“I Didn’t Want to Use Tears as a Way to Communicate”: Isabel Castro on Sundance 2022 Premiere Mija
The perils of being a fledgling musician go deeper than tour burnout and being paid with drink tickets. Isabel Castro’s nonfiction feature Mija, predominantly shot in Southern California, focuses on the unique plight of emerging alternative Latino artists—many of whom must tandemly fight for industry recognition and for largely undocumented family members to evade deportation. As portrayed in Mija, an integral part of the Latino music scene is Doris Muñoz, an up-and-coming music manager who juggles her various professional responsibilities while sponsoring her parents’ application for their green cards.
At the film’s start, one of the artists Doris manages is singer-songwriter (and Chicano sensation) Cuco, who has had much of his public identity molded around the fact that he extensively supports his tight-knit Mexican family through his music earnings. However, the true musical focus of Mija is bright-eyed Dallas, Texas native Jacks Haupt. Though clearly talented, Jacks struggles to justify her artistic intent to her undocumented parents, who find it incredibly difficult to support their daughter when she travels to L.A. to riskily chase success—a move they feel puts them in particular financial and legal distress, as Jacks is the only U.S. citizen among her immediate family members.
A survey of first-generation Latino kids juggling the pressure and guilt that comes with pursuing precarious creative careers, Mija is also a love letter to contemporary Latino rockeros who push the genre past the overwhelming presence of whiteness (though The Smiths endure as a Latino staple despite how severely Morrissey sucks). Filmmaker spoke on the phone with Castro ahead of the film’s virtual premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, set to take place via the festival’s online platform on January 21 at 6:15pm MT.
Filmmaker: So, I know you have done a ton of documentary work in the past—you started out as an aspiring photojournalist, then switched over to non-fiction filmmaking after college. What is it about the medium that continues to compel you as a filmmaker?
Castro: I initially went into photojournalism work for pretty selfish reasons. It was such a gift to be able to use photography as a way to meet new people. I actually came from a painting background, but when I was thinking about what to study in college, painting didn’t seem very pragmatic to me. And my immigrant parents were completely mortified at the prospect—they heard “painting” and recoiled. So, I saw photography as this perfect way to be artistic and express myself while also seeing it as a more professional trajectory. When I discovered photojournalism, I was like, “Oh my God, I’m the luckiest person in the world”—I found this incredible career that combines all of these different passions, and it really was exciting for me to be able to meet new people I wouldn’t have otherwise. But I think the one thing that was a bit demoralizing to me was how lonely photography was as a profession. What I realized in that experience is how incredible it is to make films, because you’re able to collaborate. That to is ultimately what I have fallen the most in love with in filmmaking—it’s very multidisciplinary. I get to work with composers, graphic designers, creative producers, writers. And that is ultimately why I transitioned from photography to film.
Filmmaker: And how did Doris’s story specifically come to be on your radar?
Castro: I first started developing the film in 2018/19. I wanted my feature debut to be something I felt confident with in my own voice, because I think in my earlier work, I was still trying to figure out what my voice was. The story I was looking for was one in which I could talk about the immigration experience, but not exclusively center trauma and pain. Those are definitely part of any immigration story, but from the experiences that I’ve had reporting on the topics, I’ve noticed that it’s a very nuanced, complicated experience, and the stories I was making and consuming were pretty one-note. I also wanted to tell a story from the perspective of young protagonists. I really care about making stories for and about young people, because that’s when we absorb stories, media, and information that helps form our worldview.
In the midst of doing development for the film, I found Cuco, a musician from L.A. in his early 20s. I read this amazing article in the California Sunday Magazine about how he was this Chicano musician who had gone viral and signed a deal with Interscope [Records] and was helping support his immigrant family in that process. I became obsessed both with his story and music, so I reached out to Doris and basically tried to set up an interview and talk about the idea of filming. She invited me to film him at this show in New York (which is actually in the film) during a three day scouting trip. I was completely mesmerized by her. On that trip, I realized I hadn’t seen a music documentary about all of the people behind the scenes. I really related to her because I’d worked in broadcast journalism, and it takes a whole village to put forth the forward-presenting person. I realized that music is probably very similar. So, I started talking to her, and through those conversations, realized she had undocumented parents that were waiting to see if they were going to get their green cards. My alarm bells went off: there was going to be the story of her family figuring out whether their application went through, but also learning about what Doris does as a manager. After that first scouting trip, I pivoted and realized I wanted to create a kaleidoscope of different musicians within the film.
