In 2020, I saw a film that was unlike any I had seen before. It was “La Leyenda Negra”, an official selection in the Sundance 2020 NEXT program, and I was fortunate to interview its director, Patricia Vidal Delgado. This moving film is about a queer undocumented teenager in LA who worries that she will be deported and unable to go to University to follow her dreams. Delgado brings a heart and a face to the undocumented, and shows the frustration of their plight in this country. In a similar way, the documentary “Mija,” directed by Isabel Castro, shows the same frustration through the perspective of a first generation kid, Doris Muñoz, who struggles with the responsibility she deals with in supporting her undocumented parents and siblings. Doris is following her dreams as a manager for Latinx musicians, but at the same time, she wants to be there for her family. As the pandemic hits, and the music industry changes, she must find herself in the process.
I was fortunate to speak with Isabel and Doris about what freedom means to an immigrant, the shift the film made during the pandemic, and what they hope people see in their film. “Mija” premiered at Sundance 2022 as an official selection of the NEXT section.
How did you two meet? Let’s start with Isabel.
Isabel Castro (IC): I was developing a documentary where I wanted to talk about immigration in a new way. I wanted to tell a story about immigration that didn’t exclusively center around trauma and pain. Those things are certainly a part of every immigration story, but I wanted to talk about other emotions as well, like guilt, resentment, and anger. I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of someone who is Coming Of Age, because when I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of coming of age stories told from the perspective of a young Latina. I had started developing the film when I discovered Doris Muñoz, and realized that she was a manager for young Chicana musicians. I saw her young Latino/Latina musicians, and I thought that she was going to be a great introduction into a community that was wrestling with some of these questions. So I reached out and she invited me to film at a concert that she was putting together. The first time I met her was in the film. As soon as I met her, I knew I needed to make a film about this world and Doris. She had this ball of charisma, energy, and ambition. And her family was waiting to hear back about their own legal status. I thought it’s the perfect story to explore all of these things that I wanted to talk about.
Doris Muñoz (DM): It was just serendipitous timing. Like what Isabel had mentioned at the time of her developing this idea, we had already spoken, and months went by. I wrote down lists of things that I needed in preparation for this concert we were having in Central Park, SummerStage. I wrote her name down and literally the next day she called me. I hadn’t reached out to her, emailed her, texted, or anything. This was so wild because I literally had written her name the day before. I had originally reached out to her because I thought it would be interesting to make a mini-documentary piece on just the concert. We were coming together and bringing the arts advocacy in one space, because in a way, life is like a concert. That’s when it dawned on her that this feature was going to be centered around me. And that’s where it began. So our initial meeting became the first scene of the film.
My favorite line of the film was “freedom means pursuing your dream.” That seemed like the heart of the film to me. Can both of you share what freedom means to you, and how it’s related to following your dreams?
DM: I think through the lens of being the only natural born citizen in my family, it was instilled in me that I had the means to do whatever I wanted to do in this country and it was called a social security number. I realized I had that freedom, and my family didn’t. At a very young age, I was very conscious of what privilege I held.
Through that context, my brothers didn’t have the opportunity to just try to get a job, or try to pursue a college career. My parents put their dreams aside because they immigrated here. The narration for the film comes from the voices of my inner-most thoughts. But that’s really been my journey, whereas not everyone has the freedom to pursue their own dream.
IC: My family and I immigrated to the US from Mexico. I got my green card before I turned 18. My parents liked to remind me of all the sacrifices they made in order to give me the life that I have now, which is an incredibly privileged one. For my parents, they had to leave their home, as well as their friends and their family. And they did it to be able to provide me with opportunities. Because of that, they always supported my dreams no matter how outlandish they seemed. I mean, being a filmmaker is not an easy or an obvious path. I think that in my own experience, I was afforded different opportunities than my parents because of the sacrifices they made coming to this country. That’s my personal interpretation of what freedom means.
Doris, can you talk about your transition from Cuco to Jacks Haupt, and also how the pandemic effected you during this time?
DM: Basically I was very much at the mercy of a pandemic-induced pivot in my life. My industry completely shut down. With the timing of that and closing up that part of my life [managing Cuco], I think what has always been rooted in me is to help this music movement continue, whichever way that looked like. When I first found Jacks, I felt that spark of hope again in what it would look like to support another artist’s journey and how I could really restructure it in this new chapter of my life. I’m not necessarily a manager of artists again, but more leaning into the role of mentorship in this chapter. I can still help the movement as a whole with Jacks being one of those artists that have been a part of this new journey.
Isabel, how was it for you being behind the camera during the pandemic?
IC: It was very hard. I was with Doris on March 13th, 2020, the first day when we all realized the pandemic was going to be even bigger than what we had imagined. Initially, I really had to contend with having to let go of my expectations of what this film was going to be. I had gone into the film thinking it was going to be one thing and it obviously turned out to be something very different during the pandemic. The music industry came to a standstill. We just didn’t know what was going to happen.
Before I started filming with Doris, I moved to LA to be close to her. Over the course of the pandemic, we became even closer, because I had a limited amount of people I was able to see. So she essentially became my pod. The story had to react to the reality of what was happening in Doris’ life. I think it was a big creative challenge in terms of figuring out new stylistic approaches to telling the film. Originally we were going to rely on the beauty and energy of concerts, and instead we had to rely on the beauty of everyday life. So the story approach had to shift. We had to take a lot of safety precautions. I was getting tested 3-4 times a week. It ended up being just me with my camera for the rest of production. I had anticipated in having a slightly bigger crew because I really love collaborating with other cinematographers, but because of the limitations of the pandemic, it ended up being me filming alone for most of the film. I think it lended itself to the feeling of intimacy that we ended up landing on for the movie.
The one thing that stayed with me the most was your relationship to your family, and the dynamic you have with them. It was beautiful, like you were the bridge connecting all of the family together from Mexico to the US. What do you hope people see in your film?
DM: I just hope that we provide a window to a very complex reality. Growing up, I always had this longing to have this picture perfect family that didn’t have to deal with the fears that we had endured. I just wished for a different life, honestly. Had I seen a film like this one growing up, I would have had been more accepting of our situation. I always had this hope as a kid that all of this was happening for a reason and one day I’ll understand why, and now adult Doris completely understands. What we lived through can be a living testimony of what could happen.
For those who need hope, who deal with similar situations when it comes to immigration status, I hope that this film provides that for them. Those that have a complex inner struggle with carrying that weight as a first generation kid of immigrants, I hope they can find some reflection and solace in their story too, and not feel so alone in the process. That’s a lot of what films provide for us, a sense of community through what you see on the screen. That is the power of what representation can do.
IC: Doris and I are really aligned in our objectives for this film, which is part of the reason why this film felt like a collaborative process. I moved to the United States when I was a really young girl, and I grew up in a primarily white community. I just didn’t have role models like Doris and Jacks to look up to. Role models that showed me that you can be a power player in a creative industry and be wrestling with some of the challenges one faces as the daughter of immigrants. I hope that this film allows for immigrants and their children to have the courage to follow their own dreams, even when it might feel really scary. I hope that the industry supports people to take those risks. Most of all, I hope that people walk away from the film with the permission to feel a really wide range of experiences when it comes to immigrating to the country. It’s not as black and white as a lot of media would make it out to be. It’s a really complicated, nuanced experience, and there is community that supports one another in all of the emotions that come along with that experience.