The movie “Roma,” vying for 10 Oscars on Sunday, including best picture, is an homage to domestic workers. For three Mexico City-based Monitor correspondents, it’s an homage to one particular domestic worker – Veronica.
The movie by Alfonso Cuarón is set in Colonia Roma, the Mexico City neighborhood where he was raised in the 1970s. The movie focuses its lens on Cleo, the nanny to four children in a middle-class Mexican household whom the director says was inspired by his own caregiver.
By telling their story through the perspective of the nanny, the movie takes an intimate look at racism, classism, and marginalization – and also the authentic love that forms from the natural mothering role that a nanny assumes.
In some ways Cleo bears little resemblance to Veronica, who has cared for three Monitor households and five Monitor children. To call Veronica a domestic worker feels off, even though by definition she counts among the roughly 2.5 million of them in Mexico – putting children to bed, preparing them for school, cooking family meals, and folding clothes.
Veronica grew up poor. One of 10 siblings born in Mexico City, she had to start work at age 14, with just an elementary school education. The job was in a perfume warehouse where she packed up the finished product. She finished high school when she got married, and then had two kids of her own.
When she first met Howard, she was in her 30s and not a young, rural woman like Cleo, who along with thousands of young muchachas travels from isolated towns to bigger cities to live with well-off families, often in separate parts of the house. Veronica was then, and still is now, happily nestled in her comfortable home on the southern edge of the capital.
But all three of us recognize the love; between nanny and child, and between nanny and employer. We recognize the force of stability that a nanny provides, and we recognize the blurred lines that can sometimes be confusing to navigate.
As my wife and I drove south through Mexico City that July night in 2001 – we’d chosen a performance at the beaux-arts Bellas Artes performance hall to bid farewell to the Mexican capital we’d called home for seven years – the rain pelting our windshield filled me with a sense of relief.
We were headed to the modest home of our domestic helper, Veronica, who had agreed to watch our three children one last time. The next morning we would board a plane back “home” to the States (where our children had never lived). And the way I figured it, the driving rain would require a quick, efficient transfer of kids from house to car.
With the unsentimental priority being to keep everyone dry, there would be no time for teary acknowledgments of the enormity of the moment. No inadequate declarations of how much this diminutive woman with soft brown eyes, occasional wry smile, and boundless heart had meant to my family and to me.
And at first all went according to plan. The rain barely allowed for quick hugs before I got our two older kids out to the car’s back seat. I dashed back inside to grab Gabriel, our chilango (meaning born in Mexico City) – who had only known life with Veronica, now bundled up in a blanket and asleep in her arms.
Then it happened. As I reached for my slumbering son, one of his legs, exposed below little boy shorts, slipped out of the blanket. With a gesture that suddenly encapsulated for me everything that Veronica had been to us, she clasped that little leg and said softly, “Adios, mi amor.”
The rains continued to pound, but it no longer mattered. The tears flowed.
I recalled that sweet scene on the evening over Christmas when we five LaFranchis assembled in our TV room for a viewing on Netflix of “Roma.” We’d all agreed it would be interesting, and surely nostalgic, to compare our Mexico City experience with the one in the movie. Only Gabriel, now 23, expressed the slightest apprehension about a movie I’d said told the story of a Mexico City family’s relationship with their Mixteca housemaid.
“Uh-oh,” he’d said, “sounds like a tearjerker.”
Yet while the movie indeed conjured up a swirl of memories for all of us – especially the sounds it reproduced, from the sharp, sad whistle of the evening sweet potato vendor, to the clang-clang of the garbage collector’s bell, and the chock-a-block architecture of the city’s residential streets – the young housemaid’s relationship with the family she worked for seemed so different from ours with Veronica, that all eyes remained dry.
Veronica had come to us after a younger cousin of hers had dropped us cold to cross over to el Norte.
It turned out to be the biggest blessing of our Mexico years.
I know that Veronica didn’t become part of our family overnight. But looking back, it seems like it was no time before she was an essential part of us. Yes, she cleaned our house, washed our clothes, and prepared comida, our midday meal (all before returning home to her own family). And that would have been enough.
But somehow – and this is where that boundless heart comes in – she had the capacity to be to us a guard, a guide (life in Mexico City can be daunting), a mother, a friend. Having Veronica in our home allowed me to be the roving Latin America correspondent I was, because I knew my family was cared for and safe. It allowed my wife to return to her career as a lawyer, because she knew our kids, and especially our newborn Gabriel, were not just in good hands, but were loved.
