Tales of my Mexico City Neighborhood

May 18, 2021

By Mauricio González Lara

MEXICO CITY—The Colonia Roma, also called La Roma, is one of the most emblematic middle-class neighborhoods of México City. Colorful and full of restaurants, bars, boutiques, coffee shops, and galleries, it is the perfect community to live in if you want to explore Mexico’s wide range of gastronomic and entertainment options. It's beautiful—and it's been my home since 2008.

Built under the regime of Porfirio Díaz (1876–1911), the neighborhood originally represented the aspirations of Mexico City’s early 20th Century upper-class, with its tree-lined avenues, art nouveau mansions, fountains, and squares. After the Mexican Revolution detonated a profound social transformation, the aristocracy scattered and the neighborhood became home to middle-class families such as the one depicted in Roma, the Academy Award-winning film directed by Alfonso Cuarón in 2018.

Alvaro Obregón, one of La Roma’s most popular spots. Photo by: Braulio Tenorio

La Roma knows hard times, too. In 1985 it was devastated by a massive earthquake in which approximately 10,000 people died and many more lost their houses. La Roma is built over a centuries-old lake, a characteristic that makes it more vulnerable to these tectonic phenomena. When I moved to La Roma, it was already going through yet another renaissance, and now is the hipster heart of México.

All that cultural effervescence, all that history, was threatened by COVID-19.

The pandemic’s impact on Mexico

Mexico, like many nations around the world, has suffered during the pandemic. The government counts nearly 220,000 deaths in a country of 126 million, but acknowledges the real toll is significantly higher. The impact on businesses has been severe, too: 20 percent of companies have closed their doors in the last year.

The last few months have brought a slight reprieve. México follows a color-coded “traffic light” approach (red, orange, yellow, green) that signals to citizens which activities are safe to resume. Authorities lowered the capital's risk status to yellow on May 10. Since then, the 22 million inhabitants of Mexico City have been able to attend open-air, limited-capacity concerts and sporting events. The new measures also expand access to movie theaters, restaurants, and hotels. I hope the yellow status will soon lead to green, and a full return to life as it was.

But is La Roma ready? Here are stories of some of its inhabitants, including me.

For restaurants, it was “open or die”

For the last 10 years, Maribel Sánchez García has been selling fruit salads on the corner of Mérida and Durango. Before the pandemic, her fruit stand made the equivalent of $60 on a good day. During the worst days of the confinement, when the “traffic light” was red and all the non-essential businesses were closed, she didn´t even make $10 a day.

Maribel Sánchez Garcia, fruit vendor of La Roma.
Maribel Sánchez Garcia, fruit vendor of La Roma. Photo by: Braulio Tenorio

“My main clients are students and office workers that have fruit for breakfast and lunch. With the schools closed and people doing home office, the bulk of my costumers were reduced to some neighbors that came out to do jogging in the morning. Not enough to make a living,” admitted Sanchez, who has recovered some of her old customers now that the city is back to the yellow tier.

Sánchez is part of the informal food economy of México: a galaxy of thousands of stands of tacos, tamales, quesadillas, fruit, tortas, and chilaquiles that were among the most affected during the confinement. These informal businesses constitute a third of the $30 million daily sales of the food industry in the country, according to the National Chamber of the Restaurant and Seasoned Food Industry.

The challenge wasn´t easier for the formal sector. Mexico has more than 600,000 established restaurants, which employ around 5.5 million people. The National Chamber estimates that at least 15 percent have closed due to COVID-19. When the coronavirus became a global emergency, most restaurant owners in La Roma expected a manageable bump in sales, like the one they had during the swine flu (H1N1) outbreak in 2009, when most had to operate under strict sanitary protocols. But this time was much more serious. At the end of 2020, most grace periods offered as a goodwill gesture by landlords and banks had finished and the restaurateurs had to continue paying taxes and services. In words of Francisco Fernández, president of the National Chamber, it was an “open or die” situation.

Paseo de Gracia Saloon, a traditional cantina in La Roma, is back in business again.
Paseo de Gracia Saloon, a traditional cantina in La Roma, is back in business again. Photo by: Braulio Tenorio.

Many chefs installed “dark kitchens,” a concept that refers to food sold online and prepared at separate takeaway premises. Others kept their places going just by focusing on delivery and takeaway food. Many of the rest, unfortunately, closed.

