Are ‘Roma’s Oscar Nominations a Win for Diversity or a Different Shade of Whiteness in Hollywood?

Alfonso Cuaron speaks onstage during Critics' Choice Awards on January 13, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images Entertainment

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is about Cleo, a fictionalized version of Libo Rodgriguez, the indigenous woman who raised him and his siblings. The film is about the woman who served Cuarón breakfast, walked him to school, put him to bed, and catalyzed his love of movies. It is, as his sister Cristina attests, a form of family therapy. He attributes his motivations in part to a “guilt about [the] social dynamics, class dynamics, racial dynamics” in which he was raised. His story comes to viewers in a crisp, grainless black-and-white palatte – a way of returning to some of the formative events of his childhood with the very awareness from which he was protected.

For some, Cuarón has not been able to quite escape his self-described “white, middle class” bubble. Some reviewers have not hesitated to leap on what they see as a poor characterization of Cleo, deeming her too quiet and passive, or the movie as idealistic and “rose-tinted.” Others criticized what they saw as the film’s lack of counterpoint to the family’s interpretation of their relationship with Cleo as one of love, rather than subservience and exploitative employ.

If Cuarón were a white American or European, a depiction of an indigenous woman that shored up so many parts of his family’s life would have been even more vulnerable to critical eyes. Roma offers a depiction of a domestic helper in Cleo whose labor extends past what could ever be listed on a job description. Beyond their class position, educational access, and admittance to wealthy social circles, it is the family’s dependence on Cleo that most clearly points to their whiteness.

Is Roma, then, a white film or can we claim it for diversity? Is it a Latino film? A brown film? There is room for multiple perspectives. To simply discard Roma as a white or Eurocentric movie would require ignoring the dispute over subtitling that translated Mexican Spanish to the grammars and idioms of Castilian Spanish (which would be to ignore the racialization and epistemological marginalization of certain forms of Spanish even among Hispanohablantes). Linguistic anthropologist Jonathan Rosa reminds us that language is intimately tied with racialization. Perceptions of race can define how language is heard and language can prescribe perceptions of race.

To a non-Latinx person in the United States, it might seem obvious that this Mexican, primarily Spanish-language film with an indigenous woman as a protagonist appears as an answer to demands for diversity and representation in movies and award shows. Yet, Cuarón is open about his privileged upbringing. To understand how Cuarón can be a privileged white man in Mexico and yet be a symbol of diversity in Hollywood requires understanding how race is translated and imposed across the border.

‘Roma’ photo by Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of Netflix
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If that sounds confusing, you might have a point: Latinidad is not a race, but in a Western context Latinxs are racialized. This racialization is the result of centuries of histories that included westward expansion, immigration policies, census and categorizing efforts of Latinos, and neo-imperialist practices toward Latin America in the U.S., along with Mexico’s own complicated racial history.

To understand how Cuarón can be a privileged white man in Mexico and yet be a symbol of diversity in Hollywood requires understanding how race is translated and imposed across the border.

Here’s the short version: in general, Spanish colonies had a formal caste system that positioned Iberians at the top and indigenous and enslaved people at the bottom (sound familiar?). There were a bunch of categories in between: criollos and New World-born Europeans were near the top, and mestizos and mulattoes, people with mixed heritage, were somewhere in between criollos and the bottom castes. Unlike more strict caste or binary systems, the boundaries between social stratification were often porous and class or education could affect a person’s access.

As anthropologist Peter Wade explains, in the 19th century as former colonies became nations, the “ideology of mestizaje became the founding cornerstone” across most of Latin America. In Mexico, following the Revolution of 1910, mestizaje became an ideology of national identity. La raza cósmica, Jose Vasconcelos’s 1925 publication theorizing a utopian mixture of the races that would create a new nation, became one of the most iconic visions of mestizaje that would inform Mexican identity through the 20th century. Though it sounds inclusive, mestizaje was always predicated on a bettering of the “lower” races through a process of blanqueamiento (or whitening). Countries like Mexico and Brazil prided themselves on racial mixture as opposition to the overt racism of the U.S.

What Sociologist Mónica G. Moreno Figueroa calls “mestizaje logics” was the building block for national identity and informs how the world sees Mexico and how Mexican citizens understand themselves. Figueroa argues that mestizaje gets wrapped up in a post-racial ideology as a way of eliding accountability or acknowledging race as an ongoing colonial legacy that structures inequality. These logics allow the favoring and movement toward whiteness without the mention of race. To Latin Americans, refrains like we are all mixed are familiar ploys to skirt accountability for racial inequality.

Sociologist Christina Sue has documented how Mexicans of all racial presentations identify with the national myth of mixed race. Sue’s research depicts how white Mexicans use mestizaje to skirt their own whiteness, many consider themselves multiracial regardless of how they move in the world. Darker-skin Mexicans lean on the national myth to claim membership in European ancestry and prioritize passing down information about European relatives. Nevertheless, in an immigration context, the nuances within Mexico are painted over by the homogenizing brushwork of western categorization.

Netflix 2019 Golden Globes After Party on January 6, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
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Despite an incredible heterogeneity within Latinidad, certain images, characteristics, and anxieties are inescapably attached to people perceived as Mexican or Latinx (in a U.S. context, the two are fluid and overlapping categories). Scholars Tiffany Davis and Wendy Moore have have shown how negative characteristics associated with brownness get attached to bodies when they are perceived as being Latinx or Mexican through speech, even when they were perceived differently prior to speaking. Brown skin, Spanish speaking, and accented English are all signs that can invoke the imposition of brownness and an “investment in brownness” as a group identity.

This doesn’t mean a white Mexican man faces the same opportunities or barriers as a visibly brown or black Latino in the US (he certainly has an easier time hailing a cab or browsing the aisles of a store). White Latin Americans are susceptible to what Brazilian scholar Patricia de Santana Pinho describes in white Brazilian immigrants as experiences of “being unwhitened” in the U.S. and “recover[ing] their whiteness” when among other immigrants. Additionally, Cuarón’s fame and success might, in Rosa’s words, “mitigates his potential racialization.” Cuarón and Mexicans like him can still return to whiteness in a Latin American context.

Still, in the world of Hollywood, the one we are told matters, visibility and audibility are in such low supply Latinos are relegated to praising the same people who are prioritized behind, and in front of, the camera in Latin America. After all, it is easier to give an award to a Mexican director than challenge Western policies toward immigrants or fight racial capitalism in the U.S. and Latin America.

Roma was nominated for ten academy awards. The Mexican director was nominated for four separate awards. If oddsmakers are to be believed, there’s a good chance Cuarón and Roma walk out on February 24, 2019, with some hardware. The narrative of successful diversity and inclusion is already being drafted.