In an interview with the New York Times, director Alfonso Cuarón remembers offering the lead role in his award-winning film Roma to Yalitza Aparicio. According to his memory, she said yes in part because she just happened to have some time between applying for teaching jobs. “Well, I think I can do it... I have nothing better to do,” Cuarón claims she said.
Thank goodness for that. Aparicio is tender and unflinching in her role as Cleo, the housekeeper and nanny to a solidly middle-class family living in Mexico City in the 1970s. Her performance has launched her into the international spotlight, landed her on the cover of Mexico’s Vogue, and means she gets stopped for photos and congratulated by strangers while she takes in the sun at the park.
Aparicio denies the latter. Here, she speaks to a Times reporter on a park bench in Mexico City:
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.”
But she’s quickly proven wrong, when a number of people recognize her and ask to take a selfie with her:
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!
Aparicio’s newfound success should be taken into context: like many women of indigenous descent in Mexico (Aparicio is from Oaxaca and is of Mixtec descent), she still comes up against the racist idea that acting and fame are not for her, that she has no place attending award shows or photographed in magazines. She herself resists the idea that she’s already been elevated to some kind of figurehead or iconic status—not because she doesn’t deserve it, but because she is acutely aware of the fact that she cannot speak for all Mexican people. That kind of humility and self-awareness is refreshing:
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.
Aparicio has said she’s not sure if she will continue acting—she may, after all, go back to teaching, like she planned to before Cuarón called. But she hopes her trajectory thus far can show people that indigenous women can achieve whatever they want in life:
“It shouldn’t matter what you’re into, how you look — you can achieve whatever you aspire to,” she said.
Still, she hopes she’ll be nominated for an Oscar—but she’s already proven that, regardless of whether the award shows recognize her for it:
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.”
Read the whole interview here.