Alfonso Cuaron's uncle was a communist. He also was a meticulous record keeper. Mexico City, where they both lived, was, in early 1971, frequently the site of violent clashes between students and government forces. While visiting him one day in the summer of that year, Cuaron found a startling black-and-white photograph among his uncle's newspaper clippings. The image showed a terrified young man in a white shirt running, looking back over his shoulder at a group of men chasing him with a bamboo stick. From above, several frightened onlookers watched from the windows of a furniture store.
"He's unsure how this is going to end," Cuaron recalls of the man in the image.
The uncle explained to the 10-year old Cuaron that the people being beaten, and sometimes killed, were students, just like him, only a few years older. Cuaron recognized himself, or a future version of himself, in the fleeing man. "My little middle-class bubble burst," he says on a late-December walk through Roma Sur, the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up. "I realized there was a way bigger bubble, one that was more complex."
That image, which gestated in Cuaron's memory for nearly half a century, emerges fully formed in Roma, the ode to his childhood nanny, Liboria Rodriguez — or Libo — that will almost certainly make history as Netflix's first best picture Oscar nominee when selections are announced Jan. 22. It's one of the film's tensest moments, the visual apotheosis of the personal and political stories that informed Cuaron's young life. "[Discovering that photo] was a very specific event in my life because, throughout the years, because of that, there was more conversation," explains the director, 57.
While Roma centers mainly on the life and experiences of Cleo — the character based on the real-life Libo — the political tumult that swirled around Cuaron as a boy forms a near-constant, if largely unexplained, backdrop. "It was overwhelming," he says. "The political atmosphere in Mexico was very claustrophobic. It was this atmosphere ruled by an ideological Mexicanismo."
Roma is set in the final years of the so-called Mexican Miracle, a decades-long period of strong economic growth that saw the ascent of middle-class families like Cuaron's (his father was a doctor specializing in nuclear medicine). Inequality, then as now, was pervasive. Many parts of the society were split along ethnic lines, the lingering effects of a caste system that dated to the colonial era. "Roma shows how much the middle classes were complicit with a deeply unequal system," says Mauricio Tenorio, director of the Katz Center for Mexican Studies at the University of Chicago, "how quiet and tamed and obedient we were."
Mexico was then, in another sense, somewhat like the United States today — an ideologically divided land simmering with forces of autocracy, populism and nascent rebellion. Cuaron's own family was cleaved along ideological fault lines, with one side leaning far to the right — armed, he says bitterly, "with the patronizing language of decency." They were dismissive of the masses, largely unseen and unheard, who labored to make the privileged lives their employers enjoyed that much more comfortable. This side of his family also was vehemently opposed to the large protests that had begun sweeping the country in the early 1960s and which accelerated in the spring of 1968, as students — "those horrible students," some right-wing members of Cuaron's family told him — demanded more democratic reforms. As a child, Cuaron had attended one such demonstration, a silent protest in which the only sounds he remembers were the marchers' footsteps. "I remember stomping my feet," he says quietly, gently mimicking the sounds with his hands. While those demonstrations predate the events of Roma by a few years, they set the stage for the tumult and carnage Cleo witnesses.
As a reporter in Mexico for many years in the 2000s, I covered many of the same social and political forces on display in the film — urban elitism, the exploitation of the indigenous rural population and impunity for the powerful. These tensions continue to shape the lives of Mexicans. Yalitza Aparicio, the 26-year-old first-time actress and former schoolteacher from Oaxaca who plays Cleo, says the "experiences of the students in the film were very close to my own."
Though right-wing populism is ascendant in much of the world, Mexico has recently elected as president the left-wing populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. He has promised to go to bat for the very people Cuaron places at the center of his movie: the poor, the indigenous, the disempowered.
