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Perhaps some view movies that are not documentaries as interesting, but far from true. I do not. I see them as I see any art form, purveyors of truth clothed in fiction. I believe they hold verities that would make us cringe if they were presented as nonfiction. This is the case with the film, “A Better Life.”
It portrays the beleaguered life of Carlos Galindo, an illegal immigrant Mexican gardener in East Los Angeles. He is a single parent struggling to keep his teenage son Eddie away from gangs and immigration agents. He is also trying to give his son opportunities for a better life, a life he never had. In the meantime, they live in substandard conditions, eking out an existence from day jobs, always on guard, always staying under the radar, lest they be noticed by the ICE authorities and are deported.
The story depicts two people who are quintessential examples of the cliché, “If it weren’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.”
It is delineated from the beginning in Carlos’ flatly stated admission, “This is a land of dreams. It is a hard place, a cruel place.” Yet, he continues to dream of a better life for his son and himself. He dreams of a homeland where he can be as visible as those he sees walking freely and comfortably, heads held high while he tries to shrink into the background.
No matter how hard the father works, no matter how honest he is, no matter that he is willing to undertake dangerous tasks like climbing extremely tall palm trees with little protection, he cannot seem to make headway in his impoverished life. At the same time, his son refuses to enter the challenge of betterment. He wishes a better life without the trials of working for it. He is surrounded by those who offer him betterment as a gang member, a drug user and a felon. His internal conflict matches his father’s external one.
Dreams become nightmares. Dreams are dashed in a nanosecond when his one foray into improvement is crushed by a fellow Mexican. When Santiago betrays Carlos’ trust and steals the truck that bore all his hope for the future, Carlos’ optimism is stolen as well.
In the way of all providence, however, this tragedy both awakens Eddie to the reality that his father is truly a gift, a caring parent, and initiates a new, deeper relationship between them. Eddie intensifies his son-ship into a true partnership with his father, a transformed understanding that they are together in the quest for a better life.
The story continues to challenge the viewer because it is not a walk, hand-in-hand, into the sunrise of a new life. It is a portrayal of what happens when an illegal immigrant is caught, not for a crime but for simply being illegal, in a land of law and order. It awakens the viewer to a harsh reality, to the profiling that exists. It underscores the fact we all have preconceived notions about each other, notions that become concretized when we are faced with our fear of the unknown.
The story is not simply a film to watch, analyze, discuss and dismiss. It is an impetus to action, the beginning to understanding someone who is different from us. It impels comprehension of another culture.
It asks us to look around at our own “neck of the woods” to see the gardeners and landscapers, construction workers, restaurant staff, field workers—all the invisible people who make our world a better place and dream of living in that world, without fear and trepidation.
They dream of a place where they are accepted as they are—the common dream of all humanity. They dream of being viewed not as they look and talk, but as they are.
The movie came to life for me in many ways. One was a recent experience. I was sitting on our tiny porch area, a shady spot where I often chose as my al fresco place to read. Novel in hand, I was absorbed but also aware of the hum of mowers and weed whackers. It was yard maintenance day, and the workers were busy about their tasks. As the men came closer to the house, the noise grew louder and my absorption in the story lessened. I looked up to see one of the men busily edging the area beside the driveway.
He looked at me, stopped for a moment, and asked me what I was reading. When I showed him the paperback, he grew still. I inquired if he also liked to read. He answered, “Yes.” I took a chance and questioned him regarding the kind of books he liked to read. His response took me aback. He said, “I like to read the Bible and books about Jesus.”
Our short conversation ended. He went back to his duties. I closed my novel and reflected upon the episode. What happened here? Had this been my experience of the movie brought vividly to life, to a better life? I believe so.
I believe I had a preconceived notion that this man, obviously Latino, was not a reader. I likely expected that this would be a person with a heavy accent who could not articulate his thoughts very well. I was wrong...so wrong. Here I sat, a woman who conducts Bible studies, reading a junk novel. There he was, a man who worked hard and probably received little gratitude for his endeavors, a man who enjoyed spiritual reading, not junk.
The encounter brought me up short. It is not that novels are to be left unread. That wasn’t the message I received. The lesson I learned, and will likely have to relearn daily, was to refrain from judgment. It was to accept each person who enters my life, in any way, as a companion on the road of life. It is to see each individual as God’s gift to me, God’s presence with me.
The better life is fraught with challenges and graced with opportunities to live in a land of dreams, a land where all are offered ways in which to enjoy liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a land where justice and mercy kiss. May we never lose the dream and always work toward its fulfillment!
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.