Colonia Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City, is well known among locals for its art galleries, restaurants, bookstores and museums - it is a hotspot of contemporary art and culture. However, this cultural tradition actually dates back to the Porfirian Era in the early twentieth century. The area was a way to present Mexico City as a modern city by creating the first colony, along with Colonia Condesa, with all basic services available to the residents. Drawn with Parisian boulevards and tree-lined streets, Roma is an exemplar of art nouveau architecture, eclectic and French-ified – an attractive area that immediately led to the arrival of wealthy families.
With its easy-to-navigate perpendicular route, Roma was for a long time a reference of good architecture inhabited by a wealthy class. Its streets, which bear the names of cities and states of Mexico, mark its limits: Chapultepec to the North, Coahuila to the South, Cuauhtémoc to the East, Insurgentes Avenue and Veracruz to the West. However, it was later divided to the south at Rio de la Piedad Street (today Viaducto), forming what we know today as Colonia Roma Sur.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, after the earthquake in 1985 (which destroyed a large number of buildings of significant architectural value), many people left the neighborhood to move to exclusive areas to the west of the city. After this, the neighborhood began to transform. Roma evolved from a residential area to a commercial zone and, was recently named a Zone of Artistic Monuments by INAH. In all of Mexico, Roma houses 10% of the country's designated artistic monuments.
The conjunction of the cities with their inhabitants and the neighborhoods with their traditions enrich the cultural value of the area, giving identity to the neighborhood. The social communication between these elements created different environments within the city, forming memories and stories that the buildings can tell. These stories are essential to director Alfonso Cuarón, who spent much of his life in the neighborhood and who recently made his most personal work inspired by the place that saw him grow: Roma.
This memory, coupled with lovingly shot perspectives of Roma is the foundation and even a protagonist of the story. He presents us with the Roma of 1971, all conceived as a memory in the early life of the director. In the film, he tries to not only recover and rebuild an entire city lost in time but present a whole era down to the smallest detail which marked the history of the country.
While it is true that the goal of the film was not to recreate Roma of the Porfirian Era, neither did it seek to represent the current reality. It was about showing a specific moment in the history of the filmmaker's life to recover the city of the past, which was transformed and reinvented in leaps and bounds in search of the modern promise of "progress".
In order to tell this story of memory, the director worked with artist Eugenio Caballero, famous for his work in Pan's Labyrinth and also connected to the neighborhood through childhood memory, to help bring the city of the '70s to everyone in 16 mm. Trams in Insurgentes, cinemas of voluntary stay, destroyed hospitals, and "crocodile" taxis are all part of the neighborhood's collective memory and were part of a strenuous investigation that Caballero, in collaboration with Cuarón, carried out based on their memories of childhood.
CGI and special effects were used for general shots of the city. For example, in the case of the intersection of Tonalá Street with Baja California, the same clotheslines were hanging on the roofs and part of the shots of Centro Médico Nacional, which was partially destroyed after the 1985 earthquake. The director refers to the same earthquake where a small tremor occurs inside the hospital. Part of the ceiling falls on the nursery boxes of newborns, a harbinger of what was to happen little more than a decade later.
The Mexico City that Roma shows us no longer exists. Rapid modernization, trenchant social struggles, and natural disasters have all changed the city and its inhabitants. In fact, some places in the city could not be recorded in situ since the conditions were not optimal or simply no longer exists.
The interior of the house, where most of the plot occurs, was conceived entirely from memories and photos of another house about to be razed to make way for an office building in the Del Valle neighborhood. This allowed the production to make modifications according to the demands of the set. The sequence inside the hospital was recreated and set in an abandoned warehouse on the campus of the same hospital. However, the most epic feat was the entire creation of the corner of Insurgentes and Baja California Street, where today the exit of the Chilpancingo metro is located. In the area of Vallejo, at the north of Mexico City, the Las Américas cinema was erected, which once served as an emblem of this important avenues crossing, with its imposing façade and palatial style characteristic of the cinemas of that time.
The small details are the ones that build the archaeological work to an exquisite climax which digs into the depths of the past. Posters of the 70's World Cup in Mexico, images of Echeverría for president, toys of yesteryear, Ensalada de Locos on television, references of Perdidos en el Espacio and children playing at being astronauts regardless of their social class.
In the same way, the sound design of the film –rendered under the Dolby ATMOS brand, the same one used to represent the vacuum of space in Gravity– was deeply work intensive for the amount of sound that can be appreciated from the time. Juan Gabriel and Javier Solís music in the background, street vendors in the avenues, sweet potato vendors in their nighttime stroll and the passing airplanes, all characterize the sounds of the city that surround you, without overwhelming, like a wave of references of a living megalopolis.
Roma brings together these elements combined with the unique fact of being part of a simple story without ties, where the city serves as another main character. Through this film you can walk, listen, perceive its smells, feel its textures, and enjoy it - but you also suffer from its hardships.
The deep investigation of architecture, culture, and life in a Mexico City that no longer exists (or only does in peoples' nostalgia) turns you into a spectator and awakens curiosity and longing for the city of memory.
José Emilio Pacheco mentions at the end of his book Las batallas en el Desierto, set in Roma: "The school was demolished, Mariana's building too, my house, the whole Colonia Roma. That city is over. The whole country is over. There is no memory of the Mexico of those years. And nobody cares: from that horror who can have nostalgia."
It seems that Alfonso Cuarón himself read these words because he painstakingly recreates the city of this time, showing social struggles and architecture interwoven in an intimate portrait. It implies that the memory of this Mexico still exists - where there are people who still care about telling past stories. Roma came to break the patterns of how the domestic worker looks, but also in the way cinema is made in Mexico.
Roma remains as a benchmark of the city. Ride your bike through its streets, turn into a corner you had not gone to before, stop to observe a house, give yourself time to admire it, wonder who inhabited it, who built it, all the stories that can be told. Here, you realize there are thousands of spaces in this city you do not know are there, waiting to be discovered and tell their story.
Note of the Editor.
Emiliano Bautista Neumann (1994) is a former student of the Faculty of Architecture of the UNAM for the thesis "El video documental como medio crítico y narrativo sobre Arquitectura", studied for a year at the Finis Terrae University in Santiago de Chile, was scholar of the FA Fontainebleau Scholarship in the Architecture Program of The Fontainebleau Schools of Music and Fine Arts, in Fontainebleau France, made the documentary "Chuchín", winner of the Jury and Public Prize in the UNAM Challenge organized by DocsMX Festival. He is currently creator of audiovisual content in PienZa Sostenible.
Zaickz Moz (Francisco Mosqueda) is a photographer based in Mexico City. He studied at the Faculty of Architecture, UNAM. He currently has his own studio whose work is framed in architectural and urban photography, relying on the intrinsic seriality of photography to draw attention to a phenomenon and not on isolated events. In 2017 he began his first photographic essay where he narrates through photography the history of a neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City exploring the sense of identity and community, addressing issues such as the appropriation and transformation of space.