Yalitza Aparicio has made history with her 2019 Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The 25-year-old has won plaudits for her performance as a domestic worker during 1970s Mexico City in Alfonso Cuaron’s acclaimed flick Roma. In doing so, she’s become the first Indigenous woman to be nominated in the category in the Oscars’ nearly 90-year history. But that is not the only story. Rewind a few years back and Aparicio had just finished her teaching degree and didn’t yet have a job when Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron held a casting call in her home of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, Mexico, for the lead role in his semiautobiographical drama, Roma.

It was actually Aparicio’s older sister, Edith, who was meant to audition for the part of Cleo, a housekeeper and nanny, inspired by the woman who had raised Cuaron. But Edith was pregnant and insisted that the shy Yalitza, who’d never before acted, try out instead. Two years later, Aparicio has earned a best-actress nomination, not only the first for an indigenous Mexican woman but the second ever for a Mexican actress, after Salma Hayek’s for Frida.

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Critics have hailed Aparicio’s heart-rending and critically acclaimed debut as quiet and commanding at once. Her nomination is one of 10 for Roma, including best picture and supporting actress (for Marina de Tavira).

Fame has thrust Aparicio at the centre of the conversation about the treatment of indigenous people in Mexico and the plight of domestic workers like her mother, whose experiences informed her daughter’s performance.

Aparicio is being heralded as a role model for women and Indigenous people in Mexico.

In December 2018, Aparicio appeared on the cover of Vogue MExico, a milestone for a woman of Indigenous descent in the magazine’s illustrious history.

With the adulation also came the hate. Even before the movie began showing on the popular streaming service Netflix in December, Aparicio become a target of racist attacks online. While it initially upset her, she is now focused on the scores who have called her a role model and sent fan art. “I’m not the face of Mexico,” she told the media recently, “since the country has several faces”.

To prepare for filming, Cuaron had asked Aparicio to improvise scenes. He was amazed at how quickly she improvised. “What you see in the film, that’s not Yalitza, that is Cleo,” the director reflected in an interview. “She crafted that character, you know? And she did it in a very kind of detailed way.”

For Roma, the actors were not given a script or even a story arc. Aparicio drew on the intricate world of the set, based on Cuaron’s childhood memories, along with her own vision of the character, based in part on her mother’s experiences as a domestic worker. Aparicio became so invested in her role that when tragedy strikes her character, she suffers with agonising realism.

Named after a district located in the Cuauhtemoc borough of Mexico City where it is set, the film belongs to Aparicio. Her character displays an extraordinary empathy — with the children she nannies, their sometimes distraught mother or with her own lover, seen bizarrely demonstrating his martial arts skills in the nude. She is both childlike and prematurely aged; there is a lightness to her soul, yet her body is already stooped by the burden of work.

Paean to women

Before she signed up for Roma, she had hoped that her teaching degree would provide an escape from poverty — for her and her mother. “I wanted to be like my mum; as strong as her. She was my role model. The film is like a tribute to women in general — these invisible women are always there in the home, taking care of the children,” Aparicio told journalists recently. As a nanny, she reflects how a mother loves the children in her care with the same passion as she does her own children.

As Roma unfolds, there appears a stark parallel and an eerie similarity between Aparicio and Cleo. When she was younger, she helped her mum so she could finish earlier. But that was a long time away. Aparicio has travelled a light year from Tlaxiaco to Hollywood.

With the movie award season in full swing, Roma is being hailed as a paean to women. In a very short time, Aparicio’s acting prowess has got her legions of fans and admirers around the world. There is something about this 20-something that has captured the imagination of all. No matter whether this gentle girl, who talks with a sincerity that verges on the sombre, walks away with the coveted Oscar trophy on February 25 or not, she has already won a million hearts.

— With inputs from agencies