Story and Photos by Libor Pospisil.
The walk toward the now-famous house was supposed to be just my early morning stretch. I left the place where my friends and I were staying in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City and headed for Roma Sur. I was off to see the city’s new pilgrimage spot: the house where the Oscar-nominated Roma film was shot. While I had seen the movie before our four-day trip to Mexico, I had not planned for the trip to be Roma film themed. Rather, we were there to see a few sights, enjoy several of the city’s neighborhoods, and taste Mexican food and drinks. Only after I left Mexico did I realize that the house was not the sole Roma film related location that I encountered in the city. In fact, the movie tells the story of the entire city and how it came to be the bustling metropolis it is today.
Director Alfonso Cuarón, already famous for the film Gravity, created Roma from his childhood memories of growing up in Mexico City. The movie, set in 1971, follows the story of a middle-class family living in the Roma Sur neighborhood, and its plot revolves around Cleo, the family’s live-in maid and nanny, whom Cuarón modeled after his own nanny. Roma, however, would not have been complete without that unique backdrop: Mexico City and its history.
Trees and tracks: As Mexican historian Enrique Krauze wrote in his article for The New York Times Español, the neighborhood of Roma began to grow at the beginning of the 20th century as an oasis for the old aristocracy. Located southwest of the city’s Centro Histórico, it had clearly delineated boundaries. It could therefore thrive as a neighborhood of distinct character, with its cozy green plazas situated around fountains and statues, quiet residential streets shaded with lines of trees, and art nouveau houses and mansions. I could feel this dignified serenity off the main avenues even now, making me wonder whether I was still in one of the largest megacities on the planet.
Before the middle of the 20th century, Roma’s tenants had changed. The city’s original aristocrats had lost their political clout and began to leave while prospering middle-class families, like the one portrayed in the film, began to move in. The neighborhood also expanded southward, creating Roma Sur. Roma Sur’s streets, while still tranquil and green, did not have the same majestic feel of Roma Norte. The residents were so conscious of this division that when Alfonso Cuarón spoke to The New York Times about his time living in Mexico City, he called Roma Norte “the right side of the tracks.”
I finally made it to Calle Tepeji in Roma Sur, an ordinary street with two-story houses that one would typically pass and forget by the next intersection. But I knew better and stopped at the house with the little plaque stating, “Aquí se filmó Roma”—Roma was filmed here. This house stands right across the street from Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood home. It, however, was renovated to such an extent that it could not be used for filming. Roma film makers had to at least digitally modifythe house that was used in the movie, so that it resembles Cuarón’s original house.
Since the Roma house stands in an ordinary residential neighborhood which likely has a Mexican family living in it, visitors are only able to look at the front façade. Yet, the house used for filming on Calle Tepeji had all the attributes I saw in the movie, including the door gate leading into the driveway—albeit a driveway that was too narrow for larger cars, as anyone who has seen the movie can attest. Other houses on the street also played roles in Roma, hosting specific sets, such as the terrace where Cleo did the laundry.
I could not have guessed that the facade of the Roma house was yellow, as Cuarón chose to shoot the movie in black-and-white, (to bring viewers back to 1971). What struck me even more about the house, however, was how small it appeared compared to what looked like a mansion in the film. Perhaps I felt that way because I had seen Roma on a big theater screen or maybe because I was comparing it to the palaces I had walked by earlier in the day in Roma Norte. Regardless, the Roma house could well have been the most inconspicuous place in the city.
At first, I thought I was the only one in that street. However a moment later, I saw a stylishly dressed young woman approaching the house, and then noticed a camera crew recording her walk. They were gesticulating for me to get out of the set, which I did. I gathered they were shooting some type of promotional video. After they finished filming, I asked one of the crew members to snap a picture of me at the house. Thanks to him, I can now brag about having a professionally shot picture on a movie set.
The neighborhood’s seminal moment came in 1985 when a severe earthquake hit Mexico City. While earthquakes are no rarity in the country—a milder one was incorporated into the plot of the movie itself— the 1985 quake registered 8.0 magnitude. It devasted parts of Roma to such an extent that the leafy district would not recover for many decades. The subsequent decline was accompanied by middle-class flight and an increase in crime. In fact, only recently did Roma undergo a renaissance, when its peaceful, tree-lined, old-time streets became popular with young professionals. Its transformation into a trendy district brought all the expected effects—from high real estate prices to hip coffee shops.
