I have a love/hate relationship with the New York International Latino Film Festival. It’s a long deep love/hate where the hate is active and more recent then I’d care to admit. Perhaps it had to do with the corporatization of the Festival, perhaps knowing past (and maybe still present) organizers ripped ideas from other media makers I know and claimed them as their own. Or maybe it’s because the caliber of the films, the opportunity to host and represent Latin@ film and media makers seems lost at times. I often struggle each year with attending. This year was no different.
Due to a family emergency that took me out of the country during the Festival, I was not able to attend. So I was very happy when the VL team got a note to review the film Ilegales. We were sent a screener, so I could enjoy the film in my own home and watch as often as I’d like. The film in Spanish, with English subtitles, reminds me of a modernized El Norte (sans the indigenous storyline), or at least it is in the same spirit of sharing the narrative of people who seek to migrate from Central America to the US and the struggles and reality of that journey.
There are various testimonios presented and they all intersect in some way as each character has a similar goal: survive in the world any way they can. Ariel (Luis Bordonada) is a day laborer in a cotton field that assists his friend Arturo (Omar Leyva) in bringing undocumented Mexican workers over the US border. Maribel (Shirley Rumierk) is a bilingual bartender and seeks to follow the “rules” of entering the US with her young son who needs medical treatment for tuberculosis. Ignacio (Jorge Jimenez) is living in the US, works as a dishwasher, and sells narcotics to bring in money for his family. Then there are the “Dons” of the film, those who are seen as having some level of “power” and control over others, and this power and control come because they are at the center of drug trafficking.
Ariel is married with one child and his wife is adamant about him not getting involved in any form of drug activity. Unfortunately, Ariel is pulled to the potential money he can make and believes he is only doing low risk “favors” for known drug traffickers. We watch as his involvement increases, he continues to help by driving a truck from his work site in New Mexico back home to Juarez, helping undocumented workers cross the border in the US as a coyote, and handling large amounts of money.
I really enjoyed Maribel’s character, she adds a level of complexity and gender-specific challenges that represents how the feminization of poverty exists in many communities. She is a brilliant woman who knows how to “work the system” by understanding exactly what immigration officials want to hear (don’t act like you don’t know what that may include either!). Maribel is also very vocal and stands up against any form of xenophobia and triflin’ stereotypes that the US men who visit her restaurant spew in a way that shows her lack of fear for the customers as well as her philosophy on calling out prejudice. It is her discussion with an immigration official during her interview to begin the visa process that shows her complexity. She has to remind herself to demonstrate she can assimilate to the US through anglicizing her son’s name when she speaks of him, making sure her English pronunciation is perfect, and maintaining social queues that are expected in the US (i.e. clothing, eye contact, etc.).
Ignacio works in a restaurant and cares for his child as a single father and sells drugs on the side to make more money to survive. We often do not hear the stories of single fathers of young girls, and this narrative is refreshing to see included. His daughter Anisa, wins a citizenship award at her school the same day he has a conversation with one of her teachers regarding why he wants Anisa to attend summer school. I greatly appreciated the exchange between Ignacio and the young White teacher. She makes assumption about why her mother is not present, calls him by his first name and asks what he does for work. He tells her the truth: he’s undocumented, works under-the-table, and wants Anisa to be safe during the day as he cannot afford to take care of her. He asks the teacher what all her college education taught her about his reality. Many of us know the answer to that question.
Lead coyote, Arturo, who originally recruited Ariel, is also complicated and one character that has the most layers when it comes to his ideas of loyalty and morality. He stands up for his workers when they are not paid as much as they were promised by a White male employer and tells him they are better than he will ever be. He takes money from his “cut” and gives it to the workers because “the people work hard” and then drives over the cotton field they just worked on with his truck as the workers cheer. He prays for a dead young woman found in the field that use to be a part of their group as they return back to Mexico. When he is arrested attempting to get back to Mexico, he is questioned by Agent Wallace (Art LaFleur) and does not speak for an extended period of time. When he finally does speak, he asks for someone to find the young dead woman, then he gives up Ignacio.
Each character comes together when Maribel chooses to go across the border using Ariel as her coyote when her application is denied for a 5th time. We watch as he takes Arturo’s place as the lead in the operation that is organized by Maribel’s past employer, Ricardo. We discover Maribel’s connection to Ignacio when she arrives in the US with her son and what occurs when US law enforcement arrives at the same time to arrest them all.
What happens to Ariel and his family? Does he remain a coyote? What happens to Maribel and her son, do they ever become reunified? How do their lives change? Do they get better? All of these are questions we are left to consider. This film is in no way a “feel good film” it will actually be very disheartening. Yet it can be a useful tool for some educators and activists to begin conversations about why people have limited choices, chose to risk their lives to cross the US border, and what role we may play even if we think we are passive or uninterested in the topic.
Ilegales is continuing to be screened at various film festivals to sold out audiences.
VL verdict: 7 out of 10