’s childhood nanny, around whose story he based “Roma,” the LA Times reported. She also used her mother for inspiration.

Aparicio’s role and media appearances have since stirred much-needed conversations around Mexico’s film and TV industry, which tends to feature mostly light-skinned actors. It echoes the criticism Hollywood has faced for its own lack of diversity, with campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite.

“I want to believe that in the future, they will continue to include more and more people like me,” she told the LA Times. “So that someone else can look at it and say, ‘Hey, I look like her.’”

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