Cuaron, who lives in Italy, views his childhood with longing and nostalgia even as he acknowledges how sheltered and even exploitative it was. Roma is his $15 million attempt to grapple with those ambiguous feelings. "Memory can only be approached from my standpoint as an adult," he explains. "It's sometimes misguided. All of that is going to taint the whole thing." A compact man with a fashionably disheveled mop of gray hair and an intense gaze, Cuaron doesn't shy away from the pain this process has sometimes occasioned. "I wanted to visit old wounds and come to terms with who I am," he says while meandering along Calle Tepeji, the quiet, tree-lined lane where he grew up and where he filmed certain exterior shots used in the film. "I wanted to explore the wounds that shape me, both personal and wounds that I share collectively with a country and with the world."
Afternoon sunlight illuminates the city's haze. Cuaron gets lost in the sidewalk's weed-infested cracks and slabs of buckled cement, remembering how magical these streets were for him as a child. Even then, Cuaron says, he was powerfully affected by the chaos he saw happening all around him.
On Oct. 2, 1968, just days before the Summer Olympics were to begin in Mexico City, thousands of Mexicans marched on the capital and converged in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, a sweeping arena of pyramids and raised platforms surrounded by modern high-rise apartment buildings in the Tlatelolco neighborhood. The students and their supporters were protesting for reforms, more transparency and democracy. Luis Echeverria Alvarez, then Mexico's interior secretary, led the government's response, a brutal crackdown. Snipers and Mexican Army soldiers gunned down scores of people — even today no one knows exactly how many, though estimates range from several dozen to a few hundred — during what came to be known as the Tlatelolco Massacre. Many protesters also "disappeared" in the days after. Mexico was still a far cry from the brutal dictatorships that were then emerging in South America, but the Tlatelolco Massacre marked a turning point in the increasingly authoritarian regime's "dirty war" against its own people.
"It was a very big event for me," says Cuaron, who remembers how his father prevented his mother from attending; how the violence was whispered about at home; how the substance of those whispers didn't seem to make it into the newspapers of the time; how it all just sort of went away. "It was kind of lost in mythology," he says, "the same mythology where you knew Vietnam was bad, but it was kind of remote."
Hints of this oppressive atmosphere appear early on in Roma. In one of the first scenes, a child under Cleo's care describes an extrajudicial killing before quickly being shunted aside by an indifferent mother. Later, Cleo passes a light post affixed with a pamphlet for the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. By 1971, when Roma is set, the PRI, which had been in power for four decades, had swept Echeverria into the presidency. In time, his name would become synonymous with political repression and violence. The shadow of his brutal legacy reoccurs — in protests, political pamphlets and even a circus-like campaign event — as Cuaron builds his story.
For the young Cuaron, the abstract violence would soon become real. Cuaron's left-wing uncle began to tutor him about politics, teaching him about Russian revolutionary and exile Leon Trotsky, killed by one of Stalin's assassins in 1940, in Mexico City, with an axe to the head. "He always had stories, and through those stories he was conveying his ideas and beliefs," Cuaron says.
In the summer of 1971, students gathered again, this time in the heart of downtown Mexico City during the Catholic feast of Corpus Christi. As president, Echeverria had made several conciliatory gestures, implementing modest reforms and even proffering an olive branch to former foes. But when students continued to protest, the regime showed its true colors once more, unleashing on the marchers a private army it had quietly been building. The Hawks, as they were known, were paramilitary thugs who'd been trained by the Federal Security Directorate, allegedly with support from the CIA. During the ensuing El Halconazo, or Hawk Strike, which is portrayed in the film, dozens of protesters were killed and many more wounded. These were the images that Cuaron found in his uncle's newspaper clippings later that summer. "Echeverria was supposed to be the president to make an opening with those people protesting the government," says historian Tenorio, who also grew up in Mexico during that period. "But the first thing he does is the Corpus Christi Massacre."
Cuaron eventually came to understand that many of the people he'd seen in his uncle's photographs were forced to flee to the jungles of southern Mexico, where they joined left-wing guerrilla groups in places like Guerrero and Chiapas, home of the Zapatista peasant rebellion in 1994. "The democratic movements realized there was not a peaceful way to achieve anything," says the director.
