TLAXIACO, OAXACA. “I have to work, I’ve not had time to see that movie,” is the most common phrase of the Tlaxiaco women, when asked about Roma, the film that has made Yalitza Aparicio an international movie star, and who has put the name of this town in the spotlight.
It’s Saturday and that means it’s tianguis (swap meet) day in the main square of this town, located in the Mixteca Alta region, in Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico. The majority of people who come to sell in this place are women that offer ocote tree leaf, huipiles traditional garments, prepared foods, shoes, American second-hand clothes, garlic, pots, and limewater for tortillas.
While in Hollywood Aparicio is now one of the most popular emerging actresses, in Tlaxiaco she is best known for the massive media coverage that has been made around her by national television, more than by her performance itself in the Alfonso Cuarón film. Aparicio’s mother and sister still live here but they have just moved to a different neighborhood, according to a friend, because the women got tired of being harassed by the press.
Women from Tlaxiaco are busy, working—practically—seven days a week to support their families. However, they recognize the talent of the 25-year-old actress and admire, with aspiration, her achievements.
Outside the cathedral, kneeling on the floor, Cristina Aparicio (no relation to Yalitza), 32, sells an ingredient to make tortillas. She’s also a domestic worker, like the actress’s character in Roma. Every Saturday, she travels a little more than 22 miles from her neighborhood, Cañada María, to Tlaxiaco’s downtown to sell the lime bags for 52 cents each (ten pesos). During the week she spends two days cleaning houses.
For eight hours sweeping, mopping, washing clothes and dishes, laying beds, and arranging a two-story house, Aparicio receives $6.20 (120 pesos). She claims that the economic situation makes her endure mistreatment of her employers; a doctor and a nurse. She says if she gets sick, they don’t give her extra money for medicines, she doesn’t have health security, and she must tolerate being reprimanded whenever a room in the house doesn’t meet the employer’s expectations. The rest of the days, she takes care of her two daughters but also of a sheep and goats that her family has. Her husband, by the way, is a construction worker.
“Sometimes they mistreat us, they tell us ‘this is not well done’ and the scold us, or they say ‘clean the bathroom well’,” she says about her work. The amount of work Cristina Aparicio has is so much that she doesn’t have time to watch movies, although she recognizes she’s very much eager to watch Roma.
“I’ve been told that this movie is very beautiful,” she says.
Tlaxiaco, despite its pre-Mexican Revolution history as a place of fine craftsmanship and an elite class, is a community stricken by poverty. The majority of its nearly 38,000 people, according to data from the Mexican government, is dedicated to formal and informal trade. Of the 32 entities in the country, ten located in Oaxaca account for 81 percent of the population's impoverished. Despite economic straits, Tlaxiaqueños have a deep appreciation for culture and the arts, once offering children acting, painting, dance, and music classes at the Casa de la Cultura.
Yet, the social and educational disparity in the Tlaxiaco district is high and affects women the most: 75 percent of women are illiterate, according to oficial data from 2010. If someone from the most urbanized area of Tlaxiaco wants to see a movie and has time and money, they must buy it from one of the many piracy streets stands. There are no movie theaters.
Because of this, many wonder if the success of Aparicio as a movie star will truly improve the lives of more Indigenous women.
"Maybe it will change her life or her family's life, but for the whole society no, I see it difficult," explains Catarina Ortiz, 45, a woman who works from Monday to Friday in a school in the municipality of San Pablo Tijaltepec and as a restaurant cooker on weekends.
A pirated movies’ vendor says that Roma has sold relatively well. However, the best-selling film for him in recent weeks are Venom, Aquaman, Wifi Ralph (Ralph Breaks the Internet), and Desierto, a Mexican film about immigrants starring Gael García Bernal and directed by Jonás Cuarón, Alfonso’s son.
“On TV, I watch anything, because there are no more options, we don’t have cable,” explains Marisol Ventura, 32, a chicken farmer and a fan of Mexican television celebrities such as Lucero and Pedro Fernandez. “I watch telenovelas because even though I don’t like them all, it’s what we have and what we entertain ourselves with.”
A few blocks from the movie stands, Elizabeth Coronel works at a shoe store on weekends because on weekdays she’s in college studying Business Management. After having seen Aparicio’s acting, she feels more inspired to continue with her career to become a businesswoman.
"She is an inspiration, at least for me. I know that if she could make it, why will I not be able to achieve what I propose?," she says while standing at the shoe store that is located in front of the recently inaugurated mural of Aparicio on one of the walls of the Benito Juárez Market.
In this way, Aparicio has been immortalized in the history of Tlaxiaco, along with other Oaxacan artists who have transcended borders such as the singer Lila Downs, whose face is also reflected on the street art. On Sunday, the Oscar ceremony was shown in the main square on a big screen; and while Aparicio did not win her Best Actress nomination, she has changed Oaxaca.
The life of the Tlaxiaco’s women is far from progressing with the same speed as that of the actress who once was a kindergarten teacher and left her town to succeed. But there is hope, and if not hope, international attention from Aparicio and Roma put a light on people who have persevered regardless of the fanfare.