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How a story of love, loss and cooking became the immigration tale ‘I Carry You With Me’

Iván Garcia, Armando Espitia, director Heidi Ewing, Christian Vazquez and Gerardo Zabaleta huddle together at Sundance 2020.
“I Carry You With Me” is based on the true story of chef Iván García, left, portrayed by Armando Espitia, second from left, and Gerardo Zabaleta, right, portrayed by Christian Vazquez, second from right. Bringing their worlds together on film is director Heidi Ewing, center, photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 27, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
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Consider the notion of being separated from your family for decades, of having missed your father’s funeral and your child’s birthdays and graduations. Of slowly forgetting your homeland because you can’t return, sacrificing all for an uncertain chance at a dream.

This reality for millions of people in this country molds the heartbreaking romantic epic that Oscar-nominated filmmaker Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”) didn’t know she would wind up dissecting 16 years ago when she met Iván García and Gerardo Zabaleta at a bar on the Lower East Side of New York City.

Fiction and nonfiction collide in the decades-spanning relationship drama “I Carry You With Me.”

“Every good story starts in a bar,” she says of the friendship that inspired her latest film, “I Carry You With Me” (“Te llevo conmigo”), in theaters this week after several postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A resplendent hybrid film, it blends fiction based on real events and documentary footage to map the love story between García and Zabaleta, two Mexican gay men, restaurant owners and, unbeknown to her then, immigrants without legal status.

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“It surprised me that aside from speaking Spanish, she was really good at dancing salsa,” García says about clicking with the director so casually while partying. Ewing recalls that the couple’s curiosity was sparked by her Cuban accent when speaking Spanish, which she picked up on the island while making her 2003 documentary “Dissident: Oswaldo Paya and the Varela Project.”

It wasn’t until several years into their friendship, however, that the delicate subject of García and Zabaleta’s immigration status arose.

They were at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where García and Zabaleta had come to support Ewing, whose documentary “Detropia” was premiering. One night over dinner and tequila, Ewing asked why she had never met their mothers and why they never visited Mexico.

Director Heidi Ewing with Armando Espitia on the set of "I Carry You With Me."
(Loki Films / Sony Pictures Classic)

“That’s when Gerardo and I opened up to her. She gave us that trust. We were ashamed to talk about our status, to tell people that we are in this country without documents, that we are living in the shadows,” García says. “That night we talked about family and I told her about my son.”

Stunned and upset, Ewing emailed herself a note in the middle of the night with details from their conversation. “This is such a potent story of love, triumph and loss, what you give up. I was floored on a personal level,” she says, “and as a storyteller I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get over this story.”

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Still, none of them anticipated that this heart-to-heart would bring them back to Sundance almost a decade later to premiere a movie about their lives. “I Carry You With Me” debuted at the festival in January 2020.

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‘The pain returns’

Originally from Mexico City and Chiapas respectively, García and Zabaleta were raised in a hyper-masculine society not accepting of their sexual orientation.

As a young man in the 1990s, and already a father, García worked in kitchens wishing to someday become a chef. Zabaleta was a systems engineer teaching computer skills. Living heterosexual lives by day, the two met at a clandestine queer bar in Puebla. Their ache to love each other openly and to achieve economic prosperity prompted them to set out separately on a perilous border-crossing odyssey. Eventually, they built a life in New York City and are now the proprietors of two Williamsburg restaurants, Mesa Coyoacán and Zona Rosa, where the couple express their longing for home through Mexican cuisine.

Two young men in a waiting area.
Armando Espitia, left, as Gerardo and Christian Vazquez as Iván in “I Carry You With Me”
(Alejandro Lopez Pineda / Loki Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

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Although they pay taxes, support their community and employ American citizens, their immigration status remains uncertain. García and Zabaleta have been together for 25 years and have not been to their native Mexico in more than 20.

“The vast majority of Americans don’t know an undocumented immigrant. All they have is the idea that politicians and the press have given us about what their experience is. It’s so reductive,” Ewing says. “I felt ashamed that, because they were business owners, I assumed they were not what an undocumented immigrant looks like.”

