Yesterday we received multiple emails from friends and colleagues outside of Mexico raving about the new Alfonso Cuarón film Roma and asking if we had seen it. We have not seen the film, but we watched the trailer on YouTube and were duly impressed by the beautiful black and white photography. This is not a movie review though; the flicks are not our forte but we noticed that the write-ups all mention that the film depicts Mr. Cuarón’s childhood memories of growing up in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, or Colonia Roma as it is called officially. We did not spend our childhood in Colonia Roma as Mr. Cuarón did but from our late teenage years on the neighborhood has served as the closest thing to a hometown as we have had. Our early memories of Mexico City streets as they were 40 years ago are now packed away in the recesses of the mind, which is why the depictions of the Roma of Cuarón’s youth trigger such a stunning and unexpected flood of recognition.
We suspect that children look the same to their parents throughout their lives because, at least in youth, their parents see them mostly every day. For their parents’ far flung friends, however, who may see them sporadically when they are toddlers, then at age 12, and then after college, the difference is striking. To see a friend’s angelic cherub at age four who on the next visit has become a sullen, tatooed reggeatonero is rather jarring, and thus did we experience the brief scenes of Colonia Roma in the film’s trailer, albeit in reverse. Cuaron’s careful selection of interiors and backdrops masterfully recreate the Roma of years gone by, through the architectural style, décor, façades, street life and other subtle details. When we first arrived in Colonia Roma, several years before the 1985 earthquake that devastated the area, it reminded us of one of grandpa’s suits – once elegant but now perhaps ready for the charity shop. Then came the earthquake that destroyed or damaged many of the early 20th century homes that gave the neighborhood its characteristic architectural style, leaving empty lots used as car parks in their place. Apartments in the area were quite affordable, with prices kept moderate by earthquake fears and the prevalence of damaged and abandoned buildings. And so it was for many years.
Then, somewhere around the mid to late 2000s, a remarkable transformation began. As has happened in cities around the world, this rather dog-eared neighborhood began to attract young bohemians, artists and hipsters from other parts of the city and the country, and then, increasingly, from abroad. The snowball began to roll, with the wondrous world of the internet serving as the key game-changer in allowing young people to spread the word, find housing and stay for as long or short a time as they liked. Galleries and boutiques sprouted, and above all, trendy food and drink establishments began to replace declining trades such as shoe repair, tailoring, small appliance repair and the like. The arrival of internet-based platforms such as Airbnb, Uber and Instagram sent the process into overdrive, and by 2017 Colonia Roma was an absolute global millennial must-do, splashed across media from Condé Nast Traveler to the Guardian to, of course, influencer social media. Property prices soared untethered and the club music throbbed deep into the night.
Alas, in September 2017 yet another earthquake struck Mexico City causing massive damage to the Roma and Condesa neighborhoods and scaring the shit out of every man, woman, child and pet in the area. The place looked like a meteor hit it and one might as well have. Many long-time local residents fled in terror vowing never to return, and most of the swinging Good Time Charlies and digital nomads departed posthaste to Hanoi, Bogotá or wherever it’s all happening next. Property developers, however, ever the optimists, have been taking advantage of the post-earthquake disorder to tear down as many of the remaining quaint old buildings as they can to put up generic apartment buildings in their place. We don’t know when Mr. Cuarón shot his film but he must have faced a challenge finding two or three contiguous older buildings for his period shots. At the same time, we observe that for whatever reason the presence of young foreign visitors has not only rebounded but lately is surging to near cruise-ship levels. They appear to be oblivious to the demolitions, ratty tents and extortion operations that now dominate the urban landscape.
We can only surmise that the popularity of the film Roma will do further wonders for the Colonia Roma brand and motivate even more citizens of the world to trek down from California to make the scene via Instagram Stories, Snapchat or what have you. As it is we can barely walk down the sidewalk without being trod upon by some tool from San Diego on a Bird scooter struggling to text while juggling a Venti Matcha, headphones and pet iguana. Many of our new neighbors in the coming year undoubtedly will have been inspired by the character of Cleo, the beleaguered indigenous nanny to Mr. Cuarón’s fictional middle class family. Lamentably, life has changed little for the real-life Cleos of Colonia Roma since the 1970s. But this is immaterial for the contemporary Netflix-driven visitors. For them – and, at this point pretty much for us too – Roma is just a movie. We hope you all get a chance to see it.