The Unafraid. Directed by Anayansi Prado and Heather Courtney. New York: Presente Films, 2018. 87 minutes.

East of Salinas. Directed by Laura Pacheco and Jacqueline Mow. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2016. 53 minutes.

Vida Diferida (Life, Deferred). Directed by Brenda Avila-Hanna. Newburgh, NY: New Day Films, 2016. 23 minutes.

Reviewed by Luz María Gordillo

The three films reviewed here, The Unafraid, East of Salinas, and Vida Diferida, reveal the tensions, tribulations, and everyday “border-crossings” that transnational immigrant families undergo while trying to make sense of a country that covets and exploits their labor yet is increasingly more hostile toward their presence. The films create intimate portraits of young undocumented and DACA-recipient students whose will is to fight for their family’s unification, graduate from high school, go to college, and create their own version of success in the United States.1

The Unafraid is about resistance, struggle, and people who are displaced from their communities of origin yet try to make sense of “home” in a place that is unwelcoming and, at times, inhumane. Directors Heather Courtney and Anayansi Prado follow three stories of undocumented and DACA youth who navigate, challenge, and resist the complicated and discriminatory policies against immigrants in Georgia. This state has some of the most restrictive educational policies for both DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants; it prohibits them from applying to the top five universities and charges international student fees where they can apply (these fees are four times higher than in-state tuition). With a strong cinematic narrative, the directors map out a pattern of exploitation and brutality alongside struggle, perseverance, and resilience. Looking into the everyday lives of high school students Alejandro (a.k.a. Cheesecake), Silvia (a.k.a. Lili), and Aldo, the film deeply explores the private and public spaces where these young activists join forces with their families and with immigrants’ rights groups to demand their right to be in the United States and the opportunity to access education and fulfill their dreams. Inasmuch as the documentary condemns the hostile immigration policies that sabotage Silvia’s and Aldo’s education it also presents a model of resistance. Though it may not offer hope to all, some, like Alejandro, are able to defeat the system, leave the state, and enroll in college, albeit not without serious consequences. He has to leave his family and friends behind.

Lily and Aldo, though feeling overwhelmingly defeated at times, find strength in their families and community to continue their fight to access education. With a sense of loss but also of hope and great strength, Lily affirms, “I’m stuck here in Georgia. I’ll keep trying.” There is no going back, and their resilience and courage will prove the system unfair, inhumane, and discriminatory; their fight, their struggle, and their determination is already a victory.

In East of Salinas, directors Laura Pacheco and Jackie Mow offer a close-up look into a transnational family while working its members’ lives into the broader national social fabric. Pacheco and Mow brilliantly focus on how Latinx immigrants navigate the complicated migratory circumstances that make their lives difficult, unpredictable, and ridden with fear of deportation and familial loss. Like a very challenging rite of passage, seven-year-old José Anzaldo faces the realities and consequences of what it means to be undocumented in the United States. José’s parents work in agriculture, and his father follows the seasonal harvests, leaving the family for six months at a time. Suffering from asthma due to pesticide exposure, José’s mother has to provide for her and her two children, all while dealing with the absence of José’s father. In a great cinematic move, Pacheco and Mow divide the film into seasons, mirroring the way that time is conceived of by migrant workers who move two or three times a year based on what crops are ready for harvest and at the same time try to keep their families afloat and their children in school.

Representing the past, present, and an uncertain future, Oscar Ramos, an elementary school teacher and a child of migrant workers himself, and José reveal the larger migratory structures that, in the past, allowed Oscar to process his path to citizenship and become a mentor and a leader in his community but that now make José’s future precarious. In an act that is more about mentorship and leadership than kindness, Oscar and his Latinx friends purchase Christmas presents for those immigrant families in need, giving the Anzaldo family joy and providing a strong role model for José, who keeps looking ahead. The juxtaposition of Oscar’s life with José’s and his family’s paint not only a portrait of the struggles that immigrant families undergo but also open up topics for classroom conversations about the historical marginalization of Latinx immigrants in the United States.

Vida Diferida is a powerful documentary by Brenda Avila-Hanna that for five years follows the life of Vanessa Martínez, a young Mexican immigrant in the United States who wants to become a doctor. The film opens with Vanessa and her family preparing for her Quinceañera celebration and revealing her immediate hopes to give back to her family and her community by studying medicine. A very intimate close-up of young Vanessa offers the audience an opportunity to look at her eyes while she sadly explains, “I’m a human being not a different species or something”—a statement that exemplifies the fear and humiliation that immigrants like Vanessa endure in an effort to make the United States their home. Vanessa graduates with honors from high school, having overachieved and succeeded, and is able to enroll in college through DACA. But her fear and anxiety are not lessened. Five years after Avila-Hanna began shooting, Vanessa, at twenty, fears for the rest of her family, in particular her sister and brother. DACA gave her access to education and work, but  the process required that she reveal all of the family’s information, a pressure that she, as a young student constantly thought about: “they know everything. Where we live, etc. I worry, because you never know what they’ll do.”

The director brilliantly juxtaposes Vanessa’s coming-of-age with immigration policies and practices at a larger scale, which, rather than help immigrant families reunite, have grown increasingly discriminatory and racist. Vanessa’s personal cinematic vignette and the portrayal of her family’s struggles to stay afloat invite classroom discussion on immigration policies and practices and their direct impact and influence at personal, local, state, and federal levels.2

The directors of these three documentaries successfully present the lives of Latinx immigrants in the United States, showcasing acts of resistance and sacrifice that exemplify the strength of people who have every right to live and make home in this country. These young modern-day heroes and their families do not give up and, instead, form coalitions to fight back, to reclaim their version of an “American dream” that is more inclusive, equitable, and just.

All DACA and undocumented students, regardless of educational competence, deserve the same opportunities; some may take more time finding their place in the U.S. educational system and may not be able to count on role models like Oscar Ramos. Rather than see it as a cinematic shortcoming, this topic of representation could be remedied by encouraging classroom discussion and providing recommended readings that contribute to the diversity of Latinx immigrant experiences.3

1 DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows children of immigrants who came to the United States undocumented both a period of deferred action against deportation as well as access to a work permit and education.

2 See, for example, Ruth Gomberg-Muñoz, Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed-Status Families (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) and Deborah A. Boehm, Intimate Migrations: Gender, Family, and Illegality among Transnational Mexicans (New York: NYU Press, 2012).

3 See for example, Leah Perry, The Cultural Politics of U.S. Immigration: Gender, Race, and Media (New York: NYU Press, 2016).

Luz María Gordillo is associate professor and Program Leader of History at Washington State University Vancouver. Gordillo is also the Chair of the Council on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Her current book examines gender and the tenure of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO), 1906-1939. Gordillo’s project brings science and the humanities together at an unexplored crossroad that has the potential to illuminate thought-provoking connections of a period that is complex, sensitive, and contentious.