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'Roma' star Yalitza Aparicio on balancing acting and activism


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: We take a small step back now from our coverage of the coronavirus outbreak for the first in a series of stories from Jeffrey Brown about Mexico's vibrant arts and culture scene.

The 2018 film "Roma," set in Mexico, won many of awards and acclaim, but it also sparked a national debate about racial and social inequities.

The woman at its heart has carved out a new off-screen role as an advocate for change.

This is part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Oscar night 2019, 25-year-old Yalitza Aparicio from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, made history as the first indigenous woman from the Americas to vie for the best actress award. Not so many years before, she'd seen a far less glamorous side of life.

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): When I found myself in the reality of looking for a job, many places would close doors on me because of my physical appearance.

The problem was the color of my skin. In many cases, it's also about your socioeconomic level.

Jeffrey Brown: In the film "Roma," Aparicio played Cleo, a live-in maid in an affluent Mexico City household in the 1970s.

Cleo is relied upon by the mother, loved by the children. Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, who won the Oscar for best director, based the story on his own upbringing. But the class and race differences between family and worker are obvious, the casually dismissive treatment glaring.

Aparicio, who studied to be a teacher, had never acted and auditioned on a whim, but Cuaron saw something in her.

In Mexico City recently, she told me she drew on her mother's experience.

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): From the beginning, I took it as a personal issue, because my mother was a domestic worker. And I think it's important that she too knew her rights.

But I realized that she wasn't the only woman who was unaware of what she was deserving of by law. So I think there's a chance to lift our voice and raise awareness.

Jeffrey Brown: From film star to international ambassador. Since "Roma"'s release, Aparicio has used her new celebrity to become a leading activist and advocate on behalf of indigenous culture and the rights of domestic workers.

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): For me, it means that I am giving a voice and visibility to causes that are correct, in my opinion, or that are necessary in society. I enjoy fighting for my indigenous community, because I feel proud of who I am, and think that we shouldn't lose that pride and identity.

Marcelina Bautista (through translator): The first thing I saw in the film was that the situation of domestic workers in Mexico in the '70s to the 2000s had not changed at all.

Jeffrey Brown: Marcelina Bautista came from Oaxaca to Mexico City at age 14 to work as a maid, a normal path for girls in her village.

Many years later, she founded Mexico's first ever union of domestic workers, and, on this day, led a workshop to educate her members, who spoke of abuses they have faced.

Marcelina Bautista (through translator): It is a sector in the labor world that presents many forms of discrimination and abuse and violation of human rights.

Many are not paid a salary that they deserve. They live in a room of a house that's in bad shape, very humid, no lock on the door. These female workers have been hit.

Jeffrey Brown: But there has been change. Last year, Mexico's Congress passed a new law that for the first time gives domestic workers basic labor rights, including a minimum wage, retirement benefits and workplace protections.

Bautista says the struggle now is to raise awareness among workers and employers and ensure government enforcement. And she credits "Roma" and the debate it sparked with jump-starting long-delayed action.

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): Honestly, I felt very powerful using the movie to tell lawmakers that they are still not doing their part, to tell employers that the situation remains the same and they can no longer feel like they are doing us a favor by giving us a job.

Jeffrey Brown: Yalitza Aparicio, Bautista says, played a special role through her own personal story.

Marcelina Bautista (through translator): We are many Yalitzas. And Yalitza, when she is in a space speaking on behalf of people or issues, I do think she represents us very well.

Jeffrey Brown: Aparicio is also having another kind of impact here, in changing perceptions of beauty.

"Vogue Mexico" put her on its cover, a first for an indigenous woman. Light-skinned models and personalities dominate the cultural landscape.

"Vogue Mexico" editor Karla Martinez de Salas:

Karla Martinez de Salas: What we have seen in magazines historically is, you know, this kind of European-American ideal of beauty.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, which Yalitza is not.

Karla Martinez de Salas: Which Yalitza is not. I think it's changing little by little.

Jeffrey Brown: With the film "Roma," Martinez de Salas saw an opportunity.

Karla Martinez de Salas: I heard of the movie, and she was the first indigenous woman to take on this role.

And so I did think, why not celebrate this? So, yes, a big part of it was to break this kind of stereotype that you think of what is a "Vogue" cover girl?

Jeffrey Brown: The cover led to other photo shoots, and Aparicio also became the face of a Head & Shoulders ad campaign. There was praise and excitement, but also a nasty, often racist social media backlash, filled with ugly comments.

Karla Martinez de Salas: We still have a ways to go as far as even, like, the ideals of Mexican beauty. In October, we did an indigenous beauty story celebrating the beauty of Mexico. And, like...

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, but that's still unusual, you're saying, huh? Yes.

Karla Martinez de Salas: Yes, yes. But I do feel like it's something that we have to push forward.

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): People are still prisoners to social circles where appearances matter, and socioeconomic status matter. I really think this is something that should already be changing.

Jeffrey Brown: Yalitza Aparicio says she now wants to balance acting and activism.

One of her projects is a push for inclusion of indigenous languages in the education system, languages being lost, students falling behind.

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): My job is to give visibility to these communities and talk about them wherever I go. We're working sector by sector.

Jeffrey Brown: It sounds very difficult to change a large society with a long history.

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): Yes, it sounds difficult, and it is difficult to change something that people have been used to for years.

But that's what it's about. It's about telling people this isn't normal, and they shouldn't be used to it.

Jeffrey Brown: Are you happy with the way your life changed and what it is now?

Yalitza Aparicio (through translator): Yes, I am very happy. Everything that I'm doing, I'm doing with that intention, with that affection. And, therefore, I am enjoying it. And I hope to continue enjoying it for many years, and that it's not just me, but that maybe, in the next years, there are others fighting for these causes with me.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Mexico City.

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