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‘Roma’ Explored 1970s Mexico. Here’s How Issues in the Film Have Played Out

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Mexican filmmaker Alfonzo Cuarón’s “Roma,” a darling of the 2019 award season with 10 Academy Award nominations and two wins in the Golden Globes, is an intimate story of Cuarón’s childhood told through the eyes of an indigenous woman who works as a nanny to a middle-class family in Mexico City. The family drama also provides a gripping glimpse of Mexican society at the cusp of great social change in the early 1970s, a time of migration, urbanization and cultural transformation.

“The movie is to a great extent a story about modernization,” said Claudio Lomnitz, professor of anthropology at the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University. “We see two rural girls come from Oaxaca who have moved to the city. They are indigenous and they speak Mixtec, but they also speak Spanish, they go to the movies, they have sex.”

Almost 50 years have passed from the time in which the movie is set. How does today’s Mexico compare with the Mexico of Cuarón’s childhood with regard to the more disturbing social issues it portrays, like violence and social inequality? NBC spoke to four researchers on Mexico from the fields of history, sociology and anthropology.

More Violence After the Drug War Begins
“Mexico is a country that hurts,” said Maria Amalia Gracia, sociologist at the Department of Society and Culture of Colegio de la Frontera del Sur, a research center located on the southern border of Mexico. For Gracia, violence in Mexico today has reached unimaginable levels. “It is surprising that people can continue to live in those conditions,” she said.

2019 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture

[NATL] 2019 Oscar Nominations: Best Picture

The Corpus Christi Massacre of 1971 is the backdrop to a frightening scene in “Roma,” the moment when the film’s pregnant protagonist, Cleo, discovers that the father of her child is part of a government paramilitary group.

The massacre and the paramilitaries in the film represented the dominant form of violence of the day: centrally directed repressive violence, known as “The Dirty War” that took place under the orders of the presidency and the Ministry of Interior. It was a war that the country’s authoritarian one-party regime was fighting, indiscriminately, against two enemies: a growing urban middle class demanding democratization, and a left-wing student movement featuring guerrilla groups, Lomnitz said.

“Mexico is a much freer country today, but it is also a much more violent country,” Lomnitz said. The new violence is “less heroic, less easy to romanticize.”

It is no longer about struggles for justice or freedom, against a repressive society and regime. The now prevalent drug-related spike in violence has its roots in 2006, the year Mexico’s Drug War formally began.

Between the early 1970s and the eve of the Drug War, violence in Mexico had decreased significantly, Lomnitz said. In 2007, homicide rates (9.3 per 100,000 people) were not much higher than in the United States (5.7 per 100,000). But by 2018, they reached 25 per 100,000. At the beginning of the Drug War, the government’s official take was that the death toll was to a large extent, a result of organizations killing each other off in turf wars. But recent studies by Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) suggest that Mexico’s military and federal police have executed a substantial proportion of the 150,000 Drug War-related killings

“Much of the violence today also comes from local governments, which are often in the control of criminal organizations,” Lomnitz said. The Iguala Massacre of 2014, where 43 students from a rural teachers’ college were taken and disappeared, is an example of this new type of violence, as is the fact that during the 2018 federal elections, more than 100 local candidates were assassinated.

“The closing of the U.S.-Mexican border is an untold part of this story,” Lomnitz said. As moving across the border became more difficult in the 1990s, the firepower and discipline of organized crime trafficking with Colombian cocaine grew. It triggered an increase in the concentration of criminal money, wealth and violence. More recently, powerful Chinese criminal organizations have partnered with Mexican ones to produce methamphetamine in Mexico, destined for the North American market. This development is furthering the concentration of violent criminal power.

Tensions Over Land Dampened by Modernization
Conflicts over land come up various times in “Roma.” The government takes away land belonging to Cleo’s mother. A man sitting in a bar has lost a family member due to a land dispute. A family of landowners exhibits on its farmhouse wall, the stuffed head of a pet dog that had been poisoned during another land dispute. And the New Year’s party being held by that same family is eerily interrupted by arson in the surrounding woods.

“Low-scale agrarian violence is very old in Mexico,” Lomnitz said, adding that it goes back to colonial times. And after the land reforms of the 1920s and 1930s, when the countryside was made up of small scale farmers, conflicts sprung up between towns, between smallholders, and between smallholders and larger landowners.