Gabriela Rentería, food critic of the Mexican editions of Esquire and National Geographic Traveler, told me that while “a lot of restaurants didn´t come back, La Roma is such a vibrant place that investors were still planning to open establishments in the area even at the worst stage of the pandemic. The culinary future of the neighborhood looks bright.”

Many restaurants in La Roma place tables outside to comply with COVID-19 protocols.
Many restaurants in La Roma place tables outside to comply with COVID-19 protocols. Photo by: Braulio Tenorio

Rentería’s optimism seems genuine: This year she and other investors plan to open a bar named Café de Nadie (“Nobody’s Café”), on Alvaro Obregón, La Roma´s most populous street.

“We´re going to have delicious cocktails at great prices. Hope to see you there!” she told me joyfully.

Life lessons

My love for film and pop culture knows few bounds. In addition to my work as a communications officer at IFC, I write about cinema in Letras Libres, a Mexican cultural magazine.

Being a film critic, I thought no one was better prepared to face the pandemic than I. Against the most elementary economic common sense, I have it all: home theatre, Blu-ray, Playstation, Apple TV, and, of course, a subscription to almost every streaming platform on the market.  As a teenager, I used to dream that I would have the time to watch, read, and listen to thousands of movies, books, and records. At first, the pandemic opened up that possibility, giving me the perfect lonely island. Beyond the anguish, I thought, maybe I could find a positive side of the confinement and discover all those masterworks I have not enjoyed yet.

I wasn´t alone in this type of thinking.

Manuel Carrasco, aka “The Big M,” owns Revancha, a vinyl record store located down the street from my apartment. He explained, “My sales went down only when the lockdown was obligatory, but before that most of my clients decided to use the money they spent on bars and restaurants to buy records. People who are into vinyl culture are more open to listen to entire albums than the common music listener. They are just too busy to do it. The pandemic opened a time window for them to enjoy their record collections. It´s a worldwide phenomenon.”

Manuel Carrasco outside of Revancha, a vinyl record store.
Manuel Carrasco outside of Revancha, a vinyl record store. Photo by: Braulio Tenorio

This reasoning, of course, was based on the idea that the pandemic was something temporary, an in-between, and not the "new normal." The moment people became aware that the virus was not a parenthesis, the euphoria for the virtues of home office began to languish, the pride of cooking mutated into home delivery pizzas, and most of the creative effervescence turned into mild frustration. As for me, my desire to revisit the screen classics by Fellini, Tarkovsky, and Godard dwindled to an endless stream of sitcoms and reality shows.

And then the virus moved close to home.

Under pressure

Rosa María, my 80-year-old mother, is the headmaster of Colegio Martinique, an elementary school located in Jardín Balbuena, a neighborhood near the México City Airport. The pandemic forced the school to install virtual platforms to continue with classes. For my mother, adopting these technologies at age 80 was, in her own words, "The most problematic challenge of my career, although not as difficult as making sure that you behaved well as a teenager."

Rosa María Lara Pérez, Mauricio’s mom. Photo by: José Luis Alcíbar

In a matter of days, she went from being technophobic to becoming the sherpa for dozens of teachers and students confused by the transition.

But there were other issues to face. My brother Fredy, a 50-year-old corporate executive, is diabetic and his vulnerability toward the coronavirus was a constant concern for our family.  Both he and my mother contracted COVID-19 in July. My mother, the tough cookie, recovered in a few days, but it took Fredy more than a month to be fully back on his feet.

My life went darker still in September, when Claudia, my girlfriend, suffered a stroke that sent her to intensive therapy for almost two weeks. She was hospitalized in a clinic near my home. Every time a new COVID-19 patient arrived, a voice over the sound system announced the admission of a “code orange” patient. The experience was nerve-racking, but we admired the dedication and sacrifice of the health workers trying to cope.

Here to stay

Now that my loved ones are in good health and COVID-19 seems to be on the decline in Mexico, I have managed to read an old classic: A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens in 1859. The opening paragraph seems extremely relevant:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

As México heads toward a reopening, l am hopeful that my neighbors in La Roma will soon experience “the best of times,” even if this means dealing with the turmoil and upheaval of reinventing themselves after the pandemic. They´re here to stay, and I can´t wait to see them rise again.

Mauricio González Lara is an IFC Communications Officer who lives in Mexico City.

Published in May 2021