“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón’s memoir of childhood in Mexico City, received 10 Academy Award nominations this year, and won in three big categories: best foreign language film, best cinematography, and best director.
Set in 1970, the movie is an intimate portrait of Cuarón’s neighborhood, Colonia Roma, and the people who populated it, especially his nanny, an indigenous Mixtec woman played by Oscar-nominated Yalitza Aparico. Filmed in black and white, the movie captures the spirit of the past, aided in part by a devastating earthquake in 1985 that slowed the district’s gentrification. On a recent visit, I was curious to see this other part of Mexico City, outside of its impressive tourist destinations. Visiting places where the movie was filmed, it was easy to imagine the area as it looked half a century ago.
The sprawling metropolis of Mexico City can be overwhelming for a newcomer, so I connected with Catalina Beraducci, a young actress and writer familiar with the filming locations of “Roma.” Divided into Norte and Sur (north and south), Colonia Roma today is an artsy bohemian enclave known for its lively chef-owned restaurants and bars, art galleries, lovely parks, and Neo-colonial and Art Deco architecture.
We began our pilgrimage in Roma Sur, meandering along tree-shaded residential streets, passing colorful two and three story buildings with shops, cafes, and a small independent cinema displaying an enormous Roma film poster.
Our first destination, the family house (Tepeji 22, Roma Sur) is identified by a discrete plaque that reads, “Aqui Se Filmo ROMA.” It was here I realized I was not the only person on this quest. A couple were taking selfies in front of the garage door, and a man arrived alone to snap some shots as I was leaving. Movie geek alert: Cuarón’s actual childhood home (Tepeji 21) is opposite the house in the film. When comparing my photos with film stills, I noticed the filmmaker switched the house number and changed the shape of the window to mirror his actual family home. (And then, obviously, changed it back.) The giveaway — other than the sign — is the tree in front with branching trunks.
From there we walked to Kinder Condesa (Tlaxcala 105, Roma Sur), the kindergarten where Aparico’s character, Cleo, escorts one of the family’s children. A sign with a Roma film image announces the school is “very proud for the success of its former student, Alfonso Cuarón.” As I photographed the building, the door opened twice to let students in and out, and I stepped back so as not to intrude. The third time, a smiling woman emerged to offer me a map of the city, saying it was un regalo, a gift.
The more we strolled the more the movie came to life. Mexico City is alive with sounds that played a role in the film, and they were present on our journey: barking dogs, children’s voices, streetside knife sharpeners, gas vendors, junk salesmen, organ grinders (sans monkeys) and military bands. Add to that the smells of food vendors selling everything from tacos carnitas to grilled sweet potatoes and corn, and roasted coffee wafting from open cafes.
There are numerous places to stop for a meal or coffee break in Roma. For aromatic organic coffee and baked goods, nothing beats Borola Café Roma (Jalapa 181, borola.mx); for a full on breakfast try the colorful and playful Lalo (Zacatecas 173, eat-lalo.com); a tasty lunch of typical food from the Yucatan peninsula can be had at Cantina Riviera del Sur (Chiapas 174, www.facebook.com/cantinariviera).
An Uber whisked us to Hospital Siglo XXI (Av. Cuauhtémoc 330, Doctores), an area of hospitals and health care centers where some of the movie’s pivotal scenes were filmed. The cutting-edge medical facility is heroic in scale, as are stunning murals along the vast entryway and the subsequent courtyard. Turning to leave, we spied life-size letters of the movie title,
ROMA. They seem to be ready for cinephile tourism.
Opened in 1943, the massive former movie house Teatro Metropolitan (Av. Independencia 90, Colonia Centro) — where maids Cleo and Adela go to meet their dates — sports an Art Deco façade inspired by Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall in New York. The theater today is used for concerts and live dance and other performances. As I snapped a photo, a late-1960s Plymouth Fury III convertible cruised down the street, a serendipitous bonus to my Roma-inspired day.
Our final destination was La Casa del Pavo (Motolinia 40, Centro Historico) — literally, “the house of turkey” — the modest eatery where Cleo is introduced to her boyfriend, Fermin. Founded in 1901, the restaurant is known for its turkey sandwiches, and also serves meals such as chicken with mole poblano and grilled steak.
En route to the restaurant, an easy 10-minute hike from the theater, we detoured along Alemeda Central, the city’s oldest public park. Turning the corner, as if on cue, we met hundreds of protesters marching in the wide Avenida Juarez, waving flags and chanting. Beraducci translated their familiar-sounding slogan — “The workers, united, will not be divided!” — and I recalled the movie’s scene with mobs of student protesters. Luckily, no shots were fired. The march that day was peaceful.Necee Regis can be reached at email@example.com.