Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s highly personal and critically acclaimed new film, meticulously reconstructs the Mexico City of the filmmaker’s childhood in the 1970s, depicting events both insignificant and monumental, from unfinished queues to political turbulence, with equal care. The film, which premiered at the Venice International Film Festival in August and opened in theaters in November before debuting on Netflix in December. 14, has already garnered a slew of awards and nominations, including three Golden Globe nods. Roma is also nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director.
The film is painstakingly accurate in its recreation of the place and time in which the story takes place, as shown through the eyes of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a live-in maid inspired by the one she helped raise cuarón, and the middle-class family that employs her. while the film doesn’t deal directly with the politics or social issues of the time, they seep into the narrative, subtly at times and dramatically, unequivocally, at others.
experience in the time period is not a prerequisite to appreciating roma, but viewers who experience the film without a foundation in modern mexican history may find themselves hungry for a better understanding when leaving the theater (or closing netflix , according to the case). be). To help provide some of the context for the story, Time spoke with experts on 20th-century Mexican history about the dominant political and social forces that shaped Mexico during the time Rome is developing.
a nation on the brink
For much of the 20th century, Mexico was a nation situated at an uncomfortable juncture between authoritarianism and democracy. In the 1970s, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated the country’s government, as it had done since its founding in 1929, using a combination of political patronage, repression, and electoral fraud to stay in power. Rome portrays Mexico at a time when the tensions created by this system had almost reached a breaking point.
Violence in the countryside had been a pillar of the regime for years. one of the legacies of the pri was the so-called “dirty war” against insurgents in rural mexico during the 1960s and 1970s. according to a leaked official report in 2006, mexican government soldiers committed a series of atrocities during the campaign, perpetrating massacres, rapes and the destruction of entire towns to end both armed and legal opposition.
rome captures mexico at a time when this type of violence was making its way into all facets of society. In 1968, when youth movements erupted in the United States and around the world, Mexico City experienced a summer of street protests against government repression. on Oct. on february 2, thousands of students gathered in the plaza of the three cultures of the tlatelolco housing complex in mexico city. During the meeting, government snipers stationed on rooftops opened fire, and as chaos ensued, soldiers stationed on the edge of the square began firing into the crowd of students, killing dozens in what became known as the massacre of tlatelolco.
Events in Rome continue the horrific legacy of 1968. As the family drama unfolds, tensions within the city begin to boil over. Campaign posters and banners promoting the PRI appear in several scenes, while Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a young man Cleo dates, appears training with several hundred young people as part of a secret paramilitary force.
These political tensions come to a head in Rome’s portrayal of another event that shook Mexico to its core: the Corpus Christi massacre, which provides the backdrop for one of the film’s most climactic scenes. On June 10, 1971, a crowd of protesting students was attacked by the Halcones, or “hawks,” a group of government-trained paramilitary youths pretending to pose as a rival student faction. Armed with knives and bamboo sticks, the thugs killed dozens of protesters and the clash shocked the entire country.
“Part of the modern Mexican state’s deal with the Mexican people was that violence would not occur in the cities,” explains Paul Gillingham, a historian at Northwestern University who specializes in Mexican politics, culture, and violence. “Violence happens a lot in the countryside; It was very much a case of out of sight, out of mind, which was also helped by a tight control of the Mexican national press,” says Gillingham. “The Corpus Christi massacre and the Tlatelolco massacre that preceded it broke this basic rule.”
For some, the massacres of 1968 and 1971 were galvanizing events, undeniable manifestations of the fact that the regime’s democratic moves were just window dressing for an authoritarian state.
“It was confirmation for many young people that there was no other way than armed struggle,” says Sergio Aguayo, a professor at Colegio de México and president of the board of directors of Fundar, a Mexican democratic research NGO. “[the government] crushed insurrections everywhere, and from politically disappeared people emerged the modern human rights movement that was instrumental in eroding the legitimacy of the political system.”
It would take many more years for the PRI monopoly in power in Mexico to fall. Only in 2000 was the PRI’s presidential candidate defeated by the country’s 55th president, Vicente Fox, ending the party’s 71-year period of political domination.
agrarian reform: blood and soil
The theme of land use also appears in the background of the story in Rome, just as many conflicts in the Mexican countryside tended to take place on the periphery of the lives of those who lived in the cities. In the film, when the family takes a trip out of Mexico City, they discover that their landlord friends have been in conflict with their tenants, who apparently killed their dog.
These land disputes have deep roots, dating back to property conflicts decades earlier. In the early 20th century and before, plantation owners illegally confiscated the land of many villagers, reducing farmers to serfdom. An important postulate of the PRI government was the restoration of these lands through the dismantling of plantations, a goal that was carried out sporadically over the decades.
Throughout the 20th century, the PRI continued to maintain popular support in part by portraying themselves as land reformers who would redistribute the country’s wealth, even though Mexico remained an extraordinarily unequal country under the party’s rule. For many, the massacres in Mexico City exposed the government for the almost authoritarian system that it was. “Corpus Christi is confirmation of the damage done in ’68,” says Gillingham. “[it was] the delegitimization of a revolutionary regime.”
In mid-century Mexico, land reform remained a half-fulfilled promise, with many communities lacking the land they needed to survive amid a huge population boom. in the 1960s, the problem could no longer be ruled out.
“You are influenced not only by Mexican revolutionary ideals, but also by Cuba,” Gillingham explains. In nearby Cuba, Fidel Castro had recently led a dramatic communist revolution, toppling the authoritarian government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and inspiring other poor populations to take up arms. “and the effect of this is that throughout the 1960s, peasant occupation of the land, radicalism, and responses from the army have increased, quelling peasant protests.”
a racial divide
In Rome, the unspoken divisions of race and class play out beneath the surface of every encounter. Cleo, who is indigenous, watches TV and goes on vacation with the white family he serves, seemingly blurring the barrier between them, until they ask her to go get tea.
“The color of your skin determines the size of your bank account or, indeed, if you have a bank account,” says Gillingham. “Most of the poorest rural populations in Mexico are also the most indigenous populations.”
Land scarcity, in addition to the regime’s policy of keeping corn prices artificially low to promote industrialization, forced mass migrations of poor indigenous populations, both to the United States and to larger cities in Mexico. many, like cleo de roma, came to mexico city and other urban areas to be housewives, often serving as bridges that led others away from their families or towns from their homes in the countryside.
for gillingham, the impetus behind these migrations is the same motivating force that underlies almost all social and historical dynamics in the mexico city of roma and the lives of those who are swept up in it: “direct and desperate poverty in parts of what is a really rich country.”
write to alejandro de la garza at firstname.lastname@example.org.