Life in Roma takes place along the wide avenues that cut through the neighborhood. On Avenida Álvaro Obregón, with its park-like median, my friends and I found all types of places to eat, from shops serving Mexican-style brunch frequented by local residents, to upscale restaurants full of tourists. authentic Mexican taquerias with no tourists but lots of tasty tacos – the tastiest ever! This mix of traditional and trendy shows up everywhere in Roma—you can buy food from an exquisite delicatessen in the recently renovated, upscale Mercado Roma, or just pick up some local pastries, like I did, in the older, down-to-earth Mercado Medellín.
Avenida Insurgentes, whose 17.9 miles (28.8 km) make it the longest avenue in the city—and possibly in the world—is one of those business arteries around Roma that look nothing like the avenues in the film. The low-rise structures were replaced with tall, glass buildings, and the charming streetcars have given way to long Metrobuses. To shoot scenes with the avenues as the backdrop, Cuarón had to re-create their original look on an empty lot outside of the Roma district.
Beetles survive: The one mode of transportation that has survived in the neighborhood is the old-school Volkswagen Beetle, nicknamed vocho in Spanish. I found Beetles parked in front of many houses in those leafy Roma streets, which created picture-perfect opportunities to capture the remaining old-time atmosphere of Roma.
Beetles have always been popular in Mexico City—one made a significant appearance in the Roma movie. In the past, all of the taxis in Mexico City were green-and-white Beetles. In fact, an Uber driver in Mexico City told me that people refer to the northern neighborhood of Cuautepec, where he lives, as “Vocholandia” because almost all the cars on the streets are Beetles. The reason, however, has nothing to do with hippie-ness. Cuautepec consists of basic, cube-shaped, grey-brick houses, and the driver said matter-of-factly that it had become plagued with drug-related gang violence, so much so, that non-Beatle taxis refuse to go there. His world is a different world from the Roma neighborhood and a useful reminder that other Mexico City neighborhoods exist beyond the serene, green, art nouveau streets of Roma Norte or Roma Sur.
All roads lead to… Mexico City: In the Roma film, when the nanny, Cleo, headed out for a meal or for the theater with her boyfriend, they would end up going to Centro Histórico. While its streets were surrounded by stately colonial façades, the mid-century flight of well-off families to suburbs like Roma transformed the center into a hang-out spot for the city’s workers. And there were a lot of workers in Mexico City! In the three decades leading up to 1970, millions migrated from the countryside and from Mexico’s poorer regions to the capital. They moved in to take jobs in factories, in services, or as domestic workers, like Cleo. As the recent growth of Asian cities gets more attention these days, it might be easy to forget that in 1971, Mexico City represented the world’s ultimate megalopolis. Its population by that time had exploded to eight million residents, making it the second largest city on the planet after Tokyo.
These demographic changes not only inflated the city’s population, but also created new fault lines within the country. Mexicans from other parts of the country have sometimes used the word “chilango” to refer to Mexico City residents. The origin of the word is still debated, but Xavier, one of my friends on this trip, who comes originally from Mexico, warned me that the term has a derisive connotation. It is used to express contempt for the city dwellers who are assumed to feel superior to the rest of the country. A more neutral equivalent to “chilango” is “DeFeño” (a resident of D. F., or Distrito Federal, another designation of Mexico City), or “capitalino.” (To further illustrate the complexities in Mexican society, the term chilango would in certain contexts apply to only someone living in Mexico City who had originally come from elsewhere, while DeFeño would refer to a person having deep roots in the capital.) As Xavier remarked, derisive terms can go in both directions: someone moving into the capital from another part for the country could easily find themselves labeled as coming from “la provincia.”
In the Zócalo—the city’s main square—we came across a gigantic poster that noticed last year’s exhibit of Mixtecos culture. These native people from southwest Mexico have a proud, independent pre-Hispanic culture. Even this seemingly unremarkable poster actually had a link to Roma because Cleo was of Mixtec origin and spoke Mixtec as her native language. The only other character in the film with whom she could converse in Mixtec, however, was the family’s cook.
While walking across Centro Histórico, we saw a pleasant, regenerated area with pedestrianized streets, crowds of locals and tourists alike, rows of shops and restaurants, as well as gleaming historical mansions, and a book fair. This regeneration took place in the early 2,000s when the then-mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO, teamed up with the country’s richest man, Carlos Slim, to invest in the downtown area. AMLO went on to become the president of Mexico in 2018, positioning himself as a champion of workers and the poor, such as those like Cleo. He demonstrated his commitments by playing Roma in the presidential palace theater before the film was officially released to the public. Those Mexicans wary of the new president’s fiery and combative rhetoric keep hopes alive for change by dismissing his words and pointing to his achievements as Mexico City’s mayor, such as reinvigorating the downtown into the city’s healthy beating heart again.
