August 22nd, 2019

Now Available on Netflix and Nominated for Best Picture

Roma: ***1/2

It’s pretty ridiculous when I hear someone being accused of being racist against Mexicans.

There is no conceivable way to be racist against Mexicans. Mexican is a nationality, not a race. Racism against Mexicans is as absurd as racism against Americans.

This conversation underscores the awkward fact that Americans know virtually nothing about the country of Mexico. An educated American is bound to know something about the history and culture of the UK and France, and probably even a little bit about Germany and Russia. But a perfectly respectable educated American might know bupkis about our neighbor to the south.

Mexico is a diverse country of 130 million people. There are millions of Native Mexicans who are the direct descendants of the Aztecs, Mayans, and other indigenous groups. There are millions of Spanish Mexicans who are more lily white than I am. Did you know that there are nearly half a million ethnically Arab Mexicans (mostly Lebanese Christians)? I’m guessing those who call Mexican a race do not.

“Roma” is not a four star classic and I don’t know why it is a front-runner for Best Picture.

I strongly recommend it, however, because it is a wonderfully educational snapshot of Mexico – a country that we all know way too little about.

The title refers to the ritzy, mostly white neighborhood in Mexico City where the characters live. “Roma” follows one tumultuous year in the life of a white upper middle class family.

Director Alfonso Cuarón takes us back to the Mexico City of his youth in 1971. It’s a society very much like ours. The lead characters live in luxury and chat about NFL football and beach vacations. Meanwhile, their indigenous housekeeper Cleo does the dirty work with a quiet smile. She lives in their modern world but doesn’t share in its freedom or opportunity.

The characters’ peaceful lives are shattered by two awful outside events. The Cold War is raging. In Mexico, the Cold War was a lot hotter than in the US. Student activists, frustrated peasants, and Marxist guerillas were demanding change. Meanwhile, government soldiers and ruthless paramilitary militias were not afraid to bust some heads to maintain order.

Even worse than the violence, however, are the men. The two lead male characters are completely uncaring and undependable. Some people view “Roma” as a love letter to Mexico. It can also be seen as a sincere warning to women to stay single and celibate.

Cleo exhibits almost superhuman patience and poise and the family loves her for it. But they never respect her or view her as human in the same way as they are.

The film’s most telling scene is when the family matriarch is checking Cleo into the hospital. The nurse asks for Cleo’s full name and date of birth. To her embarrassment, the matriarch discovers that she hardly knows anything about the woman who has been living in her house for a decade.

Then – as now – there is no racism against Mexicans. There’s just the usual dehumanization, commoditization, and exploitation of non-white and indigenous peoples by rich white folks. That’s 

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