“We inherit our family’s dreams, but also their fears. It takes a lot of courage to make your own path.”
That line of narration from the new documentary “Mija” — spoken by one of its subjects, musician and music manager Doris Muñoz — has stuck with me for months since its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January.
The documentary follows Muñoz and two of her clients: first, singer/songwriter Cuco and later, singer/songwriter Jacks Haupt. Muñoz’s success as a manager representing fellow Latinx artists has provided material support to her family. In the film, her parents are undergoing the arduous and bureaucratic process of applying for green cards. Muñoz, the only U.S.-born member of her immediate family, is also the liaison between them and her brother, who lives across the border in Tijuana after he was deported.
In “Mija,” Muñoz and Haupt grapple with a lot of complicated feelings that are familiar to many children of immigrants, especially those trying to make it in a creative profession. They want to live up to their parents’ expectations and make them proud, and feel obligated to help them and honor their enormous sacrifices. Amid all of that, they’re figuring out how to make it in a field where there aren’t a lot of people like them.
Premiering Friday on Disney+, “Mija” is the feature debut of director Isabel Castro. She previously spent a decade in journalism, producing documentary shorts and series at the New York Times, the Marshall Project and VICE, where she was an Emmy-nominated producer for “VICE News Tonight.” As she explained in an interview, the seed for “Mija” came from a desire to tell more nuanced stories about immigration — not just about the act of immigrating or the policies behind it, but the complex emotions it brings up and “the ripple effects across different generations.”
“The range of emotions that comes along with immigrating to this country is really, really nuanced and complicated, and the spectrum is really wide,” she said. “Oftentimes, immigrant stories are very narrowly focused on exclusively the trauma of that experience.”
It’s the kind of story Castro has wanted to tell for many years, and the intersection of several of her creative goals. As a Mexican American journalist covering immigration and civil rights in the Trump era, Castro “started to feel really disillusioned by the kind of aspirations towards objectivity,” she said. “Just looking at the ways that different government policies were affecting folks on the ground, it was very difficult for me to really try to maintain objectivity.”
Castro, who has a background in filmmaking but cut her teeth in journalism and documentary TV work to build a more steady career path, quit her day job and used her savings to get back into independent film. She took a course in cinematography to be able to work independently and reduce costs, since getting a film funded can be a long and cumbersome process.
When considering what story she wanted to tell, she remembered that “I’ve always loved music docs. So I thought, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a way to have a music doc intersect with a story about immigration,’” she said. “And that’s kind of the seed that was planted.”
In 2019, Castro came across a California Sunday magazine profile about Cuco, which mentioned the work Muñoz was doing as his manager. After several phone conversations with Muñoz, Castro met her in person later that year at “Selena for Sanctuary,” a concert paying homage to the late singer and icon Selena. A few years earlier, Muñoz began the event as a way to raise money for her parents’ legal fees, and later grew it into a fundraiser for immigrant rights organizations. Soon after the two met, Muñoz agreed to be part of the documentary.
When deciding to move away from journalism and make her own feature film, Castro also wanted to be able to make more specific stylistic choices. “There’s objectivity, also, in the vernacular of imagery that journalism is told in. And I wanted to make something that felt really subjective, that felt really intentional about its POV and about the image itself being part of the messaging and the story,” she said.
For instance, “Mija” features a vibrant color palette and dream-like sequences, which were inspired by HBO’s “Euphoria.” “In terms of trying to react to or deviate from the typical ways that immigrant stories are told, I really wanted to adopt a visual language that felt really young and exciting, and so I looked a lot to ‘Euphoria,’” she said.
In choosing to have Muñoz narrate the documentary, Castro drew from the voiceover of characters like Cher Horowitz in “Clueless” and Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City,” which she loved as a teen. “I really connected to Carrie and Cher, despite our huge differences, just because of the VO. I felt like there was an intimacy that was established through the voiceover,” she said. “So I always knew that I wanted to emulate that in the voiceover for the film.”
Like everything else in the world, the pandemic shifted Muñoz’s life and the course of the documentary, forcing Castro to get creative with the production limitations. “I went into this thinking it would be a more traditional music doc. I thought I’d be on the road. I thought it was going to be a Chicano ‘Almost Famous,’” she said. “But the pandemic hit, and my expectations just completely went out the window.”
While we didn’t get that road movie version of “Mija,” the film’s intimate moments of reflection lend itself well to the complicated questions it explores — the kind that don’t fit into a pithy headline or neat narrative.
For children of immigrants, in some ways, perhaps the ultimate gift to our parents is to get to make the choices they couldn’t, and to be able to move beyond basic questions of survival and material needs. But it also can be hard for our parents to understand our choices, and we can feel a sense of guilt for being able to focus on less material concerns than they did.
“One of the emotions that I personally carry with me and most wanted to explore in this was the feeling of guilt,” Castro said. “And I think that that’s particularly prevalent in the stories of immigrants because migration just is inherently a traumatic experience. No matter what your story is, it’s a decision to leave your home, and it’s a decision to leave your country and your culture and move to a new place. And it’s painful.”
“And I think that as children of immigrants, oftentimes you see that pain or interpret that pain, and you want to honor it,” she continued. “And sometimes, that comes along with a lot of pressure, and that pressure often comes along with feelings of guilt. So I wanted to explore those kinds of emotions. I wanted the film to live not just exclusively in the trauma of immigration, because that’s always going to be there in our lives, in our stories and in our day-to-day experiences.”
Castro wants more immigration stories to capture these more complicated feelings and questions.
“The nuanced emotions are the ones that I think come up more often on a day-to-day basis,” she continued. “Having covered immigration for many, many years, that is the reality of most people’s experiences that I see. It’s not something black and white.”
“Mija” premieres Friday on Disney+.