Conflict over land began to recede in the 1980s due to an increasing migration to the city, which led to fewer land disputes in the countryside. “Roma” shows the beginning of this migration. Cleo visits, in search of her baby’s father, a shantytown located just outside of Mexico City limits that was beginning to be occupied by squatters, migrants from the countryside. Today, this place, known as Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl with a population of 1.1 million, is the 10th largest city in Mexico.

A Continuing Racial Divide
Yalitza Aparicio, the first indigenous woman to be Oscar-nominated for best leading actress, plays Cleo, the servant of a white family. She is treated with affection and care, but the difference in social status is enforced at all times, in both explicit and subtle ways. For example, while cuddling with the family in front of the TV, she is abruptly ordered to fetch tea for “the doctor.”

“She is very lucky,” said Kevin Terraciano, professor of history and director of the Latin American Institute at UCLA. Indigenous servant women are not always treated well.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu has spoken of how vulnerable she felt living with a family as a young woman. Sexual advances and mistreatment is an underlying possibility.

“In the last 10 years, there has been increased awareness of the problems faced by domestic workers,” Gracia said, “but racism and behaviors underscoring inequality continue to exist. Results of our most recent research on domestic workers are eloquent on the problems of discrimination and abuse.”

Some progress has been made at the legislative level in recognizing the rights of the indigenous population. Laws protecting the right to their languages and culture, and to self-empowerment have been enacted since the turn of the century. A rebellion of indigenous people in the 1990s, known as the Zapatista rebellion, in which paramilitary death squads massacred indigenous people, marked the beginning of increased awareness. Since then, indigenous communities have also made progress in “the creation of autonomous communities, which give them more direct representation over their land and resources,” Terraciano said. But it is still common to see indigenous women working as servants. And the indigenous populations remain extremely poor.

“Here in Mexico being indigenous gives you a particular social status. There is a marginalization, a social discrimination that we Mexicans know by the social norms and social codes with which we are educated,” said Jesus Ruvalcaba, a researcher at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico City. “There has been some progress, but not much.”

Being “indio” in Mexico continues to be a stigma. And the indigenous people feel it and know it, Terraciano said. “After independence from Spain, the leaders of the new nation saw these traditional cultures as obstacles.” Since then, governments have used laws and force to dissolve native communities and mainstream indigenous peoples. “Today, leaders continue to speak of the ‘Indian problem.'” 

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‘RHONY’s’ Luann de Lesseps Ordered Back to Jail Over Probation Violation

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A Florida judge has ordered “Real Housewives of New York” star Luann de Lesseps back to jail for allegedly violating her probation, according to court documents. 

The reality TV star turned cabaret singer is accused of failing a breathalyzer test on April 21, court records indicated. 

“The Money Can’t Buy You Class” singer admitted to her New York-based probation officer that she drank two mimosas after a performance of her cabaret show, Countess and Friends, in Chicago. 

Famous Mug Shots: 'Empire' Actor Jussie SmollettFamous Mug Shots: ‘Empire’ Actor Jussie Smollett

The probation officer offered de Lesseps different treatment options to address her relapse and she declined “the opportunity to immediately enroll in outpatient treatment” or be fitted for an alcohol ankle monitoring device because of her cabaret touring schedule, according to court documents.

De Lesseps also reportedly failed to attend her twice weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, a requirement of her plea agreement. 


Luann de Lesseps poses for her booking photo after being charged with battery of an officer, public intoxication and resisting arrest on Dec. 24, 2017.

Photo credit: Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office

Her probation officer accused de Lesseps of not taking her probation seriously and she was summoned back to court last month. At the time, her lawyers asked prosecutors to turn over all evidence related to their accusations and de Lesseps said she “looked forward to her day in court to present evidence clarifying these allegations.” 

De Lesseps was arrested on Christmas Eve in 2017 after allegedly kicking a police officer while intoxicated at a hotel in Palm Beach. She was charged with disorderly intoxication, resisting arrest and battery on a law enforcement officer.

The Bravo star accepted a plea deal to lesser charges in August 2018. She was ordered to abstain from alcohol and attend two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week. 

RHONY Star Appears in Court After Arrest in FloridaRHONY Star Appears in Court After Arrest in Florida

Court documents show that de Lesseps was allowed to transfer her probation supervision to New York from Palm Beach, and was allowed to travel for work purposes. 

