Alfonso Cuarón’s award-winning movie takes place in a gritty, colourful barrio that has retained its stylish eclecticism
Mexico City’s Roma for me has long been a place of secrets and spells, where the boundary between real and imaginary dances like clothes fluttering in the breeze on the barrio’s rooftop washing-lines, according to The Guardian.
Those celestial laundries feature in Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s cinematic memoir, a movie that transports its viewers to the then-faded district a couple of miles to the west of the ancient centre of the vast sprawl that is Mexico City. It has already won four Baftas and received a rapturous 10 nominations for this year’s Oscars, including for best director and best film – if it wins the latter next Sunday, it will become the first foreign language film ever to do so.
What, though, of the real Roma, where Cuarón was raised half a century ago? In the Cuauhtémoc borough of Mexico City, Colonia Roma is divided into Norte and Sur, north and south, and is today one of the capital’s liveliest and most up-and-coming areas. My introduction to it came on an autumn day 12 years ago when I arrived to knock on the door of one of its most magical dwellings, that of the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington. She had lived on Calle Chihuahua in the heart of the district since the 1940s, and was among its most famous residents; she was also my father’s cousin, missing from our family since her affair with Max Ernst in 1937. I had come to hear her story and interview her; I ended up becoming her friend and visiting her twice a year until her death five years later.
Each morning, I would walk along the wide, tree-lined boulevard that bisects the district, Avenida Álvaro Obregón, whose central reservation, dotted with fountains, benches and statues, feels like an urban park. It’s spring all year round in Mexico City – mostly sunny, almost always warm – and I have rarely felt more alive than I did on that daily journey. It seemed as though a colourful world was waking up to a glorious day with exciting, spontaneous possibilities: juice stalls piled high with oranges, papaya, melons; suited business people breakfasting at pavement cafés; smiley children armed with trays of small toys they were touting. Guitar and trumpet and pop music curled out of the doorways, accompanied by the delicious smells of tortas and tacos, huevos y frijoles (eggs and beans).
I am still a regular visitor to Roma and the area hasn’t changed in essence, although it’s a bit more gentrified each time I go. Its development hasn’t been a linear story. Roma has a grand hinterland, as its ornate, fin de siècle mansions, with their shuttered French windows and intricate balconies, suggest. Some of them have been redeveloped, of which the best-known is Casa Lamm, now an upmarket arts centre-cum-restaurant-cum-bookshop. The area’s heyday was in the first half of the 20th century, when it became the desirable neighbourhood for wealthy Europeans; by the time Leonora and her fellow émigré artists arrived, refugees from the second world war, it was beginning to fade.
That continued through Cuarón’s childhood; perhaps the director’s decision to shoot his movie in black and white reflects it. But the spacious houses were there, as Roma’s lingering shots depict: open-plan living rooms, internal courtyards, Bauhaus-style windows, open-air iron staircases leading to the rooftop laundries. Leonora’s house is five minutes’ walk from Cuarón’s; the movie was shot on the street where he grew up, Tepeji, in the house opposite his family’s own.
The biggest blow to Roma’s fortunes came suddenly and without warning, 15 years or so after the year in which the film is set, on the morning of 19 September 1985. An 8.1-magnitude earthquake devastated the city, killing 5,000, and Roma was one of the barrios that was hardest-hit. The disaster’s legacy remains: the churned-up, uneven pavements on some side roads; the occasional still-ruined building, usually housing stray cats. The area’s rehabilitation was slow, and in some ways it continues, but the run-down ambience led to cheap rents and a way of life that was affordable for a new generation of artists, and their influence has helped shape its current air of bohemianism.
Roma’s cafés and bars are lively places. My favourites are Buna on Orizaba just off the fountain-centred Plaza Rio de Janeiro, great for people-watching; Borola on Jalapa with its airy interior and wide range of delicious coffees; and the tiny roadside shacks, different every time I go, where you can buy a beverage to go or linger in the sunshine, drinking it all in. For mezcal, go to the candlelit La Clandestina on Obregón with its 40-plus varieties; for tequila (my tipple) Salon Covadonga, on Puebla, is also the area’s best seafood restaurant and unbeatable. I also enjoy the upmarket Sobrinos on Obregón: brunch is its best-value meal, although going for dinner means you can sit up at the pavement bar, sipping a margarita while you wait for your table.
For me it’s the area’s stylish eclecticism that gives it the edge. Roma seems to have taken the essence of this complicated, busy, gritty, art-fixated, colourful, musical city and made it its own: but it’s not touristy like Coyoacán, where Frida Kahlo lived, or high-rise like Polanco, where American business people flock. It’s not expensive like ultra-fashionable Condesa, or crowded like the Zócalo, the city’s historic heart. And it’s a proper neighbourhood, where frequent visitors know the bartenders and the baristas, the porters in the hotel hallway and the friendly staff in the local launderette.
It’s also safe; or at least, that’s always been my experience. I must have walked hundreds of miles around it on my own without incident (unlike in Acapulco, where someone was kidnapped from my bus a few months ago). For me, the magic is tangible; my favourite late-night stop, as I wend my way back to my hotel or apartment, is the churrería El Moro on Obregon, busy round the clock. Last time I was there I found myself, at 1am, sharing a table with a large Mexican family (probably quite like Cuarón’s) and a mariachi musician in full costume. He propped his guitar against the wall, took a bite of his cinnamon-drenched churro and a slug of his spicy Oaxacan hot chocolate, and we smiled at one another to acknowledge the sheer deliciousness of the flavour, and of the moment.
Way to go
British Airways flies to Mexico City from around £750. Hotel Marbella has doubles from £60; the Stanza has doubles from £50. For a feel of Roma’s typical interiors, try the upmarket Casa Goliana, doubles from £250