Yalitza Aparicio had just completed her teacher training for preschool in her hometown of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca when she was cast to play Cleo in Alfonso Cuarón’s retelling of his own childhood in Mexico City, Roma. She had no aspirations to act—her sister, in fact, was the performer of the family—but on a nationwide search of Mexico, Aparicio’s physical similarity to the Cuaróns’ real-life nanny Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez was undeniable. Libo had cared for Alfonso and his siblings during a difficult time for his parents and his country. And Aparicio’s heartfelt love for children, reflected in her chosen career, was an undeniable point of emotional connection.
What made you go to the casting call for Roma?
Well actually I didn’t hear about it at all. It wasn’t me, it was my sister. My sister sings, and in Mexico we have these things called Casa de la Cultura, which are specific places where they actually foster culture. They support people who want to do something in culture. The director of the Casa de la Cultura in my hometown invited my sister because he knew she sang, and my sister asked me to go with her. Once we were there she said, “OK, I’m not going to be able to do it because I’m pregnant, and you know that I’m not feeling very well anyway. So I want you to go in there; I want you to do the casting, I want you to answer everything they ask, and I want you to act if they ask you to act.”
My sister thinks that I’m shy and don’t speak that much. So she wanted me to go through the experience. And also because she was very curious, as there has never been a casting before in our hometown. I didn’t want to do it, but I did.
Have you gotten over that sense of shyness? Has it helped?
I sometimes ask myself, “How am I doing all of this?” Sometimes, when I’m surrounded by a lot of people, I shake I’m so nervous. But I always remember what my sister told me, “Don’t stay quiet. Speak, say things.” And so that’s what I try to do. “When you are in front of an audience or with a lot of people, if you feel nervous, try not to look in their eyes. Try to see above their heads, and then you won’t be so nervous.” That’s what I try to remember, but I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet. I remember people told me this was going to be hard work, and it was going to be a long experience. I didn’t believe them because I didn’t know what this was all about, so to me it was difficult to believe. Well, I can say it’s big.
What did your sister make of watching you make the film and then have all this success? What has it meant to her that she sent you on this journey?
She’s very happy for me. I’ve been sending her little things that I’ve been seeing here and there to thank her. It was her who made me do all this, so she’s very happy about all of that. None of us ever imagined what this was going to be about. She only wanted to find out what it was about, and I was just accompanying her. So we never imagined this was going to end up like this. Now that everything has happened she’s always saying, “Congratulations, go ahead, keep up the good work.” She’s motivating me. Some people tell her she’s very good at making decisions because of what happened with me, but she says, “No, I didn’t even know who Alfonso Cuarón was. I just pushed you and made you go. That’s the truth.”
You also hadn’t heard of Alfonso before. Did you watch his other films?
Well, actually, he asked me if I had seen any of his films, and I said no. He asked me if I knew about his work, or who he was, and I said no, and that I had only seen pictures of him. So he said, “OK, cool. I don’t want you to see anything now until we finish shooting. Then you can go ahead and see whatever films you want of mine. But I want your mind fresh right now. I don’t want anything to contaminate your mind.”
So once Roma had wrapped, did you see his other work?
I’ve seen some, but not all. I find his work incredible. The one that really caught my attention is Children of Men. Especially because it has these very long takes, so you never get to feel or see the camera at all. You only feel like you’ve submerged yourself, and that you’re kind of looking at everything that’s happening, and I love it. It’s wonderful.
What did he tell you about Cleo and who she was when you first started? I know that you didn’t have the script, so how did you find this woman?
Well, first of all, Marina [de Tavira] and I were in the same room, and he told us that this was going to be a very, very personal story and that he wanted us to be in it. Afterwards, when I was alone with him, he told me that he was going to do this story about his mother. He explained that he had two mothers and that this was going to be about the one who took care of him and his siblings at all times. Then he told me her actual name was Libo. He told me about her and how she got to his home, how she treated them. After some time, I had the opportunity to actually meet Libo, and she also told me more or less the same things as Alfonso, but she added more to her story. She talked about her difficulties, and things that she lacked back then, the reasons that made her come to Mexico City. That made me relate to her, and it made it easier for me to portray her because of that.
I remember you saying that you were surprised when you first met Libo that you felt she didn’t look anything like you.
Yes, actually the first thing I told her was exactly that; we don’t look alike at all. Especially because she is white and I am not; my skin is darker. But she said, “No, I looked exactly like you. It’s age that made me kind of fade the color of my skin. But I was just like you.” And it was really amazing, because just then her daughter walked in, and she looked at me and she said, “That was my mom’s skin color.” So that was amazing and she said we were identical. She even hugged me which was a very special moment.
There are some incredibly hard moments in the film, and some incredibly beautiful moments—the scenes with the baby, when you give birth, and on the beach at the end. How did you react to those scenes?
I think the most difficult one was the one on the beach, on all levels. The technical level, because the camera kept falling down. And the weather. There was a storm just before we started shooting, so everything was difficult. And I don’t know how to swim, so I felt a lot of fear even before we were shooting, because I was told I was going to have to go in. But once we started shooting, the only thing I had in my mind was the same instinct any mom would have, that you’d do anything for your children, and that’s how I was able to flow along with the scene.
Other difficult scenes were the ones with Nancy [García García] who plays Adela, because they were in Mixtec, and I don’t speak or understand it very well, so she was having to teach me. Sometimes I had in my mind what I had to say, but I was scared or shy, or I didn’t feel secure on how to pronounce the words.
Then especially the scene when I’m giving birth to my baby was very difficult for me, because I didn’t know what was going to happen at all. So my reaction was, of course, totally natural. It helped a lot that the set was very real. The doctors were actual doctors in real life. So that transported me to the moment, and made me feel and believe I was really giving birth.
Having met Libo, does playing the role feel like you know what she went through in that moment, and how it felt to live through that loss that she experienced?
Well actually, when I met her at first, she never told me anything about her life that was going to happen in the film, only things that happened to her before the film starts. So after the scene, I cried and cried non-stop. Because I had in my mind her pain, and despite the circumstances of how the baby was actually conceived and grew in her, losing the baby must have been awfully painful. So when I saw her again, I couldn’t find a way to ask her if it really happened, because I know how painful this was. I had this hope that it wasn’t real. But then she told me, at some point, that she lost her baby, and I felt a lot of pain when she told me, that she had to revive this awful memory and situation.
But now we see what a remarkable woman she was, and how important she was in Alfonso’s life. How has it been to go to the premieres and see audiences respond?
The reaction of the audiences has been incredible. They’ve told us that it touches their hearts. It’s wonderful that I was able to portray this incredible woman, and I feel I’m paying a tribute to her with my acting. So, I’m very happy that we’re able to tell the story of the people that come from their communities and leave everything behind to take care of these households. It’s so important to understand this is their work, but that they have their own lives. She’s incredible. I’d love it if she could be at all these events so that people get to see how wonderful she is, and how strong she is, despite everything she went through. I find it also very beautiful that people admire her very much, because she is a clear example that despite the many things that can go wrong in life, you can always overcome it and you keep on going.
Do you hope to keep acting, or do you see your future back where you were initially heading, as a teacher?
Actually, I found a lot of things that I like in this experience. One of them is the hope that through the film, people realize that their dreams can happen. They can make their dreams come true, even if acting was not always a dream of mine. I believe acting and teaching are not so far apart. As a teacher, you educate. And films educate too, but they do it in a massive way. I haven’t been offered another opportunity yet, but I would love it if it happens.