The woman from the clouds

03.02.2020 | Text: Christine Kruttschnitt | Photos: Ashley Frangie, Collin Hughes, Ronan Guillou, Marsy Hild Thorsdottir, Reinaldo Cabanillas    

Yalitza Aparicio is looking up to the left, resting her chin on her hand.
Share article:

Actress Yalitza Aparicio turns her back on Hollywood glamour, preferring to be a philanthropist in her homeland of Mexico.

Yalitza Aparicio, from Oaxaca, got the leading role in the movie “Roma” purely by chance. Her brilliant acting led to a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress – the first indigenous Mexican ever to be nominated. Instead of leading a glamorous life in Hollywood, she prefers to campaign on behalf of Mexico’s indigenous community.

For a descendant of the “Cloud People”, you might think the gods are just a small step away. But when Yalitza Aparicio, the proud daughter of an indigenous Mexican from the highest echelons of Mixtec culture, walked down the red carpet as an Oscar-nominated actress in 2019, it was clear that she was still reeling from her rise to the Hollywood heights. She was accompanied by her mother, also a descendant of an indigenous minority in multi-ethnic Mexico. When asked by an excited reporter what she made of the hype around “Roma”, the mother simply whispered: “Unbelievable.”

“Roma” tells the story of a maid in 1970s Mexico City, and was the Oscar-crowned film that transformed Aparicio into an international star. For her role, the leading actress – who had never stood in front of a camera before that day – learned a variant of the language spoken by the Mixtecs, or the Cloud People, a dialect that is today only known to some 20,000 people in Yalitza’s home, Oaxaca. The 25-year-old recalls how her paternal grandparents talked in Mixtec, while her maternal grandparents spoke Trique. “Whenever our grandparents called us in for dinner, I would immediately run to the table. But if they wanted me to go and do something that I just didn’t feel like doing, I’d say: ‘Speak Spanish, Nana, I can’t understand a word!’”    

Yalitza laughs. She is cheerful and relaxed during our interview in Mexico City; a laid-back young woman with jet-black hair, much slimmer and more self-confident than she appears in “Roma”. As the maid, Cleo, it is always tempting to shake her and shout: “You don’t have to be satisfied with everything!” But in real life, Yalitza exudes a calm that would have made her a great teacher.

That was what she had wanted to do with her life until three years ago, when “Roma” director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) travelled around the country searching for the right actress to play Cleo. Three thousand women applied for the role, including Yalitza’s older sister, Edith. Yalitza’s parents feared that this casting call was really an excuse to abduct young women; after all, Yalitza says, making films is not a “normal” activity in their village in Oaxaca. Human trafficking, on the other hand, is commonplace.

Edith was pregnant at the time and sent Yalitza in her place, telling her just “to do everything the film people wanted.” The budding teacher was curious and agreed to go along. The producers asked her a few simple questions. “Answer them all,” Edith had said. Do you believe in God, Yalitza? Are you currently in love? Are you lovesick?

They were all bowled over by Yalitza’s straightforwardness, says Cuarón. “She’s so sincere and down-to-earth, she’s not at all taken in by all the glamour of Hollywood.” Because 60 per cent of “Roma” is just images of Yalitza’s face, it’s no wonder she is now one of the most famous people in Mexico. With her enchanting air of innocence, she now advertises shampoos, smartphones and a Mexican film festival, leads calls in social media adverts for cancer treatment, and speaks out against violence against women. Unlike the soap opera divas from her country, Aparicio, who has two million followers on Instagram, is not just a star: she is a political force. Since her Oscar nomination and a front-page feature in Mexican Vogue, she has brought a minority people into the limelight. This task has not always been easy for Yalitza; some of the comments made about her Vogue photos were so nasty they had to be deleted by the editors.

And she is no stranger to such contempt. Long before she became famous, Yalitza applied for a job as a sales assistant in her hometown of Tlaxiaco. She was rejected because of her skin colour. “I’m the darkest in my family,” she says with a shrug. “As a child I always said it was because I’m made of chocolate! You can’t let anyone get to you.”

She is proud to be one of the Cloud People. And proud that her role in “Roma” has started a debate. Her own mother was once a poor maid just like Cleo. This made Yalitza’s father upset when he saw the film. His daughter was scrubbing the patios of the rich people! “‘But Papa,’ I said to him, ‘it’s just a film.’ He was still angry.”

She is currently learning English, partly, so she can read all the scripts being sent in to her agent. She now spends most of her time working in Mexico City. While there, she misses her family and the food in Oaxaca, particularly her mother’s mole sauce.

When she was asked during the casting call if she had ever been in love, she said no. And that’s still her answer today. She has another goal in mind – she wants to inspire others. From the young girls with dark skin like hers who want to become film stars, to women who dream of becoming managers but dread going up against the male competition. “To all of them, I say: ‘Hey, look at me, I made it too.’”

She likes being one of the Cloud People. But women like Yalitza Aparicio truly belong here on earth.

The drama “Roma”
Nominated for ten Oscars and the winner of three, this black-and-white film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and produced by Netflix, has been hailed as a masterpiece.

Share article:

Follow She’s Mercedes