Filmmaker: That’s so funny, because as I was watching the film my roommate walked through and was like, “Oh shit, I was at that Cuco concert!” And I was like, “How could you know? Also, I think most of this is set in LA.” But he was adamant that he could tell because it was the Selena for Sanctuary concert. So, he’ll be very pleased to learn that he was right. Anyway, while the film is obviously rooted in the very real struggles of these characters, I think Mija is also actively toying with the form whenever it can. For example, there are the voice-over segments that were written by Doris, yourself and a few others that are clearly not just stream-of-consciousness. What made you interested in adding this layer to your film?
Castro: There are very rigid expectations about what non-fiction needs to look and sound like, specific rules about what a sitdown interview or B-roll coverage looks like, and I was excited by the artistic opportunity of employing different stylistic tools. The nonfiction medium can be so much more than people give it credit for, so when I was thinking about what I wanted the film to look like I was looking at fiction references. What I landed on is that I wanted the film to feel like what I personally watched when I was a teenager. Like, the most influential works in my in my teenage years were Clueless, Sex and the City and a ton of Gossip Girl. So, I knew I wanted to do [voice-over] very early, but I didn’t want to use it in a traditional sense. Because I think VO in documentaries traditionally has a narrative purpose, and I wanted to instead give insight into Doris’s headspace. Writing the VO was very challenging and a huge learning experience. I did broadcast news for a long time at Vice and collaborated with correspondents pretty regularly on writing voice-over. I also hired two Chicano writers here in LA [Yesika Salgado and Walter Thompson-Hernández], who I felt could relate to and speak to this story more intimately and personally [than I could]. And I wanted to make sure that the VO—even if I was sketching it out—was being delivered in a way that felt really authentic to the Latino experience here in LA.
Filmmaker: As you’ve stated before, it’s frustrating that the majority of stories that focus on Latinos and immigration are often entrenched in trauma, despair and hopelessness. I mean, many of these stories are deeply tragic, but this single-faceted focus also glosses over the tenacity and optimism that is also felt by many of these individuals, their families and communities. How do you think that Mija challenges that overwhelming narrative?
Castro: I think that in addition to many—if not most—stories about immigration being about trauma and loss, I also feel that they have adopted this singular stylistic palette. I’ve gotten to this point where, when I’m watching stories about immigration, I can hear the soundbites and music I’m expecting to hear. I started with those two things. I wanted the music to sound different from the typical music used in these kinds of stories. I wanted the soundtrack to have Latino musicians that weren’t exclusively thinking about sadness in the context of their immigration experiences. Doris played a big role in this: she reached out to various Latino artists and licensed music from them.
The second thing is, I really wanted to focus on other emotions immigrants experience that are talked about less frequently. For me, one of the biggest was guilt; the other was pressure. And what emerged is that as kids of immigrants, a lot of us feel these things. We feel pressure, we feel guilt, because we see the pain that our parents endured in order to give us these opportunities. We want to honor those sacrifices, and often we also feel resentment because of this. Part of the reason I didn’t have any [talking head] interviews is because I wanted emotions filmed on camera to be only captured when the characters were experiencing it. I think that one of the things that I get most frustrated about in immigration docs is when the interviewer reengages people’s trauma. I didn’t want to use tears as a way to communicate. There are many tears in this film, but they were captured in real time when I was there. So, those were some basic rules that I created for myself as a way to try to do something different.
Filmmaker: When I was watching the film my roommate kept getting drawn into it. He’s from Honduras, so it wasn’t necessarily the Chicano angle that was resonating for him, but the struggle to sponsor one’s parents through the naturalization process. When Doris speaks about how Jacks can now sponsor her parents, my roommate chimed in: “That’s the dream.” I don’t think people realize how many children shoulder this burden, or want to shoulder the burden but don’t have the financial or legal means to make it happen. What felt important to you about framing this particular feeling?
Castro: I got my green card before I was 18. I moved to the United States from Mexico and, when I was a kid, my parents got their green cards through my dad’s job. And though I personally never had to kind of assume that responsibility myself, there are other parts of the experience that I connect to very easily, and I think one of the mistakes the media makes is to reduce it to one kind of narrative. In the case of Mija, I really wanted to focus on what it means to be the child of an immigrant in terms of the pressure and the responsibility and what that looks like. In the case of Doris, it meant supporting her family through their legal process. When I realized that Jacks was also in the same position, I was like, “It is so crucial that these two women have that in common.” But it was also crucial to show that it’s complicated. I think for many kids, it is the dream to be able to sponsor their family, because they want to pay back the sacrifices their parents made for them and they don’t want to live in fear anymore. Because to live undocumented or with undocumented family—though I personally haven’t experienced it—is a huge burden.