Ewing’s first instinct was to make a documentary about García and Zabaleta. She began interviewing her friends-turned-subjects and shot footage of their daily lives. At first, the pair were terrified of exposing their life so publicly for the film, especially since many of their employees share their precarious immigration situation.

“It was a long and painful process,” Zabaleta says. “Every time we discuss the fact that family members get sick or die and we can’t go say goodbye because we are still without documents, the pain returns. We can’t hide it.”

“Over time, talking with Heidi,” García adds, “we understood that this film could be something really good for the millions of us who are here dealing with this situation. We thought about the message of hope and encouragement to reach for your dreams. That’s what we wanted to share.”

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The more the director captured material in the present, the more she realized these scenes would best function as the film’s third act. This meant she had no way to include the memories they had entrusted her with in a visual manner. She had never used reenactments or animation in her previous work.

“Memory is fuzzy, strange and elusive. That’s hard to do in documentary,” Ewing says. “I had to face the fact that this was better suited as a fiction film. That was a daunting moment because I’d never made one. I’d never wanted to make one.”

Determined to depict García’s and Zabaleta’s recollections and learn the craft of fiction storytelling, she brought in Mexican screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga. “That is how the entire movie was constructed, by taking the position of a listener. In documentary film we listen a lot,” she says. “That’s what we’re good at.”

It’s a storytelling technique that shares common ground with the work of “Nomadland’s” Oscar-winning director, Chloé Zhao. Borrowing from the real stories of people who are normally unseen in this country, Ewing transforms them via fiction with wonderfully poetic results.

Ewing also decided to use voice-over as a cinematic device to add emotional depth, taking her inspiration from director Terrence Malick, whose meditations on existence are at once naturalistic and dreamlike. She is especially proud of the film’s final musings about the blurred lines between García’s recollections of his childhood and what his subconscious shows him while asleep.The truth is somewhere in the middle.

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“I thought we really needed to be closer to Iván. We needed to access the internal dialogue within him,” Ewing explains. “We couldn’t just rely on his face and what couldn’t be expressed in dialogue about what he was feeling.”

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A binational production

Another thing that sets Ewing’s film apart is that it’s essentially a Mexican production with a binational support system behind it. Most of the crew and top collaborators were Mexican, including producer Edher Campos, cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez, casting director Isabel Cortázar and Mexico-based Bolivian producer Gabriela Maire. The American team members, such as producer Mynette Louie and editor Enat Sidi, complemented an endeavor shot in both countries.

“I’m a foreign director. I am a white woman in Mexico making a film in Spanish. I am not queer. I am coming into a culture that’s not my own,” Ewing says. “But I was trying to tell the story of my friends in an authentic way, making a Mexican film that Mexicans would identify with and see as theirs, and that is not easy.”

Two young men talk with a colorful sunset in the background.
Christian Vázquez, left, as Gerardo and Armando Espitia as Iván in “I Carry You With Me.”
(Alejandro Lopez Pineda / Loki Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

She would lose sleep over seemingly small details: the proper Mexican slang of the 1990s, the popular pop groups of the time like Moenia, or even the re-creation of places, like a pulque bar named La Oficina that García’s father frequented.

“The key was that Heidi led with humility, accepting that she didn’t know more than us about the nuances and details of the culture,” says actor Armando Espitia, who plays Iván García. “I don’t think this is a movie being told by a straight, white woman; I really believe we all told it together with her.”

As a gay man from a working-class family, Espitia inherently related to García’s struggles facing homophobia.

“My character leaves trying to become a full person,” Espitia says. “In Mexico he can’t because he is gay, but when he gets to the U.S. being gay doesn’t matter as much but now he is an undocumented immigrant, so he is still just being at 50% of his potential as a person. It hurts me to know that many of us can’t find a place to be entirely who we are.”

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To ensure the portrayal of his real-life counterpart felt as accurate as possible, Espitia got an incognito job at a restaurant.

He also wanted to meet García so he could study the chef’s voice patterns and mannerisms. But Ewing was against it.

“I was afraid that the actors would start to do imitation,” she explains. “If you’re playing Margaret Thatcher and we all know what Margaret Thatcher sounds like, maybe you should imitate Margaret Thatcher. But these are not famous people. I was looking for actors who had the essence of Iván and Gerardo. I wasn’t looking for look-alikes.”

