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Tracking both sides of the split migrant family story

March 16, 2008|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

To all the people who think that the illegal immigration debate is about electronic fences, NAFTA, Lou Dobbs and such, director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos offer a polite but emphatic rebuttal.

Immigration, say the women, is about survival. It's about learning to be invisible. It's about families. It's about love.

That, Riggen says, was the insight she uncovered while leafing through Villalobos' screenplay for "Under the Same Moon" (La Misma Luna), a Spanish-language drama about a Mexican mother who comes to work in Los Angeles, leaving behind her young son across the border.

The U.S.-Mexican production, which will open on more than 200 screens in Los Angeles and other cities on Wednesday, is the first Latino-centered movie that Fox Searchlight has distributed, reflecting the major studios' interest in tapping into a rapidly growing market. It stars Kate del Castillo as the mother, Rosario; Adrian Alonso as her son, Carlitos; and an eclectic supporting cast that includes America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty" as a child smuggler and the norteno supergroup Los Tigres del Norte as themselves.

But several of the film's most memorable characters are nameless illegal immigrants shown struggling to reach el norte or, once there, struggling to make ends meet financially and not be sent back to Mexico. Reading over the script during pre-production, Riggen "suddenly discovered that all these characters have one thing in common."

"All these people risked their lives crossing the border, leaving everything behind, for love," says Riggen, who was born and raised in Guadalajara, studied film at Columbia University and has lived in Los Angeles for the last several years. "For love of their families who they're going to go reach, for love of their families who they leave behind and send money to. But it always has to do with love and family."

A hot-button issue

Standing ovations at Rome and Toronto film festivals, along with mostly praise from critics, have greeted the movie so far. A "timely and energetic crowd-pleaser" was the Miami Herald's verdict, and the Hollywood Reporter opined that the film "overcomes its narrative shortcomings with a surfeit of heart."

Sweet-natured but tough-minded, "Under the Same Moon" arrives in theaters at a time when politicians, pundits and the public are engaging in (mainly) verbal slugfests over immigration, a recurrent hot-button issue in American history. But although Villalobos deliberately wove migrant-related themes into her screenplay, she agrees with Riggen that the movie is more of a personal than a political statement.

Specifically, Villalobos says, she wanted to explore the theme of abandoned children, a subject that became painfully real to her when her parents split up when she was 3 years old. For the next eight years she shuttled from Durango to Mexico City before settling with her mother in Utah when she was 11. She was the only Mexican in her new American school, and barely spoke a word of English.

"As an adult, there have been a lot of issues in my life as a result of feeling this kind of abandonment twice from both parents," Villalobos says. "And so that is actually what I wanted to explore, that sometimes parents feel like they're making the best decision for their children, and it may not necessarily be the case. So whether it's in the arms of strangers that happened during World War II, or whether it's through Operation Peter Pan, which is also what happened with a lot of the children -- 14,000 children -- in Cuba, or whether it's through these mothers and fathers that because of circumstances, financial circumstances, have to come and live in this country, these kids are left behind."

Villalobos wrote the first draft of the screenplay seven years ago, then shelved it while turning her attention to writing for television shows, including the animated Nickelodeon program "Go, Diego, Go!" along with other projects. Only years later did she realize that setting the story against the background of illegal immigration would allow her to "introduce the public to all of these people that are working in this country and see them as human beings instead of an issue."

Like Villalobos, the young hero of "Under the Same Moon," Carlitos, finds a way to push back against his parents' desertion. Tired of waiting for his absent mother to return to Mexico, he pays a pair of child smugglers to stow him away in their van and sneak him into the United States.

Once across the border, he falls in with a wild mix of humanity that includes many Mexican illegal immigrants, all struggling to keep their heads down and earn a few dollars washing dishes or picking tomatoes while steering clear of INS agents. All that Carlitos has to guide him in his search for Rosario is his mind's-eye vision of the Boyle Heights street corner -- marked by a brightly colored mural -- where his mother has been placing her long-distance calls to Mexico.

A perilous journey

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