How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The real 'A Better Life': A day laborer's take on the Oscar-nominated film

One of the films being considered for an Oscar in this Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony has an unlikely hero, an immigrant gardener working in Los Angeles. In “A Better Life,” Mexican actor Demián Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, an undocumented immigrant whose lack of legal status eventually thwarts the ambitions he has for himself and his teenage son.

The film provides an intimate glimpse into the world of the people who keep L.A.’s lawns mowed and homes painted, and when work is scarce, sometimes seek work as day laborers on street corners, as Carlos does. And when the truck that Carlos buys, hoping to own his own landscaping business, gets stolen, it provides a window into what it's like to live underground, too afraid to call police to report a crime for fear of deportation.

"A Better Life" has earned stellar reviews from critics and a Best Actor nomination for Bichir. But what do the people that he portrays onscreen think of it? This week, at a national conference of day laborers in Los Angeles, the film was screened before an audience of men much like Carlos Galindo: carpenters, roofers, gardeners and others who work as day laborers, most of them immigrants from Mexico and Central America, some with papers and some without.

Offering his take on the film in this Q&A is Hugo Villatoro, 59, a day laborer from Guatemala who has lived seven years in the United States. Like Carlos, he's undocumented, although he doesn’t fear coming forward. Villatoro was one of several Southern California day laborers involved in a lawsuit challenging the city of Redondo Beach on an ordinance that would have prohibited them from soliciting work on the street; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor this week. He works mostly in construction and roofing, but will take a landscaping gig when it comes.

The interview is translated from Spanish. (And warning, there is a spoiler.)

M-A: How did you relate to this movie? Was it a realistic portrayal?

Hugo: Yes, it was realistic. I could especially relate to the feelings of the younger protagonist, the boy, which had a big impact on me because a year and a half ago, one of my sons was coming here, my youngest son, and he got lost in the desert. That had a huge impact on me. I didn’t know what had happened, I only heard that he’d gotten lost, and nobody told me why. I started trying to find him. People got me phone numbers to consulates, and that was how I found him. He was lost in the desert and thank God, days had gone by when he came out onto a street. And it was there, thank God, that immigration found him.

So it had a big impact on me watching the film when the young man said goodbye to his father, when his father was being was deported, and he stayed behind. It really affected me, because this is something I’ve lived.

M-A: When Carlos’ truck gets stolen, he can’t simply call the police to report the crime. What is it like not being able to do things like this?

Hugo: Well, for example, we went to work for a (man) and he owed me $1,000. Another friend, he owed him $1,600, and another was owed $1,800. We took him to court, but there were not enough elements there - he didn’t have a contractor’s license – for us to be able to make him pay us that money.

M-A: You’re not the typical case.

Hugo: No, many people don’t do that out of fear….I’m not afraid, but many others have a great deal of fear. That is what happens for many people. For example, on my corner, there are up to 100 or 150 day laborers (who solicit work there), and only three of us are here at this conference. It’s because of that same fear, saying no, immigration might come, they might point the finger at us. But it’s not like that.

M-A: How does Carlos, the hero of the film, represent the ambitions of day laborers and others who come to this country seeking work? When he buys his truck, he buys it with the hope that he can better provide for his son. Can you relate?

Hugo: He represents the dream that we all carry with us. In  my case, I know that if I do anything, I am going to do it for my children. At this age, I may not have many years left, but if I can do something positive, I will do it for them.  Last night watching the film we saw how he bought his truck, with his son in mind. But he came with that objective, as we all do. We come with hopes of buying a car, having a house, having a little bit of land. That is the dream that we bring with us.

And to create a better life for ourselves while we are here, because the truth is that there is a better life here than in our countries. This is a powerful country. I know that work now is very slow, but if we compare it with our countries, it’s still better here.  Whatever it may be like here, here you find everything. Nobody here is barefoot. Here, everyone has on good shoes, good clothes.

M-A: Some people settle down here, like Carlos, and raise families in the U.S.. Others, like you, are here mostly to send money home, with plans to return. What has working here helped you accomplish in Guatemala?

Hugo: What I’ve been able to accomplish is helping my family.  All of my children are grown now, but if there is an emergency or a need, or one of my daughters in Guatemala asks me for help, there it goes, I can send her money. That’s the good thing, that I can help my family.

I raised them all in Guatemala. I came here around 1982 for three months, but decided no, my family is there and I need to raise them, and if God is willing once they are grown, I’ll return one day. So I came back once my family was grown. Now four of my (adult) children are here. Three came first, then I came, then another. The one who got lost in the desert is my youngest, he was 20 when he was deported. We both came through Arizona. I knew where I’d been, and that is what I imagined, what my son was suffering lost in there. Can you imagine your child lost in a place like that, when you have already seen what it’s like?

M-A: I know it’s not a typical thing for you or your peers to see yourselves portrayed as the heroes of a feature film. What was that like?

Hugo: That had a big impact on me. These are the stories that we are living. In the case of (Carlos) in the film last night, when he was climbing up the palm tree, it was hard to climb up there, but we do all of that. For us it’s difficult, because we risk our lives, I can tell you that. Like with me, when I work on roofs, we have to be very concentrated on what we are doing, because one slip and we go down, and that is the end of us. We risk everything, because we don’t have health insurance and we don’t have any kind of protection. Here we work in God’s hands.

M-A: Seeing the kind of life you’ve described interpreted onscreen for a film audience, for an American audience, how does that feel?

Hugo: You feel proud to be able to compare the film with the life that you are living here. It gives you a sense of pride to be able to say, “I’ve lived that. Look, this is something I’ve already lived.” It’s like that. We live this, in the flesh.

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