- Published: Friday, 08 February 2019 03:11
- Written by Lupe Rodriguez Haas
Not only did Alfonso Cuaron and his ROMA crew woo the now Oscar-nominated actress Yalitza Aparacio to star in the black and white film, but they had to convince her parents this was a legitimate movie production, and not a scam.
The Spanish language film has earned dozens of award nominations and wins this award season for writer/director Alfonso Cuaron including 10 Academy Award nominations. Yalitza Aparicio, a preschool teacher from Tlaxiaco, a city in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is nominated for best actress along with Glenn Close, Lady Gaga, Olivia Colman and Melissa McCarthy. Her ROMA co-star Marina de Tavira is also a nominee for best supporting actress.
Yalitza portrays Cleo, an indigenous domestic worker for a fractured middle class family in Mexico during the 70s. Cuaron has stated ROMA is inspired from his childhood days growing up with a live-in housekeeper and nanny, Liboria Rodriguez, whom he refers to as his second mother.
Perhaps that is why Cuaron and his team strongly pursued Yalitza because Yalitza somehow reminded him of Liboria. Yalitza had just finished her studies to become a preschool teacher in Oaxaca when her sister insisted she try out for the role. She and her parents were skeptical at first, and it took producer Gabriela Rodriguez to convince her father to let her travel to Mexico for the audition for a stranger named Alfonso Cuaron. Although Yalitza was 23 at the time and didn't need her parents permission, many Mexicans, especially those from an indigenous community, are very old-fashioned and women must be accompanied when meeting a male, let alone a movie director. The abuse allegations coming out of Hollywood and in Mexico regarding executive and filmmakers taking advantage of young women would leave anyone feeling fearful.
"It was a good strategy sending us a woman because if a man had come to the home, there's no chance they would've let me," she says in Spanish on a rainy Saturday in West Hollywood.
Yalitza recounts how Gabriela came prepared with official production documents and contact sheet to prove to her father that ROMA was not a sinister plan to kidnap his daughter. Her father was hard on Gabriela, she admits but Gabriela was very understanding. To this day, Yalitza's father refuses to face Gabriela at parties or screenings since he feels ashamed for giving her such a hard time.
Then came time for a mother's approval. Once she was in Mexico City to meet and audition for Cuaron, she was once again having doubts about meeting this stranger making a movie. She says her extended family in the city were also cautious, and advised her not to go there alone but with her mother. It took a family friend to convince her not to miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to show an indigenous face as the star of a movie.
Yalitza did take her mother to the audition, and she was shocked at meeting such an accommodating person like Alfonso Cuaron. She expected an imposing figure, demanding things from her. Instead Cuaron wanted constant dialogue with her to make sure she was okay during the whole process.
"I felt like I knew him for years, she recounts with a smile."
What sealed the deal for Yalitza was Cuaron's treatment of her mother. The ROMA director acknowledged Yalitza's mom and expressed his gratitude for accompanying her daughter to the casting session.
"I said to myself, 'well this speaks highly of all the crew.' Another person wouldn't have thanked her, and for me, she's very important to me. My mom was at peace with the whole thing after that.
After she got the role, Yalitza describes her family's reaction as positive and happy, but they still questioned their choice.
'Why do they want you? You have no acting experience,' she says of their response.
Regardless of the skeptical nature of her family, she appreciated the concern.
"It was beautiful feeling that support and also that they were so worried about my welfare."
As they say the rest is history, and Yalitza is now part of history as the first indigenous woman to be nominated for an Academy Award, and the second Mexican actress to be nominated after Salma Hayek scored the honor for 2002's FRIDA.
When asked who she would thank if she won the Oscar, Yalitza already feels like a winner having been nominated but the event is also has a chance to pay it back to someone very important to her.
"I'm so happy just to be nominated. For me that's been the best award. I now have everything because I'm nominated. I just want my mom to accompany me. She's the one that most deserves it for all the work she's done. And everyone involved with this."
The 25-year-old also feels like she hit the jackpot in another way. She wanted to become a pre-school teacher to shape young minds into believing in themselves and inspire them to achieve their dreams. She was never a fan of television, she admits because she didn't see what she saw in the mirror so she turned to books. Becoming an actress has changed all that, and now she believes she can achieve her original dream but on a broader scale.
"Now that I know how powerful a film can be.. it's doing something I always wanted to do. People see what can be or reflect on things the way this film has done."
ROMA has certainly opened dialogue about more representation, so let's hope the conversation continues with more stories from marginalized communities and true natives of Mexico.
An Academy Award win for Yalitza Aparacio will certainly cement that hope. The 91st Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019.