Last weekend I decided to watch a movie that came out last year, but apparently has not had much publicity because I had not heard of it until a few weeks ago. The movie is called A Better Life and it is about a gardener who lives in Los Angeles and is raising his teenage son by himself. The gardener, Carlos, wants his son, Luis, to have a better life than he has, but is so busy working to just to pay the rent that he and Luis have grown apart. Carlos’ boss convinces him to buy his truck when he decides to go back to Mexico, and for one day Carlos thinks he finally has a chance to get ahead. Then his truck is stolen and Carlos, who cannot go to the police for fear they will discover that he is undocumented, enlists Luis to help get it back and save their family. A major theme in the movie is the unknown: Luis really doesn’t know what his father does all day or understand the sacrifices Carlos makes for him; Carlos doesn’t realize that his son is drifting farther away from him and is tempted to join the gangs in his neighborhood; and most of the people in Los Angeles don’t even see Carlos or his family and friends at all or understand anything about his existence.
After the movie was over, I realized that I really didn’t know anything at all either. I had thought I might be able to relate to the story. I grew up in Southern California and, according to district statistics, my high school was about 80-percent Hispanic. Some of those students came from families that had been in the United States for generations, and some came from families that had recently come from Mexico and Central America and were surviving by picking the strawberries, lettuce, and broccoli that grew in fields that surrounded my town. The scenes in the movie set in the high school were familiar to me—the cholos lounging around in their white t-shirts and cut-off Dickies, the loud rap music, the police officers patrolling the outskirts of campus. But I realized as I watched that I never actually knew any of these fellow students of mine. Most of my friends were the children of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, and we joined National Honor Society and Knowledge Bowl instead of the soccer team or the Mexican dance group (though I did always envy the girls who danced in those beautiful flowing skirts). Despite the fact that my school had a high percentage of Hispanic students, very few of them were in my honors-level classes. I didn’t see them and they didn’t see me.
At church, our ward shared the building with the Spanish-speaking ward, but we didn’t do much together. I would imagine that some of those students probably went to my high school, but I don’t think they attended seminary with us. I played the piano for a the Spanish-speaking ward for a while because they didn’t have anyone who could play; when my mother told the bishop that the local community college offered music class, he reminded her that many people in his ward did not have the time, money, or documentation for college classes. Now that I teach part-time at a university, I read at least one or two papers each semester about students who have been detained at the border because they seemed suspicious, or who have seen cousins gunned down by gang members, or who have been working six hours a day picking fruit after school since they were twelve years old. I am fluent in Spanish and I often interact with individuals who resemble Carlos, and yet I don’t really know them at all.
I started watching this movie thinking that it would be familiar to me, and yet by the end I felt completely disoriented. I might have grown up in the same neighborhood and gone to the same schools, but I know nothing about the life of someone who is trying to live under the radar in a country where he doesn’t speak the language and can’t get a decent job or place to live without documentation. The movie is not perfect (I’d probably give it a B), but I think it does a perfect job of opening a window into a world that most of us live in close proximity to and yet don’t ever see. I think that one of the most important functions of literature is to open new worlds to us, to make things visible that might otherwise be invisible. I have had similar experiences with Mormon literature; I start reading a story or essay thinking “these are my people and this is my world”, and by the end I find that I really knew nothing at all beyond my own experience. I also realize that art and literature have limits; I sometimes mistake the fact that I have read a lot about a historical time period or place for real knowledge of how people live there. But, however imperfect it is, literature is still one of the best ways for us to have those moments of realizing how vast the world is and how varied the experiences of life can be.
Have you ever had an experience with a piece of writing, a film, or a piece of art that made you realize how much you didn’t really know about the world? How have you learned to really see people and to be more aware of the lives of others?
PS—This post is not about U.S. immigration policy. If you want to debate that, please find another forum.