Long before Yalitza Aparicio became the first indigenous woman nominated for best actress at the Oscars, she applied for a retail position at a clothing store in her hometown of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca.
She didn’t get the job. Aparicio, now in the same conversations as Glenn Close and Lady Gaga, recalls the store manager’s exact words: “It’s your skin color.”
She wasn’t surprised. It isn’t unusual for people with indigenous features to face discrimination in Mexico. But now Aparicio, who had never acted before landing the lead role in the critically lauded “Roma,” has gone from aspiring public school teacher in a city of less than 18,000 to the first indigenous woman on Vogue Mexico’s cover. Fans tout her as the face of indigenous Mexico. Trolls leave racist comments on her social media. And at just 25 years old, she’s wrestling with the rewards and burdens of fame.
Soft-spoken and quick to smile, she says she doesn’t consider herself an indigenous activist, though she hopes to better express herself publicly about these issues in the future. Yet when the camera turns on, she gazes straight ahead, exuding the confidence that made her on-screen character, Cleo, so effortlessly realistic. “I never liked being in front of a camera. I was a scaredy-cat, very reserved and not very social,” Aparicio said in Spanish, of her life before “Roma.” “I never thought I would leave my hometown, but here I am.”
Since its release by Netflix in December, “Roma” has racked up accolades around the world, including 10 Academy Award nominations. It has also inspired innumerable features focused on Aparicio’s character, Cleo, a domestic worker from Oaxaca inspired by writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s real-life childhood nanny. Cleo, who speaks a combination of Spanish and Mixtec on screen, represents the more than 2.4 million domestic workers across present-day Mexico, more than 95 percent of whom are female and from indigenous areas. The black-and-white film, set in the early 1970s, depicts the dynamic between Cleo and her employerswith startling intimacy, presenting her inside and outside of the home where she lives and works.
Luis Rosales, the casting director for “Roma,” said Cuarón gave him only two directives as Rosales searched for their star. The first: Whoever got the role needed to physically look like the person on whom Cleo is based. Second, he said in an email, “she had to feel like her, too.”
“We interviewed over 3,000 women for the role of Cleo,” Rosales said. “Yalitza got our attention since her very first audition.”
Aparicio, who auditioned at the urging of her older sister, was familiar with the role. Her mother is a domestic worker, so she easily identified with Cleo. “For some scenes, I interpreted the memories I have of my mom,” she said.
Aparicio had never heard of Cuarón or seen any of his films before “Roma” — let alone watched many movies growing up. The only film memories she has are kung-fu scenes from the Bruce Lee movies her father loved. The only TV she remembers seeing as a kid was “Inuyasha,” a Japanese anime about a schoolgirl who’s transported to the social and political upheaval of the Sengoku era.
“I never watched much TV as a kid because no one else looked like me on the screen,” she said.
Instead, like other kids in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico, she took on the responsibility of financially contributing to her family from an early age. While she was in elementary school, she sold toys and clothes in the streets with her family. Growing up, she empowered herself by talking openly about the color of her skin, taking it as a point of pride when people on the street said, “¡Hola morenita!” — a common greeting that’s meant to be endearing, although it translates to the brash-sounding, “Hi, dark-skinned one.”
“In my family, I’ve always had the darkest skin,” she said. “I always joked with my siblings that it was because I was made of chocolate.”
That perseverance comes through on Aparicio’s magazine covers, fan selfies and black-and-white billboards plastered on the streets of West Hollywood. On her Instagram account, where she has 1 million followers, she posts powerful handwritten letters from her fans, many of whom also have indigenous backgrounds. A few weeks before the Oscars, she posted a note written on a torn-out piece of composition paper: “Dear, Yalitza. Thank you for giving us a voice in a world where they want to silence us and make us disappear. Wishing you all the luck.”
Her success has brought increased attention to the 68 indigenous nations in Mexico, where up to 14 percent of the population is indigenous. “If Yalitza wins the Oscar, it will be a reminder to the entire world that indigenous people are alive and very much still existing in the world in the 21st century,” says Odilia Romero, the national coordinator for Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, an association that oversees indigenous affairs in the United States and Mexico.
Not everyone has celebrated Aparicio’s success. In December, when Aparicio appeared on the cover of Vogue Mexico, she faced racist vitriol in the comments section. In January, the digital news site Sin Embargo reported that a group of Mexican actresses had allegedly tried to prevent Aparicio from winning a Mexican Academy of Film Award, considered by many to be the “Mexican Oscars,” because of her previous acting inexperience. The academy was quick to dismiss the claims, noting it had awarded past nominees with similar acting backgrounds. And, on Feb. 15, a video that appeared to show Sergio Goyri — a Mexican actor known for his work in soap operas — calling Aparicio a “pinche india” went viral. He has since apologized for using the phrase, which means “damned Indian.”
Despite these issues, Aparicio is quick to profess loyalty to her homeland, saying she is in love with Mexico and has no plans to move from Oaxaca. Up until the time of this interview, she had not received offers to work in other films. “I would love to have the opportunity to act again,” she said. “I dream about having a role that makes people reflect on themselves, but nothing has presented itself yet.”
After the Oscars, whether she wins or loses, she’s looking forward to returning home for a taste of the familiar — a big plate of her mom’s spicy mole negro. And as for her activism, she’s getting there. She urges those who use the derogatory term for an indigenous person in Spanish — “indio” — to think twice: “I am not an Indian,” she said. “I am indigenous.”