There is a scene in Roma when Cleo's erstwhile boyfriend, Fermin, refers to her dismissively as a "servant" for her middle-class employers. It's a small but consequential moment, just one of several that Alfonso Cuaron uses to explore the issues of class and race that plagued the Mexico of his youth. While making Roma, Cuaron dove back into uncomfortable memories that laid bare his own privileged, racialized upbringing. "Maybe I wasn't aware of it back then," he says. "Now, I find it very uncomfortable."

Much of Mexico remains divided along stark ethnic and racial lines that were drawn hundreds of years ago. When Spanish colonizers first showed up in Mexico, they instituted a race-based caste system. Spanish men from Spain were on top. Spanish men from the new land, Mexico, were next. Then came Mestizos, people with one indigenous parent and one Spanish one. Fully indigenous people followed. Last in this social hierarchy were black people. In each of these categories, women were lower than men. The caste system persisted throughout the colonial era until 1821, when Mexico gained independence from Spain.

In practical terms, however, remnants of the system persisted. A couple of decades after Mexico's 1910 revolution, President Lazaro Cardenas spearheaded efforts to change this worldview, but his administration's efforts were highly flawed. "Their approach to indigenous people was this deep romanticizing," says Marjorie Becker, a professor of Latin American history at USC. "They believed the indigenous were natural artists who sang and danced — of course, that was racist, too."

Cuaron, who grew up identifying as white, says his countrymen still obfuscate the corrosive nature of racism. Mexicans often speak about systemic inequalities using euphemistic language that obscures the real problems. "People like to talk about these issues of inequality and discrimination by using the term 'classism' — as if that would make it better," says Cuaron, shaking his head with disgust. "But let's call it for what it is. It's racism."

The Zapatista indigenous peasant rebellion was a response to systematic oppression.
ORIANA ELICABE/AFP/Getty Images

The director found himself delving into some of these themes during long discussions with the real-life Cleo, Liboria Rodriguez, an indigenous woman from Oaxaca who was the core source of his emotional nourishment as a child. Within the middle class, vast inequalities persisted between relatively wealthy, white families like his own and the indigenous people hired to help them.

Yalitza Aparicio, who plays Cuaron's main character Cleo, says she experienced racism as an indigenous woman growing up in Oaxaca. She was raised speaking her native language of Miztec at home, but found that non-indigenous people made fun of her if she spoke it elsewhere. Cleo, while loving and being loved by the family, is never able to forget that she is a maid and employee first.

Exploring this, Cuaron began examining how the Mexican government had distorted and manipulated indigenous people's identity for its own cynical purposes, how people like Liboria Rodriguez were, in some sense, convenient propaganda tools for a government eager to cling to power, often using the language of the populist, leftist electorate. "There was this celebration of these folkloric views of Mexico," he says. "On the one hand, [they touted] our Indian heritage, what they called 'the heroic indigenous.' Or, it was mostly about the complete caricature of someone ignorant. There was no middle ground."

The ideology of a permanent, institutionalized revolution that hovered over Cuaron's childhood was riddled with contradictions and absurdities that crystallized when he started speaking to Rodriguez about her own life. "The revolution that was supposed to be about the peasant, forced the peasant to move to the suburbs of the city in conditions of misery," he says.

Roma depicts flashes of the political tumult that would follow. A quarter-century later, in 1994, a professor who had participated in the student protest movement in 1968 adopted the nom de guerre El Subcomandante Marcos and established the Zapatista movement, a guerrilla army of indigenous peasants in Chiapas, to try and address some of these lingering inequalities.

After his father abandoned his family, says Cuaron, Rodriguez and his mother eventually took on co-equal roles as parental figures in the household. During a recent conversation, Rodriguez told Cuaron, "It was as if [your mother] was the husband and I was the wife." Cuaron and Rodriguez grew so close that he often called her mama. "We became a part of [Libo's] family, but it was not always like that," he says. "Even if there was love and care, there was also a very marked journey, which conveys a certain abuse." 

Watch
Alfonso Cuaron's 'Roma' Walking Tour of Mexico City With Stars Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.