Roma, the 2018 Academy Award winning Netflix film from writer and director Alfonso Cuarón, is both beautiful and moving. If you have had the privilege of having had live-in help, then be prepared to be emotionally wrung out by the end of this film. A number of the reviews I read said something along the lines of ‘the film offers up tragedy, comedy and absurdity’ but as a family who has lived a version of the emotional, cultural and social entanglements shown on screen, I would say it offers up a view of reality.
Roma is the story of a young woman working as a live-in maid for an upper-middle-class family in the Mexico City district of Colonia Roma. It is a story that will resonate strongly with anyone who has ever had live-in or long term home help. As an expat my entire adult life, my family has been fortunate enough to have had a few, all woman and all from Asia. We have lived through a lot together. Births (both them and me) and deaths, joy and despair, disasters and celebrations. Through this, we have navigated cultural beliefs and understandings, social norms, and the continuous challenge of trying to define what our relationship actually is.
Some I have been closer to than others, but they have all, in some way, helped guide me, and my growing family, through life. As I have aged, I have helped guide them in life too. It is a strange relationship. Not one of mother/daughter, not one of sisters but also not one of employee/employer – it is something in between. They have helped me deal with the challenges of being a new mother, I have helped with their finances, make budgets, help them sort out family issues at home.
We recently moved and are now living sans home help. I am totally capable of living life without help but it does feel like something is missing. Our last helper Nina, was with us for 7 years and is the only one my daughter remembers. My daughter recently said to me, ‘You are my favourite mother’ and I laughed and said ‘I am your only mother’. She said, “No you’re not I also have Nina.’ It bought a little bit of joy to my heart knowing she felt like she had another mother out there in the world. It also made me realize that sooner or later they would see each other again because with a bond like that how could they not.
It’s an unusual relationship between full-time home help and the mother of the household, it’s complicated. It’s emotional, it’s built on a unique sense of trust, trust with your home, with your things, with your children. You know personal things about each other that most people don’t know. But in the end, it’s a business deal, you pay a salary, you agree on the benefits. You want to be generous, but realistic. What is the difference between a gift from the heart, and a bonus? It’s complicated. It’s fraught with choices and emotions that are specific that this special relationship. It’s difficult, and it can be beautiful.
See the movie Roma if you haven’t already, but go in prepared. Because for some people, the emotions portrayed by the actors onscreen may hit a bit closer to home.
Rachel Nelson is a New Zealand expat who has lived and worked in the US, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the UAE, Qatar and Germany.