In Spanish, Entfremdung (alienation) was simultaneously translated as “alienación” and “enajenación”. While these terms are very close in meaning, “enajenación” is specifically related to emotions, for it is a person or collective’s transitory loss of reason or identity caused by an intense state of fear, anger or pain. This may serve to generate a spatial metaphor of a central “me” and a secondary peripheral “me” split apart by the overwhelming emotion. I know the old center-periphery concept has been replaced by cooler academic terminology nowadays, but allow me to use it with the enajenación process, understood in this particular case as the emotional shock that produces an estrangement of the very process of alienation. For this, I’ll take Cleo, the main character in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma”. Spoilers ahead.
Cleo and Adela, the housekeepers, by their very presence in the house, embody the tensions of the ideological game of normalizing exploitation inside the bourgeois family. Cleo and Adela’s presence as peripheral Others within the family is a twofold phenomenon. On the one hand, they are employees who are being paid for their time and labor power. On the other, they are linked to the family through a special kind of affection grounded in an expanding set of differences, most of which can be traced in terms of origin and linage: spatial relations. The Other who comes from the periphery is manifested in the movie at every level: from the external-physical layer of the bodies with their skin color differences between the brown indigenous housekeepers and the white European-descendant masters, to the internal-mental layer of culture as the Oaxaqueñan Mixteco language used by Cleo and Adela, compared to the Mexican Spanish used by the rest of the family. For the masters, both housekeepers embody the center-periphery dichotomy. For the housekeepers, the space they inhabit is porous, and they must remain in the alienated state it defines for them in order to survive. It is a highly complex political tactic. The environment hosting the exploited would not allow them to stay there unless they internalized this gravitational pull towards the center, yet it also does not permit them to reach that center. There is no dichotomy between giving affection and saying “you don’t belong”; rather, the univocal message is affectionate: “you are one of us,” while at the same time you must live separate lives within our space. This separation of lives (the real boundary of the effective center) is the key. The housekeepers exist in this Beckettian fractured space of permanent in-betweens.
“Roma” tells the story of a peripheral subject and worker, alienated within the borders of a family. The emotional connection with her masters is staged and performed by the family as a bridge connecting the center-periphery gap, while actually functioning as a mechanism for buffering exploitation. But allow me to present a more radical interpretation. In “Roma”, the strongest alienation does not occur through the classical identification of the exploited with the exploiter, but through the deepest rejection of the subject’s own offspring, which is the other side of the passionate love and desire to protect the master’s children. It is inside this fissure between both movements where we can find the emotional catharsis of the film, the real tragedy of her enajenación.
Throughout the movie, any relation of class struggle is never manifested as a force pushing to modify structures (“revolutionary”), but rather as the mere conscious activity (“practical reason”) present in the gesture of embracing. It is in this primordial act of hugging (this strange activity of trying to bring towards the center of our hearts something located outside of us, or on the periphery) where the unresolved tension of the alienated subject is located and manifested as tragedy. It is in this embracing that alienation goes up a notch and falls into enajenación. This happens twice. I take it as the real character arc of the movie.
First, when Cleo faces the horror of death: The baby she had already rejected is briefly placed, lifeless, in her arms. Death (“the ultimate master”, as Hegel calls it) provides the necessary emotional conditions to turn her always alienated state into a proper enajenación. She sees her dead innocent peripheral baby who was conceived “outside” (of marriage, relationship and sexual education). The baby from outside tried to sneak into the center. But she did not belong, and would have never been truly accepted. Cleo falls outside of herself, she embraces the dead body, awakening from her emotional alienation and becoming a desperate mother. The tragedy is presented here as a mirror: the gap between not wanting the child and not wanting the child to die is a reflection of the porous state she herself lives in.
The second moment happens in the group hug near the end of the film, where Cleo is placed briefly at the center of what she really values: the children of the master (the “real family” for the alienated servant). After an intense emotional sequence, Cleo collapses and notices her enajenación. She has taken these children as her own, and faces the horrible fact of having wished the death of her own real daughter. This enajenación is the movie’s emotional substratum, the truth of the narrative at the human scale. But the cancellation of her alienation cannot last, and the act of being embraced serves as a buffer. Cleo has now become a temporal member of the family. The group hug is the performative gesture of the masters’ family, the award given to the exploited subject for her selfless sacrifice. The bourgeois embraces and brings to the center of their heart this subject located in the porous space sketched throughout the whole movie. Her peripheral origin fades for an instant. She has been accepted and there she will remain–but only while the family is outside of their space.
Of course, once they reenter home and go back to their center, Cleo reassumes her usual role. Reality has been reestablished, the emotional journey has been completed. The periphery must keep operating under their peripheral logic, and so Cleo and Adela go back to their porous lives. The emotions are calmed now, and the oblivion of their alienation is once again an integral part of their alienation.