A lot has been written about the end of the American Dream, but the fact is that a large number of Latinx people still believe in it. About half think that their children will be better off financially than they are—a higher percentage than among the general public. But whose dream actually is it? And who pays the price to achieve it? Those questions are central to “Mija,” a feature documentary by the filmmaker Isabel Castro, which débuted to strong reviews at Sundance in January, was acquired by Disney last month, and will be released in theatres and streamed on Disney+ later this year.
Castro was born in Mexico, and when she was a child her parents brought her to the United States. Her first documentary, on transgender asylum seekers, won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary in 2015. Other films focussed on a Honduran family separated at the border under the Trump Administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, and on humanitarian aid for migrants. In “Mija”—short for “mi hija” (“my daughter”)—Castro made a deliberate effort to escape some of the tropes too often found in immigration narratives, some of which, she told me, she herself had resorted to in the past. So instead of portraying only the trauma of crossing the border and enduring racism on the other side, or the stereotyped “sueñito” (“little dream”) of making enough money to go back to one’s country of birth and open a small business, she has focussed on the ambitions of the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, and on how they cope with the complicated burden of meeting their families’ needs and expectations.
In “Mija,” Doris Anahí Muñoz, a Chicana from Southern California, dreams big—she wants “a bigger life.” She is twenty-six, the age her mother was when she crossed the border with her husband and their two sons in the early nineteen-nineties. Doris grew up near Los Angeles, in San Bernardino, listening to church music—music, she says, was her family’s “sanctuary.” At twenty-one and fresh out of college, she decided to make her way as a music manager.
Her dream seems to come true when she signs Cuco, a Chicano singer from Hawthorne, California, as her client. Cuco, who started his career streaming songs from his bedroom on social media, is followed by, in Doris’s words, millions of “brown kids who felt unseen and unheard.” Under her management, he gets a seven-figure deal for an album, and she’s suddenly earning a six-figure salary. When we first meet them, they are touring the world, Cuco singing “You know you’re my sueño” to sold-out theatres brimming with smitten teen-agers. Doris feels that she is the one dreaming. This career is all she ever wanted, but “now that I’m here it doesn’t feel real,” she says. As if to prove her doubts, the COVID-19 pandemic hits, theatres and music venues shutter, and she loses Cuco as a client. She is forced to start over, looking for the next star.
If that were the whole story, “Mija” would just be a film about the trials of a Latina Jerry Maguire. But there is another side to it: born in California, Doris is the sole U.S. citizen in her family. She grew up in constant fear that her family would be deported, and, seven years ago, her brother José was sent back to Mexico. She is now the main provider for her family, and only she can leave and reënter the country to see José and give him money. She is also the only one who can pay for permanent-residence papers for her parents—at twenty-one, U.S. citizens can potentially sponsor their parents.
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The tension between Doris’s personal ambitions and her family’s needs is what makes “Mija” unique. Since José’s deportation, she has lived with “survivor’s guilt”—as she puts it, “Dreaming big takes a toll.” Even when she is enjoying Cuco’s success, it feels “wild to have it all, while simultaneously feeling like you are falling apart.” After she splits with Cuco, she calls José to say that she can’t visit him. “I’m not fucking stable,” she tells him, crying. He replies, “I understand that you have to vent, and you do a lot, and you need to take some time for you.” But after they hang up we see him shaking his head, sad and alone.
Doris is soon pursuing a new client: a young, undiscovered singer from Dallas, Jacqueline Haupt, who goes by Jacks. She was born in the U.S. and raised by an undocumented mother, and she, too, has big dreams: she wants to be a star. Doris brings Jacks to L.A. to record her first album, and takes her and her boyfriend to a fancy bar to celebrate Jacks’s twenty-first birthday. For the first time in her life, Jacks feels that her dream may come true. “When you’ve never seen someone like you succeed, it seems impossible,” Doris says. Jacks is now old enough to attempt to sponsor her mother’s green-card application, and she calls to tell her that she has spoken with an immigration lawyer. Far from congratulating her on her birthday, or her album, Jacks’s mother scolds her for wasting money on a trip to L.A. instead of getting a real job. “Of all the damn things one can’t do being illegal in this country, and you who have all the opportunities here, you don’t do it?” she says. By the end of the call, Jacks is sobbing.
Doris and Jacks belong to the generation born to the last great wave of migration from Mexico—the more than seven and a half million people who arrived in the U.S. between 1990 and 2010, which was a period of increasingly restrictive migration policies. Unlike the previous wave (between 1942 and 1964), when laxer border regulations and seasonal job opportunities attracted mostly male laborers, many of these newer migrants settled in the U.S. with their families, and without government authorization.
If the achievements of the two young women in “Mija” are exceptional, their family dramas are not. Anxiety and guilt are common among American-born children with at least one undocumented parent (a population of 4.4 million people), Roberto Gonzales, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the situation of undocumented immigrants, told me. “All sorts of things fall on the shoulders of those kids who can navigate the system. There is an enormous responsibility to be successful.” Children of immigrants are “very aware” of the sacrifices their parents have made, Gonzales added, and they feel an “unspoken obligation to succeed, to do better, and to help their parents.” In mixed-status families, such as Doris’s and Jacks’s, the “immigrant bargain,” as the phenomenon is known, takes a “very specific shape.”
That shape often includes depression, as well as other behavioral and mental-health issues, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, a professor at New York University and the author of “Immigrants Raising Citizens,” told me. He cited research showing that youths who received DACA status had higher levels of stress and worry about family and friends being deported, and also higher anxiety rates. (DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, protects from deportation some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and grants them work permits.) “It increases because of their remaining sense of worry about their families,” Yoshikawa explained.
This generational experience coexists with an increased political awakening. Doris is also an advocate—in 2017, she founded Solidarity for Sanctuary, an organization that staged a series of concerts to raise funds and visibility for immigrant causes. Castro, who is thirty-two, said, “The immigrant identity has become increasingly politicized in my lifetime. That’s because of Trump running on a platform that was very anti-immigrant. Young people coalesced around that.” Yoshikawa agrees that the reaction to “extreme levels of injustice” aimed at immigrants during the Trump years “changed an entire generation.” Gonzales said that many of the college students he has interviewed in the course of his research have told him that they feel “a new responsibility of being politically active on behalf of their parents and siblings” who are undocumented.
Ultimately, “Mija” is not about Doris making it but about what making it really means. Which of the two sides of her identity will matter most in the end, or will she be able to reconcile them? How will she shoulder the burden of the past, the urgency of the present, and her ambitions for the future? The answers to these questions are what a generation is struggling to find.