Some of our Mexico City friends, both Mexican and American, were incredulous if we ever let on that we often called on Veronica to get our kids to and from school. Many of the Mexican children at our kids’ private elementary school were picked up by burly chauffeurs wearing reflective sunglasses and driving black Suburbans. One of my sweetest memories is of a little guero (white-skinned) Gabriel happily taking Veronica’s darker-toned hand for the ride on the pesero (the one-peso bus) to his pre-K school.
That memory of how (and why) we confidently placed our kids in Veronica’s care came to me at the end of “Roma.”
In the film’s climactic scene, the young maid wades out into deep and tugging surf to save her work family’s drowning boy, even though she does not know how to swim.
Up until that moment only a few things in the movie had reminded me of our years with Veronica. But as that maid pulled the boy to safety and the family hugged for dear life, I thought, I recognized that fierce love.
We know that boundless heart.
When I arrived in Mexico, Howard gave me the best piece of advice he could: Call Veronica.
I didn’t. Children seemed a long way away for me, I was consumed by my work as a new foreign correspondent, and I couldn’t understand his urgency. Only when I met her years later, eight months pregnant, did I realize my own foolishness. Today we call her abuela, or grandmother.
That term has raised questions for our daughter as she has gotten older. “But how is she my grandmother?” she will ask. “Is Mario [her grandson] my cousin?” She was only 2-1/2 years old when we left Mexico for France. I tell her the story of Veronica visiting us six months later in Paris. We opened the door to our courtyard, and as Veronica walked through, our toddler, who was facing forward in a baby carrier, had a look of angst, anger, and the purest sadness. Her bottom lip quivered as it turned downward and she burst into tears – the reaction of someone who has felt abandoned by someone loved dearly. Within minutes she was in Veronica’s arms. We have been calling each other every two weeks for more than five years.
When I watched “Roma,” however, I was brought back not so much to Veronica’s relationship with my child, but my own relationship with her as a mother. Cleo was an anchor of stability to the four children, and never more so than after their father walked out on their mother. My marriage wasn’t dissolving, but all was not well.
Motherhood did not come easily to me. I was overwhelmed by the new world of parenting, by a new sense of vulnerability and helplessness over the things one can’t control. My mom visited me. So did my sisters and my best friend. But I felt lonelier than I ever had. I burst into tears the first week Veronica started with us. I knew intellectually I should maintain some boundaries, given that Veronica was, after all, working for us. But the line evaporated that day. I cried so many times to her afterward, about so many things. We also laughed about so much. She, in effect, became my Mexican mother. My own mother wrote her a note when we left Mexico. She didn’t thank her for caring for her granddaughter. She thanked her for taking care of me.
When we had our first big earthquake – the kind that did damage to our home – I was at a coffee shop writing a story. I remember grabbing my computer and running home as the buildings still shook, losing my power cord and mouse along the way. When I walked through my door, there was Veronica, shaken in a cloud of dust as one of our walls crumbled, and clutching my daughter. She confided to me that she thought it was the end, for both of them. And that she would clasp fiercely onto her until the end. Just like her abuela.
When I confirmed my move to Mexico City in 2014, I immediately reached out to my colleagues Sara and Howard. “Who should I talk to?” I asked, referring to sources like academics, analysts, or government officials.
Both gave the same answer: Call Veronica.
I wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids, so it felt like a pretty out-of-touch suggestion. But flash-forward 5-1/2 years, a wedding, and one toddler later, I now understand why both felt Veronica was the most important person to know in Mexico.
I’m immensely fortunate – as has been the Monitor over the past 25 years – to have someone caring for my child during the workday who came with more than two decades of glowing, personal references. But it wasn’t without some mixed feelings: I was handing over my baby each morning for another person to love and nurture while I set up interviews and tapped out stories at my computer one room over.
I remember the time I went into my daughter’s room at the end of the day and waiting the minute or two (which felt like an eternity) for Veronica to pass her into my arms: I was jealous. I never doubted my desire to return to work, but, like many working parents, I “wanted it all,” including the most time and the strongest bond possible with my infant.
As my daughter grew and it became evident she knew exactly who her mom was, that jealousy dissipated and transformed into gratitude. I saw one big reason reflected back to me in the film “Roma.” There’s a scene where the family is piled on the couch watching TV and Cleo is tidying up around them. At one point she bends down to pick up a dish and one of the young boys drapes his arm around her. She leans into him, each soaking up the other’s affection: It’s a moment of effortless love.
A few weeks ago I was walking upstairs to my office just as Veronica was putting my daughter down for a nap. Te amo (I love you), my toddler’s high-pitched, singsong voice called out as Veronica left the room. “Te amo,” Veronica responded through the cracked door – the same words she has cooed to four other Monitor children over two decades.
And so, one day, when a Monitor correspondent asks me who she needs to know in Mexico, the only name to even cross my mind will be “Veronica.”
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