The universal success of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is undoubtedly due to a skill that the director has demonstrated over the course of several decades and many enduring pieces of work. But it is also a sign of our times. What is it that audiences in the most varied of countries have found in this film? In a world that is heartless, polarized, violent, perhaps they found a pure message of human solidarity that transcends class and race.
This message got through clearly in Mexico, too, but Roma’s specific resonance is different here: several generations had a childhood like the one Cuarón reconstructs, but only he has brought it, in a Proustian manner, to the cinema, transporting us back to the beginning. Through the portrait of a typical middle-class family whose life plays out in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City at the start of the 1970s, Cuarón manages to explore, recreate, and illuminate the best-loved and the most terrible layers of Mexican history.
The setting, like the lands and people of Mexico itself, is very old. The Colonia Roma was born in 1903, the brainchild of Edward Walter Orrin, a circus impresario of British origin. He took its name from the nearby village of Romita—whose original toponym was Santa María de la Natividad Aztacalco, the last word of which in Nahuatl means “house or refuge of the herons,” signifying that it was one of several island neighborhoods of the city-state Tenochtitlán, all scattered through the great lake that once occupied much of the Valley of Mexico. La Roma, as the neighborhood also came to be known, very soon became an emblem of the Pax Augusta that Mexico lived through while under the long, nondemocratic regime of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911). Broad, tree-lined avenues were opened up, art nouveau mansions were built, pleasant fountains and squares were designed. To complete the European fantasy, over to the west, in the neighboring Colonia Condesa, a racecourse was constructed at which the tiny aristocracy of the start of the twentieth century could imagine themselves in the Paris Auteuil. These were not neighborhoods where you would see peasant workers, in their typical white cotton pants. Those white pants were in the rural haciendas, where the peasants (many of them indigenous people) worked, not in the city, where their hacienda-owning “bosses” lived.
“At the moment that he recreates, construction of these kinds of building projects had ended, and the architectural magnificence had ceased, but La Roma had become something better: a laboratory of cohabitation.”
The Mexican Revolution, which broke out in 1910, delayed the expansion of the two colonias for a few years. After this exceptionally violent civil war, which lasted ten years and left a tally of at least a million dead, the new revolutionary governments began a process of genuine agrarian reform, which aimed to put an end to the feudal regime of the hacienda by means of a massive distribution of land among the peasantry. In the forties, this attempt at social justice was largely abandoned by the new administrations, which instead favored an emerging industrialization. Many rural folks had no choice but to migrate to Mexico City in search of jobs—men in the factories, women in domestic service. By that time, what was left of the aristocracy had moved from La Roma to higher-up areas farther from the city, opening the way for the beneficiaries of the new order: politicians, businessmen, professionals, bureaucrats. La Roma was reborn, La Condesa expanded. New parks, houses and apartment blocks in eclectic styles, and neo-Gothic churches appeared. From the fifties on, both colonias began to house middle-class families—like Cuarón’s, and like my own.
At the moment that he recreates (the end of 1970 and, most significantly, 1971), construction of these kinds of building projects had ended, and the architectural magnificence had ceased, but La Roma had become something better: a laboratory of cohabitation, with its stores and markets, its great schools, its playgrounds. To walk those streets is once again to see Juanita from the newsstand, the woman from the convenience store or the pharmacy, that other lady from the tiny restaurant or the Cine Gloria. The sounds of our world were exactly those reproduced by Cuarón: the TV programs; the radio commercials; the popular songs of the day; the chimes from the garbage truck; the sellers of balloons, sweets, and calaveritas (sugar skulls); the melancholy organ-grinder; the whistle of the camote (sweet potato) cart; and the voices of the ancient characters who passed through those streets, like the knife sharpener.
Indoors, the family in Roma is an us made up not only of Sofía and Antonio; their small children, Toño, Paco, Pepe, and Sofi; as well as Teresa (the grandmother, Sofía’s mother) but also of people who have come from very far away and very long ago, rural women who since colonial times have accompanied the lives of the others, those who are criollo (of Spanish extraction) or mixed-race, with a faithfulness that is moving but that also jars in its obvious inequity. This arrangement was replicated in my own family, as in so many others. The “muchachas”—the “girls”—as we called them, lived in a separate room, in the attic of the house. There were—there still are—many other ways of referring to them, all of them reminiscent of the feudal regime from life on the haciendas: the servants, the staff, the maids. They divided up the work: they cooked; they “did the bedrooms”; they mopped the floors; they went to el mandado (to do the shopping at the market); they washed, hung out, and ironed the clothes. They kept an eye on our daily schedule. They were the tellers of stories, the guardians of faith, the confidantes, the singers. They may not have been pure indigenous girls, like Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the sweet, stoic Mixtec woman of Cuarón’s movie. But they often mumbled words in Nahuatl. I can almost see them beside me now, with their aprons and their braids, serving us our afternoon snack and hot chocolate. Like Cuarón’s women.
Up to this point, the layers of the past revealed by Cuarón seem almost bucolic, his film a loving search for a lost time. But in this populous city in 1971, and in this conventional middle-class family in the Colonia Roma, other, older layers are to burst out, those volcanic seams that from time to time break through Mexico’s surface, with their frightening trail of destruction and death.
Three years earlier, in 1968, the regime of the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party), which had governed the country since 1929, had committed a crime that would never be erased from the collective memory. As in other parts of the world then, the young had rebelled peacefully against the established order. Mexico was growing economically, there was order, peace, and stability, but political participation and civil liberties remained severely restricted. I was a part of this rebellious youth, and I marched in the streets. On October 2, 1968, ten days before the opening of the Olympic Games, the government of President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–70) brutally suppressed a student rally in the old pre-Hispanic square in Tlatelolco. The celebration of freedom was bathed in blood. Octavio Paz, Mexico’s foremost poet, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Literature, saw in this massacre an echo of the human sacrifices that were practiced in Aztec times on this very same site.