Making Roma exposed Cuaron and his actors to veins of political trauma that began well before some of them were born, and which continue to this day. Aparicio herself was still a teaching student in September 2014, when 43 male students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher's college, in the politically volatile state of Guerrero, mysteriously vanished. Their kidnapping occurred while they were traveling by bus to Mexico City to commemorate, of all things, the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre. According to several accounts, police forcibly removed the students from buses and turned them over to a local crime syndicate. All of the students are presumed dead. A vast array of officialdom, including a city mayor and his wife, a Mexican Army battalion and at least 44 local police, have been implicated, though no one has been officially held to account.
Aparicio says that as an indigenous Miztec woman and a teacher, she felt personally connected to the violence. In the months that followed, she participated in protests with friends and fellow students about the disappearances. The government inaction was stifling; a sense of impunity prevailed. "It reminded me of everything that we students had been through in Mexico," she says in Spanish. "You're always afraid that if you express yourself the government is going to silence you." When, as Cleo, Aparicio found herself facing the same barbarity and ineffective government response half a century earlier, she was unexpectedly shocked. The moment in Roma arrives as a heavily pregnant Cleo, struggling to find a hospital where she can safely give birth, stumbles upon a woman whose boyfriend, a student, has just been shot dead by paramilitaries. Aparicio, a normally confident, fluid woman who speaks quickly and often bursts into laughter, struggled to convey the pain of filming this particular scene. "I recognized that woman," she says. "We had demonstrated and it could have ended in the same way. It made me realize just how little things have changed in Mexico."
The Ayotzinapa massacre is the most well-known episode of impunity in recent years. Ruben Hernandez-Leon, who directs UCLA's Center for Mexican Studies, says it's not the only one. "All sorts of smaller massacres are happening all the time in Mexico these days, and Mexicans don't trust their justice system to deliver results," he says. "This is also something that connects the recent past of the 1960s and '70s to the present moment."
Cuaron would not let his Roma actors read too much of the script in advance, urging them instead to focus on their characters' own siloed, inner worlds. Marina de Tavira, the Mexican actress who plays Sofia, the matron of the house, was told that Roma dealt with volatile political events of the early 1970s, but she didn't know much more. Cuaron deliberately avoided talking to her about the subject during filming. In part, the director wanted her to embody the persona of a white well-off Mexican senora of the era, the kind of person for whom political violence might only be relevant insofar as it extended into her own life. And in the case of Sofia — a conservative, frazzled mother with a decaying marriage and four small children to look after — it just didn't.
Tavira grew up in Herradura, a modern working-class suburb with little of the cultural history or art deco architecture found in Roma to recommend it. As a kid in the 1980s, when the PRI was still dominant, she'd learned nothing of the 1968 massacre at Tlatelolco. "The textbooks we had just stopped at the Olympics," she says. "They literally didn't say anything about the student massacre. I had no idea."
It was only when she became an actress that she learned about the atrocities. In high school, she performed in a play called La Fabrica de los Juguetes, or Toy Factory, which told the story of children who lived in the Chihuahua Complex and were killed alongside the protestors. "I was furious when I found out about this history," Tavira recalls, welling up with emotion. "I went to my mother and said, 'How is this the first time I'm hearing about this?'"
Cuaron also took some artistic license, imbuing virtually every step of Cleo's journey with political markers recognizable to any Mexican who lived through the tumult of the 1960s and '70s. There is, for instance, the unforgettable character of Professor Zovek, whom Cleo happens upon while searching for her erstwhile boyfriend, who in the wake of dumping her has joined a Hawk-like paramilitary. Zovek was the stage name for a real person, Francisco Xavier Chapa Del Bosque, who carved a brief but luminous path across the Mexico of Cuaron's youth as an escape artist and athlete of the spectacular, known for daring feats like pulling cars using only his mouth, a stunt shown in the movie.
