Alfonso Cuarón's 2018 film Roma generated major critical praise upon its release and has gained affection from film lovers worldwide. The notable director's realistic depiction of Mexico City in the 1970s has roots in Cuarón's childhood, but also alludes to a broader struggle the Mexican people fought for decades. The Mexican Dirty War, as it's often called, saw an authoritarian government turn on its own citizens, suppressing free speech and the will of the people through terror and intimidation.
The history that inspired Roma infuses itself into nearly every scene of the movie, from Cleo's indigenous upbringing to the terrible loss she suffers. These facts recount the true trials and triumphs that few outside Mexico know about, but which definitively influenced the Mexican spirit.
Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (known as PRI, but originally called PNR) was created in 1929 and controlled the country's political landscape for decades. PRI had a virtual monopoly on Mexico's legislature and governorships until the early 1980s, and held the presidency until Vicente Fox's election in 2000.
Although PRI was generally popular, it was known to commit election fraud and suppress opposition voices whenever its power was threatened. Only after years of pressure from the population did PRI institute election reforms in the 1980s and 1990s.
The worst of PRI's suppression happened during the late 1960s and the 1970s, the time period when Roma takes place. Building fear of so-called subversives, the Mexican government began a campaign of terror and intimidation. Entire villages were emptied out and burned down if they were considered "subversive" to national goals.
Guerillas seeking to destabilize the PRI government battled the Mexican army for decades, leading to over a thousand estimated casualties.
Although most Mexicans have some common ancestry, discrimination based on ethnic background and skin color still exists, and it was particularly blatant during the 1970s. "The color of your skin determines the size of your bank account, or indeed if you’ve got a bank account at all,” historian Paul Gillingham told Time. “Most of the poorest rural populations in Mexico are also the most indigenous populations.”
Indigenous women, like Cleo in Roma, often had limited access to schooling and job opportunities as well.
In 1968, youth movements began to break out all over the world, and Mexico was no exception. On October 2 of that year, thousands of student protesters gathered for a rally in Mexico City's Three Cultures Square, and government troops arrived to arrest the protest leaders. Responding to snipers' shots from above, the soldiers opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters.
Later, the snipers were found to have been members of the Presidential Guard, who fired at the other soldiers to provoke the massacre.