I saw the 2019 Golden Globe-winning movie Roma by Alfonso Cuarón intending to peek into the memories of his childhood in Mexico City.
When I left the theater, though, I had an intense need to look into my own.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mexican youth fought on the streets of the capital for democratic change, civil rights and freedom of expression. On Oct. 2, 1968, the protests ended in the violent siege of Tlatelolco Plaza that left hundreds dead, but the demise of the movement came in 1971 (the year I was born) with El Halconazo, when government-trained paramilitaries beat up and killed demonstrators during a march in Mexico City.
It’s in this time and place Roma unfolds. The movie, a deeply personal masterpiece of storytelling and cinematography, opened in select theaters in October and is now streaming on Netflix. On Jan. 6, it won the Golden Globe for best foreign language motion picture. (Read my review of Roma in Spanish here.)
Roma is based on Cuarón’s childhood memories. In the film, the father leaves the family and the mother struggles to make sense of her new social and practical realities. There are four children and a grandmother, but the movie is really about their servants, Cleo (a fantastic Yalitza Aparicio) and Adela (Nancy García García). They both speak Mixtec, a language spoken in Central and Southern Mexico. ‘Stop speaking funny,’ the youngest kid tells Cleo at the beginning. ‘I don’t understand you.’ This foreshadows what’s to come.
Cleo is the emotional, practical problem solver: She cooks, cleans, does dishes, puts the kids to sleep and lets the matriarch (an excellent Marina de Tavira) blow off steam whenever she needs to.
In the film’s most heart-wrenching scene, we see El Halconazo through Cleo’s eyes. She’s pregnant and witnessing the violence in the streets from a furniture store when her water breaks and she’s taken to the hospital. A receptionist there asks the grandma for Cleo’s full name. ‘I don’t know her full name and I don’t know where she’s from,’ she answers, crying. The transition from national to personal turmoil represents some of the most intense, impactful 20 minutes of cinema I’ve seen in a long time.
For many, growing up in the Mexican middle class meant living in a delicate bubble. While we waited for the implosion, we lived with privileges reserved for the aristocracy, but on a more modest scale. That meant we had domestic workers — nannies, cooks and in some cases even chauffeurs — but they were paid menial salaries with no benefits, lived in our homes in miniature bedrooms, cooked dinner late at night and woke up early the next day to have breakfast ready. In return for the lack of compensation, the Mexican middle class treat their workers ‘as family.’
My Cleo was Mari, my grandmother’s cleaning lady, a strong, fair-skinned woman who lost three fingers when she was a kid in separate accidents with a pair of scissors and a firecracker. Every time I went for a visit, she’d make my favorite lime pie. She’d also cook pozole soup, and it was particularly exquisite because she’d clean each kernel of hominy by hand, meticulously extracting its black spots. I don’t remember Mari’s last name, though I was able to visit her in her village as an adult. Her home was furnished with objects she inherited from my grandmother.
Mari was ‘like family,’ and yet she wasn’t. Growing up, the expression ‘like family’ drove me crazy because of its inherent injustice. ‘They have their own family, and would rather be with them,’ I’d argue. But I don’t remember how many brothers and sisters she had, anything about her parents or where she grew up. Roma, in many ways, reminded me of my neglectful obliviousness and made me feel mortified and regretful of not acknowledging Mari enough.
In The Labyrinth of Solitude, an incisive and piercing essay about what it means to be Mexican by Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz, the author describes hearing a noise in his home. ‘Who is there?’ he asks. ‘I was answered by the voice of a servant who had recently come to us from her village,’ he writes. Her reply: ‘No one, señor. I am.’ She’s a Nobody who doesn’t want to call attention to herself, who does what she needs to do, just like Roma’s Cleo.
Someone who denies another human being their right to be, Paz writes, ‘is also changed into a Nobody.’
Cuarón, who won an Oscar for best director for Gravity in 2014, and who wrote, produced, directed and even did the cinematography for Roma, dedicated the film to Libo, his childhood nanny. In doing so, he not only acknowledges who she was and what she meant to him, but also reasserts that Libo was Somebody. By doing that, Cuarón makes himself a Somebody too.
Cuarón has said he waited to have the emotional maturity to make this movie. It’s perhaps his most personal yet, so it makes sense the director would also take total control of the camera instead of recruiting his regular collaborator, three-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel ‘El Chivo’ Lubezki. He details his memories breathtakingly, filming in black and white: water running on the floor when Cleo sweeps the garage; slow-moving airplanes flying through a gray sky; the family watching TV together with Cleo sitting on the floor.
La Roma of Roma
One of the main characters in the film is the neighborhood itself. I grew up 15 miles north of Mexico City in a suburb called Satélite. But my first job was in Colonia Roma, the neighborhood that gives the movie its name.
The movie reminded me of the era’s massive American-made cars, like the Chrysler Imperial or Valiant Acapulco shouldering past the minuscule and omnipresent Volkswagen Beetles crowding the roads. It also evoked the sprawling movie theaters surrounded by peddlers, who sold everything from strange-looking plastic Superman and Batman toys to multicolored balloons in indistinguishable forms. But it’s the neighborhood that’s the center of it all.
La Roma is near downtown Mexico City. Its main boulevard, Álvaro Obregón Avenue, is lined with trees amid big neo-colonial and Art Deco houses. Many of the old structures have been replaced by 20-story buildings with mirrored facades, and traffic today among its tight avenues is relentless, like in the rest of the city.
La Roma, the epitome of bourgeois, was battered twice on an ominous day: Sept. 19. In 1985 and 2017, powerful earthquakes rattled the city, and La Roma was one of the most affected areas with hundreds of multiple-story buildings crumbling. As a character, the neighborhood fits perfectly in the narrative about growing up middle class in Mexico. It’s a seemingly idyllic place, with a modern and European feel, but lies in the center of a city that still struggles with its identity as the former Aztec capital, the hub for Spanish colonial exploits and, today, the epicenter of Mexican hipsterism.
Like La Roma, the Mexican middle class also has a conflict of identity.
In general, middle-class Mexicans are convinced we’re part of the solution. La Roma is home to many bureaucrats, professionals and intellectuals close enough to power to wield influence, but far enough away to avoid being tainted by rampant corruption. But our little secret is that we’re also part of the status quo, especially when it comes to exploiting others for meager pay and questionable living conditions. According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography of Mexico, of the 2.48 million domestic workers in the country, 90 percent are women.
While Roma is about Cuarón’s memories, it forced me to squeeze my brain and remember my hometown, Mari and all the women who helped take care of me and my family along the way. I am thankful for all the memories, and the personal reckoning, it sparked — the reason I am planning to see the film again.