Taking a walk through Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood in 2018 holds traces of the Roma of the 1970s, the setting of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, now on Netflix.
Cars honk at each other through the district’s crowded avenidas, vendors hawk goods from newspaper stands, and the shrill whistle of the camote (sweet potato) peddler still pierces the air, just as it did decades ago.
But the neighborhood’s distinct architectural style has been increasingly replaced by high-rise apartment buildings, families have been swapped for the city’s young and hip, and trolley cars are now metrobuses.
In many ways, the Roma of Cuarón’s world doesn’t exist anymore.
However, many of the issues the film touches on—from treatment of the country’s indigenous population to the city’s devastating earthquakes—remain the same in 2018.
The film opens quietly—the camera focused on sudsy waters streaming across the screen, panning up to reveal Cleo, the live-in housekeeper, washing the driveway.
Cleo is a dark-skinned indigenous woman from Oaxaca. She speaks Mixtec, an indigenous language, along with the other housekeeper, Adela. The family she works for are all fair-skinned.
Her character is based on Cuarón’s own housekeeper growing up, Liboria Rodríguez, or “Libo.” The filmmaker told NPR in an interview that growing up, he didn’t realize the power imbalances that permeate Mexican society, including in his own household.
For many Mexicans, live-in help is considered to be “like family”—but those familial ties have limits.
It’s Cleo who sings the children to sleep, to whom they say “te quiero.”
But it’s Cleo’s employers, like the family’s mother Sofia, who scold her for not cleaning quickly enough, or Sofia’s mother Teresa, who can’t recall Cleo’s full name when asked for it.
“In the same breath it’s: ‘We really love you, but go and wash the clothes, and bring the Twinkie wonders, and make a smoothie for me,’ Cuarón said of the housekeeper’s role. “But at the same time, when everything goes wrong, it’s your fault. ‘Why you didn’t clean the dog poo?’”
In 2016, Mexico’s national statistics agency found that more than 2.3 million Mexicans worked as domestic employees. Of those, 97.6 percent had suffered labor violations, like long hours or low pay.
Many of these domestic workers already have family of their own, but moved far from home for work opportunities.
When the family travels to join others at an hacienda for New Year’s, Cleo examines the fields.
“Looks like my pueblo,” she says, wistfully.
Cuarón admitted his ignorance of his housekeeper’s life beyond his residence in an interview with Mexican magazine Letras Libres.
“What surprised me most was to discover her social life outside of the bubble,” he said. “It revealed to me a whole other universe. Libo told me of a social context that was almost opposite of the world inside the house.”
For much of the 20th century, laborers like Libo and Cleo flocked to Mexico’s large cities from the southeast of the country in search of work and better living conditions.
Now, as Mexico City is grappling with overpopulation, its lower class suffers. While the city suffered a massive, week-long water outage in November as a quick fix to aid its failing infrastructure, water shortages continue to be a reality for those on the outskirts of town.
While water pipes continue to decay, the city’s scars from last year’s earthquake remain visible, literally, as cracks along buildings or debris that has yet to be cleared away.
Cleo herself plays witness to an earthquake, an eerie predecessor to the 1985 quake that rocked the city, killing around 10,000. That quake largely changed the landscape of the Roma neighborhood, wiping out the colonia Cuarón once knew.
On the 32nd anniversary of that day, another quake shook Mexico City, killing 228. Once again, Roma and neighboring Condesa suffered, due to their construction atop an unstable dry lake bed.
Just as the city’s physical faults rupture, the political fault lines that rupture in Roma continue to have aftershocks.
In one scene, Cleo and Señora Teresa cross through a group of student protesters in the street, making their way into a furniture store. Minutes later, the bloodbath begins: It’s the 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre, when a group of thugs-for-hire descended upon the crowd, leaving at least two dozen dead.
The attackers, known as Los Halcones, had been formed by the Federal District government to prevent popular movements like the 1968 student movement from emerging again. Their members included porros, who infiltrated universities from the inside to violently break up student groups. In September of this year, more than 30,000 students protested after a smaller group of high schoolers were attacked by porros.
Many Mexicans still see their government as corrupt. It’s something President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office earlier this month, has promised to fight.
But decades after the slaughter portrayed in Roma, many Mexican viewers see the Corpus Christi Massacre as an all-too-familiar reminder of their reality.
While the film portrays the larger picture of Mexico’s sociopolitical issues, above all else, it’s a personal movie.
Cleo is more than her work, and viewers are allowed to see her as a complex human with complex emotions. Eventually, Sofia sees that as well, as the two bond over failed relationships and the prospect of single motherhood.
“It doesn’t matter what they tell you, we’ll always be alone,” she tells Cleo morosely.
But in the end, life goes on.
Roma isn’t just a postcard to the past, but Alfonso Cuarón’s memory of his childhood neighborhood brought to life in today’s terms—earthquakes, inequalities and all.