Though I admired the earlier films of Alfonso Cuarón I didn’t know anything about Roma going into it. Within a couple minutes I knew I was in Mexico City in the early 1970s.
I knew this because in the early 1970s I was twice in Mexico City, the second time for about three months.
Roma is loosely autobiographical and much of it takes place behind the gates of an upper-middle class family home. Most of the residences in Mexico City lie behind these gates and when I was there I was acutely conscious of having no access to the lives inside them. Thus the intimacy that Cuarón reveals now felt like a late and unlikely gift.
The Mexico that Cuarón shows us outside the family’s gate felt very familiar: the strange random musical paramilitary parades in the city streets, a casket business on a roadside, the vague threats of violence from protesters or policia, the low lying fog below the mountains in the countryside. These details might have been drawn from my own memories. I look forward to watching the film again to absorb more of its rich atmosphere, now that the story is known to me.
Thinking about my own time in Mexico, the winter of 1973–’74, I realized that I was only inside of two homes. One was the home of the long-time ex-pat and mountain explorer, Otis McAlister, the other was the home of a young American couple who worked as teachers. They kindly invited me to spend a few days recuperating at their house after I became sick high on Iztaccihuatl, the eighth highest summit in North America, an occasion marked by severe dehydration, mild frostbite, and brief hospital stay.
The rest of my time there I stayed in one-star hotels or slept in the mountains.
The occasion for me being in Mexico was my idea to write a guidebook to climbing the volcanoes of Mexico. This plan was foiled by two facts, not the least of which was that I did not know how to write. The other consideration was that the pleasure of my travels was precisely in not having a guidebook on which to rely. If future mountain travelers needed a guidebook, maybe they should go elsewhere. Or so I thought. A guidebook in English would be published about ten years later.
What I never lost was the feeling that I wanted to write about the experience. But I didn’t know what I would write and I would wildly underestimate the amount of time it would take to shape the experience. And, when the book, Forty Crows, actually got written, almost forty years later, it was not a book I was capable of imagining when I was twenty years old. It’s as if I shot a few rolls of film and they sat for decades in developing trays waiting for resolution that may or may not . . . develop.
Roma is described as loosely autobiographical. Who knows what that means, exactly? And whether it matters. My own novel is probably exponentially more loosely autobiographical. About twenty of its 400 pages might have been written as nonfiction. And certain details of the protagonist’s past, told in flashbacks, are stolen from memory. It’s not me in any literal sense. In a figurative, what if? sense, it’s all me, in the way that all fiction is an answer to the question what if?
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