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In “A Better Life” Undocumented Workers Get Some Love

July 31, 2011

I went with my friend M to see the movie “A Better Life” starring Demián Bichir as Carlos Gilando, an undocumented worker in Los Angeles, and Jose Julián as his adolescent American-born son, Luis. The plot centers around a truck that Carlos buys in hopes that it will lead to a better life by providing him with his own landscaping business, but it gets stolen while he’s on the job. The story goes on to explore the decisions made by an immigrant who cannot participate fully in society, even though his dedication to the American Dream is more than most Americans’. All the while he is trying to keep his son in line even though gang members in the neighborhood get more respect than day laborers and landscapers who keep rich women’s lawns in order. Father and son have to band together to find the truck, but they get caught by the police and reality sets in.

Overall, the movie does a fantastic job portraying an undocumented worker’s attempt to navigate a world in which he needs to remain invisible but who wants nothing more than to secure his child’s place in it.  The few minutes that Carlos gets to spend with his son a day are a losing battle against a school that doesn’t teach him and a neighborhood where gangs are the only way to gain any status. As they search for the truck they come up against another sad truth: Luis does not understand his own heritage. His father has been so busy working from dawn to dusk that Mexican culture has not been properly passed down. This includes Spanish which Luis speaks only a few phrases of and understands only with a lot of concentration. (Because I’m pretty sure your mind is probably going there…Luis’ mother is not in the picture.)

The movie also does a good job showing the “get by” life of undocumented workers who are trying to help their families in other countries. Just when you think you know who the bad guys are, their behavior gets put through the lens of family responsibilities and collectivistic survival.

I am not one for universals.

As a researcher who studies the way that culture and our surroundings affect our psychology it is hard for me to pinpoint what I might call a human nature. But one thing that seems to bind us is that we want for our children a life in which they are happy and without needless pain and sacrifice. That may be a life that is better than ours, or at the very least no worse. Often the very behavior that we think will lead to this goal puts our children in the wrong place at the wrong time and the psychology of belonging to a group kicks in (this is why gangs are so prevalent).  The director Chris Weitz displays a touching story that paints the picture of an undocumented worker who stands in for so many who are simply trying to provide what every parent wants for their child: a better life.  And no law or border will get in the way of that kind of love.

Watch the trailer here:

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