Roma: Reflections on Histories of Domestic Service and Race in a 21st-Century Film

AHA Session 69
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Bowery (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Premilla Nadasen, Barnard College, Columbia University
Swapna M. Banerjee, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Victoria Haskins, University of Newcastle
Vanessa May, Seton Hall University
Nilita Vachani, Tisch School, New York University
Lara Vapnek, St. John's University

Session Abstract

Set in 1970s Mexico City, the film Roma unfolds around the life of a young Indigenous live-in maid, Cleo. Drawing on personal experiences, the director Alfonso Cuarón renders the multi-faceted dimension of intimate labors: the drudgery in the life of domestic workers, their emotions, loves, cares, and internal struggles. A period movie capturing social turmoil within home and outside, Roma raises intriguing questions: why did Cuarón choose to depict 1970s Roma through the journey of Cleo, the domestic worker? Why are her emotions so muted? Is the story of Cleo representative of domestic workers and domestic service on a larger scale? With those questions in mind this Roundtable proposes an interdisciplinary, comparative, and transnational conversation by bringing together specialists to explore race, class, gender, domestic labor, and domestic service in different geopolitical locales.

Documentary filmmaker and writer Vachani will consider the diurnal and repetitive rhythms of everyday domestic labor in three feminist films: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), Vachani’s own film, When Mother Comes Home for Christmas (1995), and Roma (2018). She will discuss how these films use “real time” in depicting everyday domestic labor, making it both visible and experiential.

An historian of Indigenous domestic service, Haskins will reflect upon Roma’s representation of Indigenous dispossession and screen representations of Aboriginal Australian domestic service. Haskins will explore the challenges faced in thinking about and representing Indigenous histories on film, through the figure of the Indigenous domestic worker.

Banerjee will engage with a popular comedic Bengali film, Golpo Holeo Sotyi (1966), that featured the servant as “rescuer” and “problem-solver” in a middle-class family in India. She counterposes the funny and intelligent male domestic against the quiet and somber Cleo, to recuperate subjective identities of caregivers through their “intimate labors.”

In contrast to Roma’s depiction of Cleo as a passive observer of public politics, May will examine New York City domestic workers’ politics. She will examine the working-class networks that late nineteenth-century immigrant domestic workers relied upon as well as the efforts to organize among African-American workers in the 1930s.

Vapnek will deliberate on the conflicted and class-specific depiction of maternal love in Roma as a spring-board to explore this theme in the history of domestic labor. She will draw on the history of wet-nursing in 19th-century New York City to engage with the issue of how the hiring of other women to perform this intimate labor is figured as “unnatural” and yet serves as an integral part of child rearing practices and a sign of class privilege in numerous settings.

Premilla Nadasen, the author of the recent book Household Workers Unite (2015) and an expert in race, gender, social policy and organizing will act as the Chair of the Roundtable discussion.

In conversation among each other and with the audience, the participants will interrogate representations of domestic workers on screen and connect their subjects of research with the experiences of Cleo and her employers.

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