At the time Roma covers, a new president, Luis Echeverría, had just taken power. As Díaz Ordaz’s secretary of the interior, he had been jointly responsible for the massacre, but he tried to dissociate himself from these events by a feigned attitude of openness toward criticism and democracy. One of his first acts was to free the students who had been arrested during the student movement and held for more than two years, and they, on their release, immediately called a new protest march to revive the libertarian spirit of ’68 and put the government’s sincerity to the test. The march was called for the afternoon of June 10, 1971, Corpus Christi Thursday. The student contingent was to gather at the Casco de Santo Tomás (the headquarters of the National Polytechnic Institute) and march peacefully down Avenida Ribera de San Cosme. My friend Héctor Aguilar Camín and I arrived punctually.
“The killings of June 10, 1971, are not just another event in Roma. They are the tragic crux of the movie.”
Suddenly, we spotted a group of young people armed with long canes (typical of what you’d find in the martial art kendo), who surged forward toward the peaceful march, striking and seizing students. By a miracle, we managed to take refuge in an apartment block, from whose roof we were able to watch the macabre spectacle Cuarón reproduces, totally faithfully, in Roma. Just days later, we published our witness statement:
They are shouting, “Long live Che Guevara.” They are walking right in front of us, carrying identical yellow sticks in one hand and stones in the other. They arrive in front of the anti-riot tanks that have been parked at the top of the road . . . and there they resume their shouts of “Che Guevara,” all the while throwing stones at the windows of a store.
No one knows how many people died—possibly dozens—that afternoon at the hands of the Falcons, the band trained by Echeverría’s government to suppress this resurgence of the student movement. Their tactics were crude enough: pretend to be students, shout slogans, infiltrate the demonstration to beat up the students, get them into private vehicles and camouflaged police cars, take them to some unknown destination, and eliminate them.
The killings of June 10, 1971, are not just another event in Roma. They are the tragic crux of the movie, because one of the Falcons, trained in martial arts, is Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero Martínez), boyfriend to Cleo, the kids’ guardian angel. Having won her love and gotten her pregnant, Fermín abandons Cleo. She, dignified and earnest, appeals to his compassion only to discover, by chance, on that same June 10, that the father-to-be of her child is a murderer.
There is a silent, scared woman with Cleo in this scene. It is grandmother Teresa (Verónica García), always in black, who shares the daily comings and goings of the house, who watches as the kids grow up, who bears witness to the sudden collapse of the home provoked by another man, her son-in-law Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), the respectable doctor who one fine day, pretending he needs to go on a work trip, simply disappears from his house, abandoning Sofía (Marina de Tavira) and their four children forever. The house is left adrift, with no support, with no men.
It is here, in this bursting out of the oldest, most primitive layer of all—a man’s violence toward a woman—that Cuarón’s Roma takes on a resemblance to another movie about women alone and abandoned children. I’m referring to Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados, which was filmed, significantly, in Romita. The youngsters in that classic film are much poorer and more defenseless than the ones in Roma: orphans of the city, street children, who, abandoned by their ghostly father, lead nomadic lives that hang by the narrowest thread from their mother, also abandoned, a woman sunk into misery and despair. In Los olvidados, sexuality, motherhood, and death are—as in Aztec mythology—sibling deities: the rough El Jaibo, friend to the innocent Pedro, makes him complicit in a murder, he seduces his mother, and he finally kills him. In Los olvidados, the mother embodies a term of a thousand uses that has been at the center of all Mexican speech from time immemorial: la chingada. Paz described its meaning in The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950): La chingada is invariably a woman who—following what is unfortunately an age-old historical pattern—is the defenseless victim of a male who seduces her, deceives her, rides roughshod over her, strikes her, abandons her. She is the downtrodden, the downcast, the defeated, the mistreated, the defenseless, the alone; she is death in life.
Cuarón’s children face a less implacable destiny, but their lives contain a similar void, that of their father, and a similar light, that of their mother. In Roma, the figure of la chingada is split into Sofía and Cleo, the lady of the house and the servant. Sofía in her bedroom dreams of conjugal and family harmony. Cleo, up on the roof of the house, surrounded by the clothes strung up to dry and the clear landscape of the city, dreams of love. The dreams turn to nightmares. Both women are chingadas by their men—foolish, violent, arrogant men, each in his own way. But unlike the mother in Los olvidados, these women do not succumb. In a way, their feats of survival manage to take the verb chingar and reverse it: they are no longer the ones who are chingadas by others but, in a sense, the chingonas, the ones with the power—not because they actually harm anybody else but because, by uniting, they save themselves.
The movie’s most emblematic scene is the hug shared by the four children and Sofía and Cleo, beside the choppy waves of the Gulf of Mexico. More than merely a hug, it is a tree of arms, a sacramental tree. It’s the tree of the Mexican family. In the absence of their father, the children will grow up in the political turmoil of seventies Mexico, which worms its way into the movie, but they will have the protection of provident women.
Will Cleo make it through? Will she start her own family? One thing is clear: nobody can ever chingar her again. Sofía will make it, and perhaps one of her children will even create a free cinematic re-creation, half a century later, of the miracle of that indigenous woman, born of such deep and ancient layers, who with pure love managed to nick the terrible blade of the knife that has, for so long, threatened the heart of the Mexican people.
Translation by Daniel Hahn