Yalitza Aparicio of ‘Roma’ and the Politics of Stardom in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Yalitza Aparicio, the star of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” sat on a sunny bench in Parque Mexico, just a few blocks from the Mexico City neighborhood that gave the film its title. She chose the park for a chat amid months of red carpets, photo shoots and press interviews in hotel rooms because she said it reminded her most of home, Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca.

Aparicio, now 25, had just completed her teaching degree and was living in that mountainous city of 40,000 when she auditioned on a whim for the lead role in “Roma,” a housekeeper and nanny named Cleo. Now, Aparicio is being heralded as a role model for women and Indigenous people in Mexico, and buzzed about by critics for her performance.

Does she get recognized a lot these days?

“No! Here? Well, no,” Aparicio said in Spanish. “They only seem to recognize me when we go out dressed up, but when I’m dressed naturally, no. I think that a lot of people haven’t seen it yet, and we look different on the screen than in person.”

[Read our review of “Roma,” and follow Alfonso Cuarón on a tour of Mexico City.]

The park is a flurry of activity — joggers under a canopy of jacaranda and palm trees, dog walkers holding the leashes of 10 or more pups, telecommuters at cafe tables. She came here for the first time during filming two years ago.

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Offered the role in “Roma,” Aparicio wavered at first. Then she called back the director, who recounted her saying: “Well, I think I can do it. I have nothing better to do.”CreditNetflix

“I feel freer here than when I’m surrounded by buildings and closed in. I’ve never liked feeling closed in,” Aparicio said.

Within a few minutes, she was surrounded by something else: fans. They appeared one by one, studying her from afar, then approaching to shake her hand and take selfies. She obliged.

Congratulations, Yali — incredible, incredible movie. I grew up here, it took me back. I had a nanny, all those details. When I saw it, I think I cried five times.

It’s you, right? Can you take a photo of us? I’m not made up at all. If you can, the further away, the better. Congratulations, lots of future success!

In Mexico, “Roma” is more than a personal project by a famous director. It has started a national conversation about inequality, the treatment of domestic workers and who is welcome on the red carpet in a country where Indigenous women are rarely seen in magazines, much less at Hollywood awards shows.

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She isn’t sure she’ll continue to act or return to her original plan, teaching.CreditNatalia Mantini for The New York Times

In December, Aparicio appeared on the cover of Vogue México, a milestone for a woman of Indigenous descent in the magazine’s 20-year history. Aparicio isn’t satisfied to be an exception; she wants to use her emerging star power to create a more inclusive future for her country.

“It shouldn’t matter what you’re into, how you look — you can achieve whatever you aspire to,” she said.

Even before the movie began showing on Netflix in December, there were signs of change: That month, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that the 2 million-plus domestic workers, the vast majority of whom are women, must have access to the country’s social security system. The new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has vowed a special focus on alleviating the oppression and poverty Indigenous peoples face.

Though Cuarón didn’t set out to make a political film, he is embracing the result. At a premiere last month at the Cineteca Nacional in Mexico City, he welcomed a domestic-workers-rights advocate, Marcelina Bautista, to the stage. “All domestic workers in Mexico are Libo, we identify with her,” Bautista told the audience, referring to Cuarón’s childhood nanny, Liboria Rodríguez, on whom Cleo is based. “Mexico owes a lot to its women, and we must end the violence and abuse of power over women.”

Even as Aparicio is celebrated, she has become a target of racist attacks online. Aparicio said that while it initially upset her, she is now focused on the scores who have called her a role model and sent fan art. “I’m not the face of Mexico,” she added, since the country has many faces.

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This cover made history for Vogue México.CreditVogue

The editor in chief of Vogue México and Vogue Latinoamérica, Karla Martinez de Salas, said she witnessed the racist and classist reactions to photos of Aparicio in Vanity Fair, and worried that the Vogue images would meet a similar response. Rather, they were celebrated with the largest response the magazine has ever received on social media.

In the park, Aparicio sat facing the sun. Her best friend in real life and on film, Nancy García García (who plays Adela, the cook), has told her she looks tired these days. She feels tired. In August, Aparicio flew to Venice for the premiere of “Roma,” where she watched the movie for the first time. She tried to contain her emotions, but 30 minutes in, she began crying, and continued until the closing credits. It has been a whirlwind ever since, with trips to London, San Francisco, New York, Toronto, Los Angeles and more.

The journey actually started two years earlier. The director of a Tlaxiaco cultural center had invited Aparicio’s older sister, Edith, to a mysterious casting call that would turn out to be for Cuarón’s big-screen portrait of Cleo and Mexico City in the 1970s. Casting the lead was a monthslong process that involved tapes of more than 3,000 women, none of whom Cuarón found quite right. At the audition, Edith Aparicio, who was pregnant, hesitated and urged Yalitza to try out instead so she could recount the details.

Cuarón met her at a callback. “I was starting to get a bit nervous until suddenly Yalitza walks into the office, and it was that presence — kind of shy but very open,” Cuarón recalled by phone. He’d been looking to match the sensibility of Libo, an empathic way of relating to others.

“It’s how she approaches people, how she is in a place and wants to make sure that people, particularly vulnerable people, are fine,” he said. But when he told Aparicio he wanted her to star in the film, she wavered. She had just finished her teaching degree and would have to talk with her family.

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Aparicio wants to use her emerging star power to create a more inclusive future for her country: “It shouldn’t matter what you’re into, how you look — you can achieve whatever you aspire to.”CreditNatalia Mantini for The New York Times

Soon after, Aparicio called back. There was a gap before the application season for teaching jobs. “She says, ‘Well, I think I can do it,’” Cuarón recalled. “‘I have nothing better to do.’”

To prepare for filming, Cuarón asked Aparicio and García to improvise scenes. He was amazed at how quickly they began playing Cleo and Adela — not replicating a conversation they might have had after class at teachers college. “What you see in the film, that’s not Yalitza, that is Cleo,” Cuarón said. “She crafted that character, you know? And she did it in a very kind of detailed way.”

The actors were not given a script or even a story arc. Aparicio drew on the intricate world of the set, based on Cuarón’s childhood memories, along with her own vision of the character, based in part on her mother’s experiences as a domestic worker. Aparicio became so invested in the role that when tragedy strikes her character, she suffers with agonizing realism. In fact, when the doctors deliver terrible news to Cleo, Aparicio didn’t believe them at first.

On set, Cuarón created a reality for Aparicio to inhabit. Now, she hopes to create a new reality in Mexico and show that Indigenous women can rise to the highest level in any field. It’s an aspiration that faces significant obstacles: More than 70 percent of Mexico’s Indigenous population lives in poverty, and discrimination — in hiring, education and the justice system — is rampant.

If by an outside chance Aparicio receives an Oscar nomination — she has picked up a handful of awards but was overlooked, for instance, by the Golden Globes — “I’d be breaking the stereotype that because we’re Indigenous we can’t do certain things because of our skin color,” she said. “Receiving that nomination would be a break from so many ideas. It would open doors to other people — to everyone — and deepen our conviction that we can do these things now.”

Aparicio isn’t sure if she’ll continue to act. As a teacher, she recognizes that film can transmit powerful messages. Molding the minds and hearts of children is much easier than changing the ingrained beliefs of adults, she said, yet she has been astonished to find that “Roma” is doing just that.

“In the end, this isn’t so different from what I wanted to do,” she said. “I realized that film can educate people of all ages, in a far-reaching way.”

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