When Cleo finds him, Zovek is training a field full of paramilitaries to master their minds and their emotions. There's little hard evidence that Zovek, who died in 1972 while dangling precariously from a helicopter during an escape stunt, was actually in cahoots with the government or that his public feats of strength and training were intended for purposes other than sheer entertainment. And in the wake of Roma, several of his family members thanked Cuaron for honoring the performer's memory while gently insisting that Zovek had nothing to do with the student massacres.
However, Cuaron, whose childhood experience of Zovek was limited to his weekly appearances on a Sunday television program called Siempre en Domingo (Always on Sunday), places him in Roma at the center of a right-wing conspiracy to delegitimize and destroy the student movement. In this way, Cuaron makes Professor Zovek, arguably the era's most proletarian entertainer, a powerful political totem. In the background of the scene, Cuaron planted another political symbol, taken from a childhood memory: a mountain where President Echeverria's initials had been carved en large. "I remember as a kid, I was indignant about it," Cuaron says. "I said, 'Why does he have to put his huge name in a mountain like that?'"
Cuaron has come in for a smattering of criticism for inadequately exploring Cleo's depth and complexities, including her own political attitudes. University of Chicago's Tenorio, who enjoyed a similar privileged childhood to Cuaron's, believes Roma's political messaging can be clumsy and that the film is best understood as an exploration, good and bad, of a disappearing era. "I guess the politics had to be there so Cuaron is not accused of being what he is, un nino bien who never saw anything," Tenorio says. "He doesn't want to be accused of romanticizing an era that shouldn't be romanticized, that was unequal but where middle-class children were happy."
Tenorio believes that, intentionally or not, Cuaron ultimately shows that the same regime that killed students and betrayed its own indigenous population also was a wildly successful welfare state that provided a good life for middle-class families like Cuaron's and people like Cleo. The society that emerged, he says, was deeply ambiguous about its own moral compromises. "The whole movie is a denunciation of certain political realities, yes, but it's also very complicated. In Mexico, the movie has become an excuse for everybody to finally talk about how much we loved our nannies, which is a thing we just didn't do."
Rather than over-explaining these scars, Roma, to its credit, lets them breathe. When Cleo exits the Cine Metropolitan movie theater, an elaborate art deco building that now serves as a concert venue on the Avenida Independencia, to wait on the stairs for the lover who has spurned her, a marionette artist playing with a doll can be seen just behind her. As Cleo's distress mounts, the marionette starts to flounder, finally dropping into a rumpled heap at her side. "I wanted to do a literal film, but a lot of things are metaphorical," says Cuaron. "In some way or another it's symbolism of the same thing — that this society has not changed."
It is an open question just how much, or even if, the country's current political moment will alter anything. Echeverria, the politician who hovered over Cuaron's childhood, was placed under house arrest in 2006 for the role he played in the massacres of Tlatelolco and Corpus Christi, but he was released three years later. At 96, he's the country's oldest living president, a free man.
Meanwhile, current President Obrador, who drives his own car, lives in a modest apartment and is a darling of Western progressives, may, like his predecessors, be incapable of changing his country's starkest problems — corruption, the erosion of democratic norms and political impunity. Cuaron has taken to thinking about these issues in more global terms. "You can see in Europe now, with the phenomenon of immigration, they're confronted with attitudes toward people who are not like them," he says. "Here, in Mexico, I'm cautiously optimistic. At the same time, you can see old racist tendencies inherited."
Moving away from Calle Tepeji, Cuaron comes to the far northern edge of the circuit he once made with his beloved Libo. Outside La Navale, a general store that has been there since the director was a child, three women sell tiny handmade woolen animals spread out on colorful blankets. They, like Libo, had come from Oaxaca to Mexico City looking for a better life. There is no father. A 2-year-old wearing tiny brown boots scampers at their feet, while the girl's 17-year-old aunt, Isabel, toys with a plastic snowman. "It's calm here," the grandmother says, cautious, hopeful but also, she says, nervous. "This is a good place to be," she adds, looking around. "Nothing happens."
This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.