“Roma” Is More Than Just a Movie—It’s One of Mexico City’s Most Vibrant Neighborhoods
Thomas J. Story
Sophisticated dining and shopping have sprung up in a revitalized neighborhood that still retains charms from a bygone era
Joel Balsam, Travel + Leisure
March 13, 2019
| Updated April 2, 2019
Silvia Sanchez, a Mexico City street cleaner, sweeps sticks and leaves into a neat pile in front of a house that would be nondescript if not for the plaque above the carport. “Aquí se filmó Roma,” it reads, Roma was filmed here.
“Todo es diferente,” said Sanchez, everything is different in the neighborhood she’s spent her entire life in.
Like Sanchez, director Alfonso Cuarón grew up in Colonia Roma and shot the film based on his youth across the street from his childhood home. Besides being a meditation about race and class in 1970s Mexico City, and the mistreatment of domestic workers, Roma, which won three Oscars at the 2019 Academy Awards, is about a neighborhood — a neighborhood which is indeed different.
In 1985, a massive earthquake struck Roma hard, killing over 10,000 in Mexico City and sending many of the middle to upper-class citizens who inhabited the neighborhood’s European-style homes away. They all left, Sanchez said, “Todo se fue.”
La Roma tumbled into a recession in the years that followed, but like other gritty neighborhoods — New York’s Williamsburg or London’s Shoreditch—it has been reborn.
Much of the tranquility that absorbed so many into the world of Cuáron’s 1970s Roma, including the Academy, may have fallen through the cracks opened by the 1985 and 2017 earthquakes, the latter of which killed over 200 and had a particularly harsh impact on Roma. But if you simply look around can still catch a glimpse of the era.
Wander through the neighborhood’s upper Roma Norte or, in Cuarón’s words, the “edgier” (and more residential) Roma Sur and you’ll still see Volkswagen Beetles parked in front of carports barely wide enough for their vehicles, historic buildings with gorgeous ivy tumbling down their facades, street carts frying up cheap quesadillas, and a neighborhood of relative calm just minutes from the 21-million-person metropolis’ downtown core.
Today, Romanos are pushing the fold. They’re providing some of the best tastes, smells, sounds, and rhythms in the city. Toss in stylish accommodations and eclectic nightlife and the neighborhood seems to have it all. But even with a fresh energy permeating the old exterior, it somehow maintains the charm of the neighborhood Cuarón once called home.
Where to Eat in Roma
At chef Eduardo García’s brunch spot Lalo!, plates soar from the open kitchen piled high with French toast bathed in jam, fresh berries, and cream. On the long communal table, stylish Romanos dig into red chilaquiles or eggs whipped up with ricotta and huitlacoche (corn smut), which meet the increasing demand for vegetarian options in La Roma. García, who also owns one of the neighborhood’s top restaurants, French-inspired Máximo Bistrot, is one of a handful of chefs mixing up Mexican cuisine with European fare in upscale, yet unpretentious restaurants. The buzz these chefs have created means that some establishments, including Máximo Bistrot, almost always require a reservation, especially at peak hours.
One of the city’s most renowned chefs, Elena Reygadas, has split her business into a high-end Italian-inspired restaurant, Rosetta, and a cozy bakery across the street with little room for more than the L-shaped bar and stools. Flaky croissants and guava-filled rolls from Panaderia Rosetta make for a perfect companion for an afternoon at nearby Plaza Río de Janeiro.
Outside the sphere of trendy bars and restaurants, Orinoco is an institution. Trompo al pastor tacos are shaved from a massive spit onto wheat or corn tortillas and served with a platter of sauces including a tzatziki-like yogurt mixture and a chile serrano cilantro salsa. It’s customary to wash it all down with Orinoco’s agua de jamaica and guava drink served chilly in a huge metal cup.
For dessert, or any time of the day really, Churrería El Moro has been offering warm hugs of fried-dough pastries and hot chocolate since 1935. Find El Moro on Álvaro Obregón, the neighborhood’s main drag, or following a sushi burrito inside the gourmet food hall Mercado Roma.
Where to Stay in Roma
Yalitza Aparicio’s character “Cleo” in Roma is based on Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, the domestic worker who helped raise Cuarón at his home in Roma Sur. A short walk up from that very home, another domestic worker, known only to her family as Mrs. Ignacia, took care of a 1913 mansion for more than 70 years. After Ignacia died, the family decided to open a guest house and name it after their beloved housekeeper. The five-room Ignacia Guest House proudly squeezes oranges from trees planted by the late Ignacia and serves her recipes to guests for breakfast, including chilaquiles and quesadillas. The guest house’s Oaxacan garden beneath the rooms is another coincidental connection to Roma, since both Aparicio and her character Cleo were from the culturally rich southern state.
Closer to the action in Roma Norte, a massive 1920s mansion built in Roma’s heyday includes two-year-old Nima Local House, which has just four luxurious rooms and several lush common areas. Around the corner, La Valise’s three rooms are like full apartments. In the most lavish suite, guests can roll the bed out on the balcony to eat breakfast with a view.
For any of these accommodations, it’s best to book three to six months in advance.
Where to Drink and Dance
By the time Cuarón was growing up in Roma, the neighborhood was already past its prime. The roaring ‘20s saw La Roma at its peak, and by the ‘50s and ‘60s when the Beat Generation’s William S. Burroughs, Leonora Carrington, and Jack Kerouac descended on the neighborhood, they were the hipsters of the time.
Casa Franca stirs up a great imitation of Roma in its glory days, featuring live music (Tuesday through Saturday), artfully made cocktails, and quiet rooms that feel as though they should be filled with cigar smoke and men playing cards in suits. In reality, the rooms are packed with cuddling couples and friends laughing and drinking.
For a great mezcal, owners of El Palenquito and its sister bar La Clandestina in Condesa scour Oaxaca to pack its menu with a wide range of smoky and smooth liquors.
And to shake off those taco and queso calories, Mama Rumba’s red lights ooze out and onto the street, pulling in passersby to the Latin music club where sweaty couples swing each other around beer bottle-topped tables and chairs.
What to See and Do
Before there was La Roma, there was La Romita. In the early 1900s, Roma’s Paris-like avenues were paved around a tiny neighborhood west of downtown called La Romita. The community there fought to maintain its distinctness as Roma developed, and its plaza still stands today as an oasis within the city, complete with legions of chirping birds that ruffle bushes of bright purple flowers.
For art lovers, Roma is a gallery in itself with colorful murals and graffiti around every corner. If you’re looking to head indoors, Galería OMR in a hollowed-out old record store hosts striking contemporary art installations from both Mexican and international artists. Entrance is free.
A few blocks away from Cuarón’s childhood home, arthouse cinema Cine Tonalá was one of the first to hold a private screening of Roma. Of course, when the stylish theater and restobar finally showed the film to the neighborhood, screenings sold out for two months straight.
At another screening, this time of the 91st Oscar ceremony at neighborhood landmark Plaza Río de Janeiro, Cuarón thanked Mexico from Los Angeles after winning best foreign language film, best cinematography, and best director. Roma, which had been with him every step of the way, hooted and hollered as a thank you back for sharing their neighborhood, their voice, and their story with the world.
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