De Lesseps checked into rehab in January 2018, following her arrest. She checked herself back into rehab in July, one month after celebrating six months of sobriety.

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Jussie Smollett Case: Judge to Rule on Whether ‘Empire’ Actor’s File Should Be Unsealed

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A Cook County judge was expected to issue a decision Thursday on whether the sealed file surrounding the case of actor Jussie Smollett should be unsealed.

Judge Steven Watkins was scheduled to issue his written order in a hearing beginning at 10 a.m. He previously heard oral arguments on whether the files should remain sealed on May 16.

Media attorney Natalie Spears argued then that there was no good cause for his case to remain sealed because he was so public throughout the ordeal, and that it would be harmful to the public to keep it under wraps.

Smollett’s attorney Brian Watson contended that the “Empire” actor has a right to privacy under various statutes that are afforded to thousands of other people every year, and that the media was allowed to cover the process of the case itself, so the public was not barred from learning any new developments.

On Jan. 29, Smollett reported that he was the victim of an attack in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, claiming to have been beaten by two men who shouted racist and homophobic slurs, hit him, put a noose around his neck and poured bleach on him, court documents show.

Chicago police initially investigated the incident as a hate crime, but alleged the following month that he orchestrated the attack himself because he was “dissatisfied with his salary.”

He was initially charged with one felony count of disorderly conduct in filing a false police report, before a Cook County grand jury then indicted Smollett on 16 felony counts.

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Smollett pleaded not guilty before all charges against him were dropped on March 28 in exchange for his forfeiture of his $10,000 bond and his performance of community service.

The file was sealed in late March when prosecutors abruptly dropped all charges, drawing criticism of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and calls for a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case. A hearing in that request was schedule for May 31.

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Philadelphia District Attorney Calls for New Meek Mill Trial, Asks Judge to Recuse Herself

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Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner waded into rapper Meek Mill’s legal quagmire on Wednesday, filing an appeal with the Pennsylvania Superior Court that asked for a new trial with a new judge. 

Previously, Krasner said he supported a new trial for the rapper, whose legal name is Robert Mihmeek Williams, but had not pursued any legal action to that effect.

That all changed Wednesday with the appeal, which outlines why Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Genece Brinkley should recuse herself from the case. 

In the document, Krasner highlights the “public perception of unfairness and bias” throughout Williams’ highly public trial, and instances where Brinkley overstepped her duties as a judge. This included checking up on Williams while he was performing community service at a homeless shelter.

“Williams should be awarded a post-conviction relief in the form of a new trial,” the appeal said. “In the alternative, his recusal motion should be granted and this matter should be remanded for a violation of probation hearing before a new judge.”

Williams’ team called Wednesday’s appeal a “huge legal victory.”

“We are very pleased that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has confirmed to the Superior Court that Meek is entitled to have his conviction vacated,” Williams’ attorney, Jordon Siev, said in a statement. “The brief is also significant in that it marks the first time the DA has publicly outlined in writing that it supports Judge Brinkley’s recusal based on her ‘appearance of partiality’ and ‘public perception of unfairness and bias.’”

Brinkley has repeatedly denied post-conviction relief for the rapper and previous demands from his legal team to recuse herself from the case.

Last year, Brinkley issued a 47-page decision denying his request. Brinkley’s 2018 ruling came a week after a two-hour evidentiary hearing during which the rapper’s lawyers asked Brinkley to reconsider the initial conviction. The judge showed skepticism over the PCRA request during the hearing.

Brinkley appeared disinclined to use the credibility of former Philadelphia police officer Reginald Graham, who is among a group of officers on an internal “Do Not Call” to testify list kept by the district attorney’s office, as a stand-alone reason to have Mill’s conviction overturned.

“We already know this is going to another court,” Brinkley said at the time.

Mill’s legal team argued that the PCRA process has not been questioned in such a way since the proceedings started in 1995. In that time, more than 1,000 cases have been thrown out. Mill’s case appears to be an anomaly, the defense said. 

Mill was originally sentenced to 11 to 23 months following his conviction on the 2007 gun and drug offenses. Last year, Brinkley found him in violation of his 10-year probation and immediately sentenced him to 2 to 4 years in prison. He served five months before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered him freed while his appeal of Brinkley’s sentence was pending.

For a complete timeline of the decade-plus court drama in and out of the courtroom involving Mill and Brinkley, click here.

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