You’ve never met a character quite like the one Demián Bichir plays in his Oscar-nominated turn in A Better Life, a little-seen but must-watch film for anyone who wants to have a real conversation about immigration in America. Playing a Mexican gardener caring for his American-born teenage son, Bichir illuminates a largely invisible, if not downright untouchable, character in contemporary American life: an undocumented immigrant.
I should know. Born in the Philippines and sent by my mother to America at age 12 — “I wanted to give you a better life,” she told me a few years later — I arrived here wrapped in everything Filipino, including a thick Tagalog accent.
The quickest and most efficient way to assimilate and speak “American,” as any newcomer to America will tell you, is to watch movies and television. To that end, my American education was largely courtesy of the films I borrowed from the local library (Do the Right Thing, Working Girl, GoodFellas) and old and new TV shows, from Frasier to The Golden Girls. Most everything I learned about my new home, I learned from pop culture. And with the help of American citizens who mentored me even though I don’t have the right papers, I managed to remain visible and invisible at the same time, writing for The Washington Post and the Huffington Post while hiding my secret as an undocumented worker. But after years of lying and living in fear, I decided to tell my own story in an essay for The New York Times Magazine last summer. That was around the same time A Better Life hit theaters, building buzz in the growing immigrant-rights movement. On e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter, undocumented people and their allies — especially young people who’ve been educated in America but are not legally allowed to work — have taken ownership of the film. They’ve asked me, “Hey, have you seen our movie?”
There are moments in A Better Life of such heartbreaking truth — the conversations between father and son, the fear, anguish, and shame on Bichir’s face as he encounters a cop on the street — that the film transcends language and race. Here’s a film from a mainstream Hollywood director (Chris Weitz) tackling a controversial issue our officials in Washington don’t know quite how to address. In its quietly affecting way, it’s a groundbreaking piece of cinema.
Indeed, it’s rare to watch an undocumented immigrant portrayed with such complexity. It’s rarer still to experience a film about an undocumented immigrant told from the immigrant’s perspective. In an awards season that has lauded The Help, about black maids and the white families they serve in 1960s Mississippi, Bichir represents the help — gardeners, farmhands, and other undocumented workers — at the mercy of present-day laws in Georgia and Alabama. But A Better Life is not a political movie in the same way that illegal immigration is not a political issue. It’s a nuanced human story.
I’ve seen Bichir before, as Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che and as a drug-running mayor in Showtime’s Weeds. To call his performance in A Better Life a “transformation,” as critics have done, does not do him justice. His performance gives dignity and voice to the 11 million undocumented human beings—gardeners and babysitters, would-be engineers, doctors, and writers — whom he inevitably represents. He is doing something more than acting. At a time when undocumented people are referred to as “illegals” — when common sense and empathy escape many of our politicians — his performance is an act of salvation.
Bichir, an American citizen, has dedicated his surprise Oscar nod to people like me. In our eyes, he’s already won Best Actor.
Vargas is a journalist and the founder of Define American, a multimedia campaign for immigration reform.