South Florida Domestic Workers Saw Themselves In Academy Award-winning Mexican Film 'Roma'

Mar 11, 2019

Alfonso Cuarón’s Academy Award-winning Mexican film “Roma,” has shined a long overdue spotlight on the world’s domestic workers.

In his acceptance speech after Roma won an Oscar for “Best Foreign-Language” film, Cuarón thanked the Academy of Motion Pictures for recognizing a movie about an indigenous domestic worker, which he describes as “a character that historically had been regulated in the background in cinema.”

The black-and-white film is set in the neighborhood of Roma, in Mexico City, during the 1970s and follows a young domestic worker named Cleo, who is played by a 25-year-old indigenous Mexican woman, Yalitza Aparicio.

Aparicio’s character has resonated with many domestic workers around the world, including some who live in South Florida. “Cleo’s story, oh my god, is so my story,” said 55-year old Jamaican domestic worker, June Barrett from Kendall, Florida. “She was the tower in the family. The strength in the family. The relationship that Cleo had with the children is a relationship that we’ve all had.”

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, on right, with first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, left, who plays Cleo, the domestic worker of a middle-class Mexican family, in Roma.
Credit Alfonso Cuarón / Netflix

Barrett is a 5-foot-6 woman with a dyed streak on their short curly hair. Barrett's identifies as a women and their preferred pronouns are they and them.  

Barrett started working as a domestic worker at age 14, taking care of two baby girls in Jamaica. Barrett remembers being sexually abused more than once.  “I carried that shame. The shame of sexual harassment, the shame of having to stay and be touched and grope and listen to sexual stuff said to you,” they recall.

After a couple jobs and similar experiences, Barrett decided to migrate to the U.S., first to New Jersey and then Miami in 2003. “Miami really was a safe city for people like us,” Barrett said.

In Miami, Barrett became a part of the 95,000 domestic workers in South Florida who cook, clean and care for children and the elderly. They had high expectations but things did not improve for them with the move. 

“I can go back to the first job that I walked into in Miami,” Barrett begins, “As I walked in the women said, oh my god, ‘They sent me an N word.’” Barrett reports being verbally abused by an elderly woman in Bal Harbour, but had to stay in that job for 6 months until a new opportunity came along. 

For the last five years, Barrett has been taking care of an elderly man in Pinecrest and the job is physically demanding. “As I speak to you right now my shoulders are also gone from the constant lifting,” Barrett said as they stretched their shoulders back, relieving the pain.

Barrett relates to Roma’s main character, “Like Cleo being broken and in so much pain and everything but yet even in the midst of pain we [domestic workers] show up,” Barrett said.

In 2016 Barrett discovered the Miami Workers Center. A friend mentioned the first-ever domestic worker assembly taking place in the city and Barrett went. “I realized that I wasn’t alone. This was a wide issue of abuse within domestic work,” Barrett said.

June Barrett, on the right, stands next to her friend at a domestic workers conference in December of 2018.
Credit June Barrett / Courtesy

“I’ve seen women work something like $4, $5 an hour,” said Claudia Navarro, Domestic Worker Organizer at the Miami Workers Center. Minimum wage in Florida is $8.46. “I have one member who right now had just filed a wage theft case for an amount of -- working three months without pay. This is something I have seen time and time again.”

Navarro works with domestic workers filing cases and advocating for their rights. She says the Miami Workers Center holds a monthly training workshop where they teach domestic workers to take pictures of themselves inside the home they work at and keep schedules of their hours, which are all “different things that can help them if the time comes to have a stronger case of wage theft,” Navarro said.

Ernestina Romero, 61, is also a South Florida domestic worker. She’s originally from Guadalajara, Mexico and in Guadalajara took care of three girls for 17 years.

Cuando ella iba y arropaba los niños en sus camas y estaba siempre allí en el juego, eso me recordó,” Romero said describing the scene in “Roma” when Cleo prays and tucks in the kids she’s taking care of and said, “just like Cleo I would do the same.” She’d also do laundry, cook, clean, and pick up the girls everyday from school. But the job came with hardships.

Romero reports being mistreated. Her daughter, Marisol Mejia says the Mexican family would treat her mom like a servant, “ella era lo que era. La sirvienta.” Romero agrees with her daughter, “Bueno nunca me hicieron parte, (they would never include me)," she said.

When Mejia got old enough and moved to the U.S., she asked her mom to come with her to work here. Romero says the decision was hard, but a good opportunity to earn enough money, retire and go back to ehr husband and two daughters, who are still there. “A juntar para yo poder retirarme en Mexico por que yo en Mexico no tengo nada, no tengo pension no tenga nada (To save so I can retire in Mexico because there I have nothing, I don't have a pension or anything),” she said.

Ernestina Romero sits at the dinning room table in the home that she works at in Kendall, Florida in front of photos of her and Gabby, the 4-year old girl she takes care of.
Credit Alejandra Martinez

Romero now works in Kendall taking care of a 4-year old girl named Gabby. Her daughter, Marisol Mejia regularly checks up on her, so much that she notices the difference in the way her mother is being treated.  “La han hecho parte de la familia,” like part of the family, she said.

The night of the Oscars, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón wanted some domestic workers to walk the red carpet. “You could hear a pin drop,” said June Barrett recalling that night. Barrett was selected to attend the Oscars by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy organization that promotes the rights of domestic workers in the United States. “And as we enter people just [clapped]. Of course, I cried. We who have suffered for so long. That’s a moment that I cannot describe to you, that’s a moment that you can only feel. It was magnificent.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance is pushing to introduce a domestic workers rights bill in Congress this year that will include federal protections for domestic workers and equal compensation. So far, eight states have passed a domestic worker bill: Oregon, California, Connecticut, Illinois, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Nevada.