Filmmaker: I also think that a lot of Latino kids will relate even further, because it seems like a lot of us are scolded for chasing artistic dreams when more conventional and well-paying jobs are available to us. But Doris brings up that these concerns are quickly quelled when we can make these creative things lucrative. Yet so much of Latin American and Caribbean history is fueled by art—by music, painting, sculpture, murals, theater, film, dance. So, their reaction is almost telling us that disconnecting from this artistic legacy is worth it if we are able to assimilate. Did any of your own personal experiences mirror those of Doris or Jacks, or was this just a topic you were interested in exploring?
Castro: I certainly did experience a degree of it. The phone call between Jacks and her mom at various points sounds like my own mother. I mean, my parents have been extremely supportive of my own creative ambitions, and I really don’t want to negate that. However, I think why I wanted to tell Jacks’s story is because I can emotionally relate to it on a certain level. More importantly, when you look at success in creative industries, there’s a reason why white, male authors can breathe much more easily—their proximity to stability. I actually loved the Billie Eilish documentary, because it highlighted the ways that Billie’s family was such a huge component of her success. And minority families often don’t have the luxury to be that supportive, you know? They don’t have the financial luxury and they don’t have the time, because they are so preoccupied with other day-to-day struggles, one of which is often just survival. I wanted to show what a huge barrier for entry it is for someone like Jacks to take that risk of pursuing her dreams. Her family loves her, but it’s especially scary, daunting and risky for them to pursue that.
Filmmaker: I’d also love to just bring up the definite reality of Latinos idolizing rock music specifically. For example, my tío Marco had an entire room of his house dedicated to Iron Maiden, and he was only convinced to get rid of it when his first child was born and they needed to convert it into a nursery. What is it about rock music—metal, indie, psychedelic, glam—that resonates so profoundly with Latinos?
Castro: You know, I have tried to answer this question myself and actually don’t know the answer. My theory is that rock is traditionally rooted in a white British sensibility, and I think it is an act of assimilation. I think that to adopt these genres as our own makes it feel like we too are a part of those spaces. I’m sure that there are music academics who might disagree with that, but that’s been my experience. When I was growing up, it was in a really white community, and as a Mexican immigrant, I was obsessed with indie rock. I think in some ways, it was just a way to assimilate.
Filmmaker: Moving onto Latino indie acts, I’d love to know about the collaboration with Helado Negro on the film’s original music. How did you become connected, and what was the process of working together on Mija like?
Castro: I loved working with Roberto [Carlos Lange] so much. He is honestly the best, I cannot say enough good things about him. Doris put us in touch. She’s so knowledgeable about the Latino music space, and she had worked with him in the past—I think he’d performed at a couple of shows she organized. She introduced us at the Selena for Sanctuary show, and he was always my dream collaborator on this. I’ve always been a big fan of Helado Negro and thought that it would make for a very good film score. It turns out that it was—but because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to work together in person, which was disappointing, quite frankly. But we will certainly meet in person one day! I mean, we spent hours talking on the phone and texting. But what I felt was particularly impressive about Roberto is he’s an artist, but he didn’t bring ego into the process. Which was a really inspiring experience for me, because I saw how productive it is to approach art from a place of less ego. Roberto provided us with a bunch of temp tracks from his previous work, and we ended up using his temp tracks pretty exclusively throughout the film. Which is rare, because typically you have to pull from a ton of different sources. We also ended up licensing temp tracks that we used from musicians that weren’t Helado Negro, bands like The Marías and Omar Apollo.
Filmmaker: Okay, we’re nearing the end of the interview and I just have to ask: do you like The Smiths?
Castro: I love The Smiths.
Filmmaker: Yeah, me too! Why do we love Morrissey so much when he’s such an asshole?
Castro: I literally have no fucking clue. I am eager for someone to make that documentary, about the incredible irony and paradox of Latinos being obsessed with Morrissey and The Smiths. I grew up listening to The Smiths a lot when I was a teenager, and now it unfortunately conjures up very important memories. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized he was a deeply problematic person. I just don’t know how to de-program my brain from relating some of these songs to my experiences. That’s my unfortunate reality, but as a whole community and demographic I don’t understand why everybody has this experience. Do you know your answer?
Filmmaker: Probably very similar to yours. I was obsessed with The Smiths when I was a teenager and I just thought, “This is the most profound music. Nobody is as emotional as I am right now, except for this one guy.”
Castro: Maybe it’s just related to everyone feeling like he’s just the guy who most understands what we’re going through.
Filmmaker: Who do you suggest we worship instead? That is, if we can de-program ourselves?
Castro: Jacks Haupt. I think she’s a little genius, honestly. I am so excited for the world to meet her, because I really think that she has the potential to be a huge star. Even outside of that, I listen to her music all the freaking time. And given that the pandemic has been really difficult for all of us, I’ve turned to music to help me through it, and her music is on the rotation every freaking day. I hope other can connect to it the same way that I have.