Immigration is a hot button topic these days. Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 immigration law paved the way for states like Georgia and Alabama to implement their own laws—albeit all of them are being fought out in federal court right now. As the debate and protests over racial profiling and deportations heats up, another fantastic film is giving us a different perspective on the debate.
A Better Life, starring Demian Bichir, is hitting theaters tomorrow and we thought it would be interesting to showcase some of the movies that we think best capture the reasons people risk their lives to come to this country.
1. Border Movies: El Norte
El Norte, 1983
About halfway through what is arguably the best, most honest and unvarnished movie about illegal immigration ever made, the two protagonists, who have fled Guatemala because of political violence and made their way through Mexico, crawl through a seemingly interminable sewer pipe leading to the United States. Inside: claustrophobic darkness, filth, animal skeletons and mountains of rats (real ones that actually crawl onto the actors). Once they emerge from the ground, though, they breathe the fresh air and look down the mountain at San Diego. This is what it means to be free.
2. Border Movies: My Family
Mi Familia, 1995
This heartwarming story has not one, but three border crossing scenes and they make great political and social commentary. In the first, a young country boy from Mexico walks for a year from his village to Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century. He just walks in. The border? “In those days, the border was just a line in the sand,” says the narrator, underlining the often-unacknowledged close historical ties between Mexico and the United States. Later, his pregnant wife (Jennifer Lopez) is wrongly deported in a Great Depression-era round-up where Mexicans, whether legal or not, where driven to central Mexico and dumped. This really happened, after Mexicans were (surprise!) blamed for taking jobs away from Americans. Months after giving birth, she crosses the Rio Grande with her baby boy, losing him in the waves at one point, in a heart-stopping scene. You’d have to be made of stone not to be touched.
3. Border Movies: Babel
In this Oscar-nominated film, Adriana Barraza plays an illegal immigrant and nanny who takes her two young charges with her back to Mexico for her son’s wedding (their parents are stuck in Morocco and no one else can care for them, so she’s stuck). On the way back, her nephew dumps them in the middle of the Sonoran desert; they’re lost. In a heartbreaking sequence, she and the kids bake under a crushing sun and she slogs through the sand and the heat to find help. This brutal setting is the same that thousands of real-life immigrants—right or wrong—have crossed on their way to find a better life for themselves and their families.
4. Border Movies: La Misma Luna
Under the Same Moon, 2007
His mother is in the United States, working as a maid so she can support him back in Mexico. His grandmother—his only relative left, has just died. So brave little Carlitos talks a young U.S. couple (America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia) on their way back to California into hiding him in a secret compartment built into the back seat of their van. The border-crossing scene itself is brief, with a border patrol officer looking through the van and the boy struggling to keep calm and still—but all the more effective because you know that it’s just the beginning of his journey to find his mother, a journey he is making alone.
5. Border Movies: Sin Nombre
Sin Nombre, 2009
Director Cary Fukunaga spent two years riding atop freight trains from Southern Mexico to the US border with hundreds of undocumented immigrants in order to research this unflinching movie. It paid off big. Though the film includes an emotional, suspenseful river crossing at the end, its most powerful scene comes at the halfway mark. As a train makes a stop in a nearly deserted rural area, immigrants huddle under tarps to ward off the rain. Teenager Casper (Edgar Flores) and his fellow Mara Salvatrucha gang members hop on and proceed to rob the immigrants, machetes and guns in hand. But when the gang leader spots a girl (Paulina Gaitan) and attempts to rape her, Casper slices his throat, and as the train lurches forward, pushes him off. He sits panting in the rain, aware that he, too, must now flee north.