A Better Life is a unique film. Not many films have focused on the struggles of undocumented immigrants, much less done a good job at it.
It centers around a Mexican immigrant and his son's struggles with living undocumented in Los Angeles. Demian Bichir was even nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Carlos Galindo. He didn't win, but the acting was superb. I was in tears during the scene where he was pulled over by the police. It reminded me of the many times either my undocumented friends or I have been pulled over by the police and feeling my heart sink because we know it can mean the end of the line for us. In Galindo's case it was the latter (sorry for the spoiler).
My only reservation with this film is the portrayal of the community of East Los Angeles. Yes, in case you didn't notice, it was filmed in many parts of East LA and Boyle Heights, which are some of the oldest and most well-known immigrant communities in Los Angeles.
Once again a film fails to adequately portray our neighborhoods. This film makes it look like every person in East LA is a gang member or will eventually be one. It's not the first time Hollywood had done this. For instance, Mi familia and Blood in, Blood out have created a perception of our communities that we know isn't accurate by painting it in a way so that hardly any diversity is shown among the people who live there. When people vote, or legislators draft laws it becomes far too easy to criminalize us because of these persistent negative images.
As an undocumented queer from the Maravilla projects in East Los, I know not everyone is a mechanic, gang member or a vulnerable immigrant. In East LA we are a strong diverse people with an amazing and unique culture. Films rarely capture the multi-faceted community of East Los, the art, the activism, the queers, the punk rock scene, the skaters, cyclists and feminists. Take for instance, community spaces like Corazon del Pueblo, where for no charge members of the community can interact in a positive way; zumba sessions, capoeira classes, yoga, open mic events and what ever the community wants to do, they are open to supporting you organizing it. Or what of the resurgence of a poetry scene and other forms of artistic expression? You can see the merging of movements in the Feminist cyclers, the "Ovarian Psycos," who bring an third world feminism to the hoods of Los Angeles by cycling and organizing bike rides to raise awareness to issues that affect "wombyn" (no it's not spelled wrong google it) of color. Feminism on wheels. I particularly like one of their slogans that says "Ovaries so BIG, you don't need balls." All of these spaces are overshadowed by the negative stereotypes that films like these continue to perpetuate.
From 1991 to 1998 crime decreased in California by 36% but media coverage of those crimes rose by 400%. The media hype leads to a fear about the communities of East LA and South Central and facilitated a flurry of anti-people-of-color legislation that criminalized our youth. Take for instance, the 3 strikes law or Proposition 21, which passed in 1999. This allowed for youth as young as 14 to be treated as adults for violent crimes. As of 2006, the United States had 2,225 prisoners serving life without parole for crimes they committed as minors, there are only 12 prisoners serving such sentences in all other countries combined.
Films like these have a long lasting cultural impact on our communities and on the perceptions that people who do not live in these areas have about us. I acknowledge that there are still gangs and violence in East LA but definitely not anywhere close to what the media portrays. How hard is it to have a character that is not involved in gangs? I can think of many alternate stories to insert, maybe a queer, or an environmentalist, a poet, or maybe the organizer of a 50-mile bike ride for the DREAM Act. Just sayin'.
In case you haven't noticed, I'm talking about the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). And you can't talk about the PIC without its enforcers: the police.
The film missed the target in their portrayal of the police and law enforcement in East Los. In the film, they are shown as a neutral entity, when in reality they are seen by most people of color in East Los as aggressors actively targeting and racially profiling our communities. In the past 8 months, I have been stopped more than 10 times. And let's not forget the LAPD's growing collaboration with Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). They have deported survivors of domestic violence; and conduct checkpoints in our neighborhoods under the guise of looking for drunk drivers (right). No surprise that in Escondido, checkpoints arrest more undocumented Latinos than DUIs.
A few months ago, some friends and I were walking to a local bar after a Day of the Dead event and witnessed police brutality firsthand. Five squad cars and a dozen police surrounded Sammy Carrera from Boyle Heights and pinned him against the wall. Although he was clearly cooperating, officers said he was resisting arrest. He received a black eye. The whole thing was a mistake, of course.
According to the police officer, they initially stopped him because he fit the description: Male Hispanic with a sweater. I can guarantee that at least 50% of Boyle Heights fits that description. He was arrested and spent a few days in jail. Still, I consider Sammy lucky to have had people watch the arrest, perhaps it could have been worse. So, be careful not to wear a sweater while in Boyle Heights.
If films want to continue to show violence in East LA they should show where the violence is coming from.
Some people might dismiss my critique and say, "If you don't like it, make your own film." But I don't have the means. This is the best I can do.