The first time I saw the film Roma, I felt like I was watching my own life play out on the big screen. There is a scene where Cleo — the main character, played by Yalitza Aparicio — is doing laundry on the rooftop and softly humming to herself while the kids she cares for run around playing. In the black-and-white distance, you see countless other domestic workers folding and hanging laundry, doing the work that makes so many homes run. No one’s in a rush in that moment. Even though Cleo has her hands full, she takes the time to soak up the sun on the rooftop with little Pepe, played by Marco Graf, who is jokingly pretending to be dead.
Everything clicked for me while I watched this serene and playful scene. Roma accomplishes something that we rarely get to see: an emotional portrait that shows the depth of ordinary life through the eyes of a domestic worker.
Just like Cleo, I, too, am a domestic worker from Mexico. And in many ways, I “fell into” domestic work. When I was 19 years old, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, to pursue a career in acting and worked through an au pair program as a live-in nanny. I was eager to learn a new language and experience a new culture. But caring for and living with another family — far away from your own — was not easy. When you're a nanny, it’s hard enough managing the kids, let alone the parents, who have their expectations. Some parents find it hard to see that the kids need us as much as we need them. We care for a family, but we are ultimately not a part of it.
When you’re an immigrant domestic worker, you sacrifice a lot. My father passed away in May 2017, and I flew out to Mexico for his funeral the next day. Because I had to travel while I was in the middle of changing my immigration status, my life was in limbo for months. It was almost impossible for me to travel to see my family again. And when I finally did see them again, in June 2018, I had to fight to get my visa to come back to the U.S. to work. I was lucky to have the support of my host family in a situation that was so emotionally painful. And just a few weeks ago, my mother, back in Mexico, had a stroke, and I couldn’t be there to support her. It’s moments like that when I feel most homesick and lonely living in a big city. It’s also hard to find time for my other passions; caring for my host family’s two kids (ages 6 and 3) is more than a full-time job, but I’m still eager to pursue comedy, acting, writing, and design.
As a storyteller, I know that domestic workers rarely see their stories take center stage like in Roma. Even though it’s set in 1970s Mexico, the film is sparking a conversation that’s desperately needed in the United States today. Despite the vital work that we do, our lives as domestic workers exist in the margins of society. Many of us are low-income women, immigrants, and women of color. We often face low wages, long work hours, poor working conditions, and a lack of respect. Even the good employers, with the best intentions, don’t always know how to treat their homes like fair and just workplaces. On top of that, we are excluded from some of the most important labor laws in the country, such as protection from sexual harassment and discrimination. Yet we are the ones who make it possible for millions of parents to go to work, build their careers, or even follow their passions.
When I became part of the domestic workers' movement, in 2015, I learned that my story is one of millions across the United States. I’ve met women of all ages and backgrounds facing similar workplace challenges to mine. I have found a space where I feel welcome and where so many “speak my language” — they know the challenges of being a domestic worker. I’ve gone to parks and bus stops to talk to other domestic workers, and have attended poetry and writing workshops to connect my life to that of other women.
Today, as a leader with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, I’m helping to advocate for the first national legislation to make sure that all domestic workers have safety and dignity at work. This means paid time off, proper meal and rest breaks, affordable health care, and even training programs. This isn’t just good for us, it’s good for the families we care for.
Roma is a rare opportunity for us to remember the role domestic workers play in our society, and when they are taken care of, many working families are, too.