COLLEEN DeGUZMAN AND J. EDWARD MORENO | STAFF WRITERS
A Rio Grande Valley nonprofit organizer will share the red carpet with actors and filmmakers also attending the Oscars on Sunday in Los Angeles.
Accompanying Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter, Alfonso Cuarón will be Rosa San Luis, a Valley resident and organizer for Fuerza de Valle, a local nonprofit that empowers and educates unprotected workers.
Roma, Cuarón’s most recent film, is nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography.
The film is autobiographically inspired and is set in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The narrative follows Cleo, an indigenous domestic house worker of a middle-class family in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio. Cuarón worked off memories with his childhood nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodriguez, who had a profound role in raising him to tell the story, hoping to capture the domestic strife and social hierarchy of the time.
“I really wanted to come into terms with the elements that forge me, starting with the women who forged me, the family that forged me and the country that forged me,” said Cuarón in a cast and crew question and answer in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. “… This is a look into the last from the standpoint of the present. What is really concerning is that the troubling issues that the film deals with haven’t changed at all, or if anything have become more acute ever since.”
Fuerza de Valle, one of 63 organizations affiliated with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, aims to educate domestic workers on their labor rights and provide resources for them to protect themselves. As a full-fledged workers center now, its mission is to defend labor rights and fight for improved working conditions and pay for domestic workers in the Valley.
According to the organization’s website, a quarter of adults earn less than $6.19 an hour in this region, and the average household income is $20,000 below the national average. The Valley also has the lowest paid workers in the country.
Since its launch in 2010, Fuerza de Valle has recovered more than $350,000 of unpaid wages and helped over 600 workers in its “know-your-rights clinics” throughout the region last year, but San Luis said that there is still much more to do for immigrant workers.
“Many people think that because they don’t have documentation they don’t have rights, but that’s not true,” San Luis, an organizer for Fuerza de Valle for five years, said in Spanish. “People take advantage of the fact that many times they don’t have resources. It’s a perfect setting for abuse.”
In Roma, Cleo migrates from an indigenous community to Mexico City to work in the family’s home. The same plight is consistent for most domestic workers in both the U.S. and Mexico.
The dynamic puts those workers in vulnerable positions, San Luis said. Often in the Valley, like in the film, domestic workers aren’t afforded a proper living space. They sleep in storage rooms, with the children they take care of or on the floor.
“The biggest obstacle is being seen as equal as other workers. One of the difficulties is that not all bosses see you as a human being,” she said. “… For many, they’re desperate for work, and for that reason they accept many conditions that aren’t favorable for them.”
Cuarón reached out to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, who connected him to Fuerza Del Valle last year. San Luis was invited to Venice by Cuarón for the International Film Festival for the first premiering of Roma. She has also traveled with him to screenings around the U.S, including in Hollywood and El Paso where she had the opportunity to spread her organization’s message.
San Luis, of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, is a former domestic worker herself and said that the film accurately and respectfully tells the story of house workers.
“Very few times do we see domestic workers on the big screen, let alone as the protagonist,” San Luis said. “… He’s appreciative of her, and it shows in the film. The film accurately depicts an upper class family in Mexico City in the 1960s. It reflects well what it meant to live in that neighborhood in Mexico City.”
San Luis said the film gives an opportunity to open dialogue about how domestic workers should be treated.
“This film opens up the space to elevate the voice of domestic workers,” she said. “We need to have the same rights as other workers, because right now we don’t.”