You still see her there in Roma: Cleo, the silent and suffering indigenous housekeeper in director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.”
I watch her from the window of my room in the afternoons. She tips a wave of water from her heavy bucket onto the tiled courtyard floor, then runs it down with a broom, scraping the soot and the mud and, yes, sometimes the piles of excrement that the neighbors’ dogs leave behind. Cuaron didn’t spare any dirty details from his Oscar-nominated masterpiece.
That’s the sort of thing you never stop noticing when you’re an American staying for long periods in Mexico City. The class system is real, race-based, open and lasting; only now the roles are played by the children and grandchildren of the characters in the 1970s black-and-white world of “Roma.”
Pity it? Sure. Exploit it? Yes, I do, like everyone else, local or foreign, who is on the lucky side of the socioeconomic system here. I get my apartment cleaned and my clothes laundered for a couple of bucks a day. I tip, even though tipping is rarely required, just to assuage my guilt.
The Roma neighborhood gets by this way, but it’s only part of the story. These days, you could fairly describe it as the hippest neighborhood in the entire metropolis of 21 million people. It houses the city’s trendiest bars and restaurants; its poshest parks, art galleries and theaters. Everyone wears skinny jeans and fluffy scarves. It’s as fashionable as Paris and one-third the price.
And technically, there are two of them. Roma Norte: young, gentrifying, tourist-friendly. And Roma Sur: quiet, residential and spread out enough that you can step back to enjoy the amazing mix of neoclassical, art deco and ultramodern low-rise architecture that defines this part of town.
You go to Roma Norte to shop and party until 4 in the morning at places such as renowned cocktail bar Licoreria Limantour, or casual Pizza Felix, or the exclusive nightclub Departamento. In Roma Sur, you get a taste of how Mexicans of means really live, shopping from the stacks of oranges and avocados at the amazing Mercado Medellin or grabbing a beer and a movie at the homey Cine Tonala. Residents of the two colonias compete playfully for superiority, but the areas blend easily into each other, and both are welcoming to visitors.
And because they are centrally located, they offer a handy launching point for any journey to CDMX, as the sprawling capital has been branded lately. A cab to the Zocalo, the city’s vibrant and historic downtown, with its baroque cathedrals, museums and relics of the earliest civilizations in North America, takes 20 minutes and costs less than $5. Keep in mind that Mexico City’s unpredictable traffic can get in the way of that convenience at any time.
On their western edge, the two Romas border the massive, urban green space Chapultepec Park, which hosts the famous National Anthropology Museum, probably the city’s most popular tourist spot. Just to the east of Roma is Arena Mexico, home to the lucha libre wrestlers, and surely the city’s most fun tourist spot. You can walk to all of it.
Or you can never leave Roma, as I rarely do now that I live in that part of Mexico City about half the year.
There are a lot of reasons I went from frequent tourist in Mexico to part-time resident. Some more concrete than others.
I’m a 5-foot-6½-inch freelance art critic. In America, I’m short, financially stretched and overly talkative.
None of that is true in Mexico, where my height is average, my income solidly middle class and my Spanish good enough to get by, but bad enough to just give up sometimes and shut my mouth.
In Roma, I sit quietly, drinking coffee in the mornings at Plaza Rio de Janeiro, in the shadow of the oversized replica of Michelangelo’s David. Or at Fuente de Cibeles, the circular public fountain ringed by cafes and centered on an imposing sculpture that mimics a nearly identical one in Madrid, serving as a symbol of Mexico’s long-standing closeness to Spain.
Then I wander to the busy commercial strip on Avenida Alvaro Obregon to browse the three stories of stacks at El Pendulo books, or grab a sugary snack at El Moro churros. I might check out my favorite art space, the wild and unpredictable Galeria OMR, or pop into the latest show at the MUCA Roma contemporary art museum.
Then I work, and in the late afternoon, every afternoon, I cross Avenida Sonora into Parque Espana, where I watch the famous dog walkers do their magic. I count how many dogs — shepherds, Labs, terriers, hairless Mexican xolos — they can get to line up perfectly, untethered, without wandering away. One day I counted 43 in a row, all just sitting there like good friends passing the day.
Americans are welcome at all of it, and you see quite a few of them in Roma: tourists who can’t get enough of the $1 quesadillas, successful businesspeople who are happy with NAFTA just the way it is, expats who actually followed through on their threat to leave America if Trump was elected.
They have their haunts — Cardinal Casa de Cafe, which specializes in local coffees; El Parnita eatery, where fish tacos are the house specialty; Rosetta Panaderia, with its renowned chocolate bread. At these places, you are almost as likely to hear people speaking English as you are Spanish.
I send my guests to all of those spots — and I have quite a few visitors from the U.S. — because it’s an easy way to acclimate to a city that can be quite confusing to newcomers. I put people up in a spare room or suggest the posh Hotel La Casona or the bargain Hotel MX. But I always encourage them to use Airbnb for accommodations and Uber for getting around. The Mexican economy is built on micro-entrepreneurs; every tortilla-maker, house cleaner and barber is essentially a small-business person, and the shared economy is the digital manifestation of that tradition. It’s efficient, safe and dependable.
It’s easy to get past the tourist traps — the limos that harass you at the airport, the American hotel chains that charge way too much. Foreigners do need to be careful, but not too careful. Don’t drink the tap water, I always suggest, but do eat the street food (especially my favorite, the guajolota, a carb-y, tamale sandwich sold on nearly every corner). You protect your cellphone in the crowded markets and subways, but you can walk around at night feeling comfortable in Roma. Despite its reputation in some circles, Mexico City is no different from any major urban place; there are safe zones and dangerous zones, and you can usually tell them apart just by looking.
When you get lost — and I still get lost all the time; Mexico City is a maze and sometimes entirely different streets have the exact same name — you simply ask. I’ve found Mexicans to be open and unsuspicious of “extranjeros” (foreigners) in a way Americans aren’t known to be.
That’s especially true in the two Romas, which director Cuaron captured with such precision. They are “romantic” as their names imply, but in a way that recognizes both extraordinary beauty and everyday struggle as equal parts of the human condition. You enjoy the wealth, you witness the inequality. You see it all.