By Christopher Eiswerth
In 2000 when filmmaker Mark Becker was roaming San Francisco's Mission District interviewing mariachis, he expected to make a short film on the illegal immigrants that populate the district.
He says, "All these guys that go from restaurant to bar, would travel the circuit playing music for tips. I was interested because I thought the film might be about this bachelor culture." Instead, Becker met Carmelo Muñiz Sánchez, a fifty-seven-year-old guitar player trying to support his family in Mexico.
"Whatever my questions were, his answers were much more interesting than where I thought I might be leading him," says Becker, who received funding from the California Humanities Council to make Romántico.
"He was very much in touch with his own personal history in a way that seemed lyrical. He is this odd mix of humility and pride," says Becker. "He feels like, in the one sense, that he's from humble origins and he should be thankful for whatever he gets in life. On the other hand, he sees his life in epic terms and feels worthy of a personal history."
As Muñiz walks down the San Francisco streets in the film with his partner Arturo, a fellow illegal immigrant, he explains, "I'm doing this for my family, for no other reason." Muñiz and Arturo walk the circuit, singing love songs to couples in restaurants. Some nights they can make one hundred dollars. In Mexico, that would take two weeks, explains Muñiz.
The week Becker began shooting the film, Muñiz's mother's failing health forced him to return to Mexico. "He put my face in his hands," remembers Becker, "and he said, 'Mark, I'm so sorry, but I'm going to be leaving. I know you started this film and I don't want to abandon you, but I have to go home.'" Muñiz returned to Mexico and Becker followed. "The film definitely transformed from that point on, from my initial idea to this reverse immigration story," says Becker. "I felt like I was making a film about this guy, and unfortunately we don't share the same language. But he was terribly inspiring to me, and there was no way I wasn't going to follow him wherever he led me."
In Mexico, Becker goes with Muñiz as he sings for prostitutes and their clients and sells ice cream to children in his hometown of Salvatierra. Muñiz uses his savings from the United States to pay the burial expenses for his mother, who dies of complications from diabetes, and he struggles to feed his family. On camera, he explains his predicament: to return to America alone where he earns enough money to support his family or to remain in Mexico with them where he struggles to survive. "The little I earn, I give to my wife," says Muñiz. "I don't spend poorly because I don't want my children to suffer. Because I come from the worst—completely ragged, poor, and barefoot."
"Carmelo seemed to see it as his duty to be as brutally honest as possible about everything," says Becker.
Romántico debuted at the Independent Film Channel Center in New York City this fall. The film, which has been nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, will have a modest release in the United States, mostly in art houses and independent theaters, explains Becker. After New York, the film will show in Boston, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay area and be released on DVD afterwards.
"It's rather timely to have a film about this guy, who I think may represent the most benign idea of an 'illegal' immigrant in the United States," says Becker. "I would love people to watch this film and put themselves in the shoes of the father, and ask themselves what they would do."