The tallest skyscraper and the perfect dictatorship: In addition to the colonial façades and art nouveau mansions, Mexico City has a surprising number of interesting edifices from the modern era, which coincided with the country’s impressive economic performance over the three post-war decades. The Roma movie conveys this sense of prosperity in many of its sets: from the lively streets to the modern hospital buildings. In the 1950s, the city built a large new university campus, which has a UNESCO heritage mural in its library. The same era saw the rise of the Torre Latinoamericana (1956), the tallest skyscraper in Latin America. The city opened its Metro system in 1969, which has grown to be the largest in all of Latin America. Six years later came a concrete, architecturally outstanding Basílica de Guadalupe (1976). Mexico’s self-confidence reached its peak when the country hosted the Olympic Games in the summer of 1968—the first in a developing country to do so. Two years later, the World Soccer Cup (El Mundial) was held in the city (1970). Observant film aficionados of the Roma movie will notice the World Cup poster on the door of the room belonging to the family’s youngest son.
Those decades of progress had a dark side, however. Mexico was run by an authoritarian regime comprising a single political party called the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional). Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa described its rule as “the perfect dictatorship” because, while the government was firmly in PRI hands, the country’s presidents served only single terms. The regime staged multi-candidate elections, as a front for democracy. The 1970 election campaign, (which runs in the background of the Roma movie), led to victory for the PRI candidate Luis Echeverría Álvarez, who garnered 86% of the vote. Incredibly, this system of governing sustained itself for seventy-one years.
Like any authoritarian regime, the PRI needed to suppress dissenting voices, and for that purpose, it trained an informal militia. In the film, we actually meet one of the militia members—none other than Cleo’s boyfriend, who abandoned her as soon as she confided to him that she was pregnant. With a mild spoiler alert warning, I will say that the two meet again in one of the film’s most climactic scenes, during the large 1971 student demonstration against the government. This student protest was ultimately crushed, and over one hundred people died in what became known as the Corpus Christi Day massacre.
As the students in Roma marched through the street, one character uttered the sentence, “I hope they don’t get them again”. Xavier explained to me that this was a reference to an even larger, 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, where it is estimated that hundreds of students and protesters died. The 1968 protest march was to demand more political freedom and to scrap the costly Olympics that Mexico City was about to host. The Tlatelolco demonstrations took place on the Plaza de Tres Culturas (Square of Three Cultures), which I visited on my last day in Mexico City. The Plaza’s name refers to its unique architectural landscape which includes ruins of the pre-Hispanic city of Tlatelolco (which gave its name to the 1968 protest); the Spanish church, Templo Santiago; and a modern office compound. A memorial to the victims of the massacre stands right next to the church as a reminder that economic growth and the Olympics are not enough—regimes that suppress freedoms will continue to face protests.
Amor: Roma was omnipresent in Mexico City. We came across its posters everywhere, and a few people asked us whether we had seen the movie. We also stopped at the iconic Cineteca Nacional—a movie theater, film institute, museum, and archives—which was one of the first places to screen the Roma film in Mexico. In its courtyard, we saw a sculpture consisting of four huge yellow letters of the film’s title. When we walked around to the other side of the artwork, Xavier pointed out that the letters aptly read “Amor” – Mexico City is in love with this film. Alfonso Cuarón definitely deserved an Oscar award for directing this superb film, but is it also about his love? Yes, in some sense, it actually is. Cuarón created Roma as a loving tribute to his nanny. To the neighborhood, where he grew up. And ultimately, to the entire city. The city that tells us about its checkered history through the striking architecture, as well as through memorials of its sometimes-violent past. It is nonetheless a city that remains home to millions of people who could not imagine living anywhere else.
IF YOU GO
- At this link, you can find a list of places in Mexico City associated with the movie Roma: https://www.infobae.com/america/entretenimiento/2018/12/15/los-lugares-donde-se-filmo-roma-la-pelicula-del-cineasta-mexicano-alfonso-cuaron/
- The New York Times toured the Roma neighborhood with the best possible guide, director Alfonso Cuarón: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/movies/alfonso-cuaron-roma-mexico-city.html
- For more Mexico travel options see our Mexico-Travel page.