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Chris Weitz

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A Better Life: A Way To Talk About Immigration

Posted: 06/17/11 03:37 PM ET

Nobody really knows how to talk about immigration, no one is really honest. Big business wants immigrant labor to drive down costs but they help their friends on the right foment resentment if not downright hatred. The left wants the Hispanic vote but needs the support of organized (and legalized) labor. I haven't recently asked the guy who trims my hedges, gets my car from the lot, or takes my plate away at the restaurant about his papers. Meanwhile I know one or two people whose predilection for a certain stimulant helps make the country to our south a quasi-narco-state (pace President Calderón) that is eminently get-awayable-from. It's a confusion.

Over the last two years I have been working on a film called A Better Life, and I think it is a way to talk about immigration.

Really, it's all about love.

In this instance, the love between an undocumented immigrant gardener and his son, who was born here. (The hardcore would call him an "anchor baby", but they wouldn't recognize the term). The father loves his son; that's why he's breaking his back working to keep food on the table, and trying to remain invisible -- easy enough in LA, where we pass by the bizarre site of jornaderos, day-laborers, standing on the corner weighting for strangers to pick them up, "hoin' themselves," as the son says, every day.

The son, fully American but not fully at home, doesn't get it. His father is away working seven days a week, so he doesn't have the time to keep him on the straight path. The son also has no respect for the father. The TV tells him that the things he doesn't have define him. And nobody without papers can earn enough to get out of the neighborhood.

When Carlos, the father, played by the amazing Demian Bichir, gets the chance to be his own boss, he sees the path to citizenship, a better school for his kid, a chance to become legal. It's enough to get him to hold his head up and risk exposure.

And just enough for his son, played by first-timer José Julian, who happens to be the U.S.-born son of an undocumented immigrant, to start to believe in his dad. The sort of stuff in which we maintain, in spite of all of our teenage sarcasm and nihilism, an atavistic faith. Maybe he'll get to spend Sundays with his dad. Maybe he'll go to a school where they give a crap about him. Maybe they'll move to a neighborhood where he can walk a half a mile in one direction without leaving the protective territory of his local gang.

Father and son are united in this dream -- people used to call something like this The American Dream -- and adventure through high and low to keep it alive. When it goes bad, it goes very bad indeed; and like many who find themselves at opposite ends of the technicalities of immigration, they face the possibility of being sundered forever.

My crew and I did our very best to render these circumstances faithfully and without prejudice. Our researches took us to Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention program begun by the legendary Father Gregory Boyle, S.J.; the I.C.E. detention center in Santa Ana; Ramona Gardens, the Boyle Heights project that's home to the Big Hazard gang; and Pico Rivera, the bull-ring in Whittier where the charros, Mexican cowboys, keep their culture alive.

It was all fascinating; but I can't say if there will be much money or glory in it. There was, however, a lot of love. Our crew was bi-lingual, many of them the children of immigrant parents who have given their all to get them where they were. And everywhere we went, we heard "This happened to my Dad, this happened to my cousin, this happened to my Uncle". We heard that in Hispanic test screenings too; and, surprisingly, in "Anglo" screenings at art-houses. We've all come from someplace else, and are trying our best out of love.