Eventually she gave in when the production moved to New York, but the meeting between Espitia and García wasn’t as fruitful as the actor imagined it would be. That’s because Espitia’s job was less about playing the García of today and more García’s memories of himself. He is no longer the same person.

“We are portraying the lives of real characters, and that weighed on me,” says Christian Vazquez, the actor tasked with bringing a young Zabaleta to the screen. “There have been many movies based on real events, but what was particular about this one is that it’s ongoing, it’s still being told.”

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Gerardo Zabeleta, Christian Vazquez, Heidi Ewing, Armando Espitia, Ivan Garcia of "I'll Carry You  With Me."
Actors Christian Vazquez, second from left, and Armando Espitia, second from right, didn’t meet their real-life counterparts — Gerardo Zabaleta, left, and Ivan Garcia, right — until the production moved to New York to shoot its final sequences directed by Heidi Ewing, center.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The chemistry between Espitia and Vazquez is testament to Ewing’s casting intuition, especially because the actors didn’t know each other beforehand. “I felt really blessed to make my first fiction film in a country that knows cinema, knows how to train actors,” Ewing says.

For Espitia and Michelle Rodriguez, an actress and comedian who plays García’s best friend and journey companion, Sandra, shooting the traumatic desert crossing was a charged watershed moment. Even though they were in a nature reserve with all necessary protective measures, Ewing’s directing style, feeling out the scenes and letting the action play out almost as she might in a documentary, pushed them to feel, if only partially, the fright and helplessness of that ordeal.

A man and a woman lean against a wall, talking.
Christian Vazquez and Michelle Rodriguez in “I Carry You With Me.”
(Alejandro Lopez Pineda / Loki Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

At some point while shooting that scene, Rodriguez had an epiphany and said, “This is happening right now somewhere on the border. There are people living through this for real.” This recognition left everyone on set speechless.

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“To put myself in the situation of so many Mexicans, and so many Latinos, there’s no way for you not to feel moved and committed with this topic,” says Rodriguez, who is best known for her comedy and cherished the opportunity to play a complex character like Sandra. “Sometimes many of us, we feel distant to the subject because we believe it’s only relevant to only certain places near the border, but I discovered that’s not true. We all know someone who left.”

Of course, for García, the actual border crossing was terrifying. “At some point Sandra and I put our lives in the hands of God because we didn’t think we were going to make it. We thought we were going to die there,” he says of his real-life experience. “But I truly believe love saved me, because Gerardo was in Mexico praying for me the whole night.”

“The responsibility of playing this character wasn’t only about Iván,” adds Espitia. “Dignifying this story had more to do with the members of family that live in the U.S. and that have gone through the same experience, for all the others I know in Mexico affected by migration, and for all the immigrants I met in New York while making this movie.”

A young man stands outside, with mountains looming in the background.
Christian Vázquez as Gerardo in “I Carry You With Me.”
(Alejandro Lopez Pineda / Loki Films/Sony Pictures Classics)

“I see migrants as superheroes with superpowers,” Vazquez says, “because they leave everything behind, risking it all for the unknown. They leave behind family, culture, a country — it’s like being born again not knowing what your fate will be, without knowing how strong you are to fight that day in and day out, and even more so in a city like New York.”

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While the cast first saw the finished film at the Sundance premiere, Ewing showed a fine cut to García and Zabaleta days before in the safety of their home.

“I was overwhelmed in a good way. I never imagined how she was going to put four decades of our lives in one story,” Zabaleta says. “She made me feel my entire life again in an hour and a half: all of the emotions, frustrations, fears and smiles. Watching it was a catharsis.”

And now the movie that was conceived during the Obama administration and shot during the Trump years is finally coming out under Biden with a title different from its original name, “The Arrivals,” in part to reflect the cultural shifts over immigration that have taken place.

Four men sit with their arms around one another in front of a wall with balloons on it.
The actors from “I Carry You With Me” with their real-life counterparts: Gerardo Zabaleta, left, actors Christian Vazquez and Armando Espitia and Iván Garcia.
(Alejandro Lopez Pineda / Loki Films/Sony Pictures Classic)

For Ewing, the profound line “I Carry You With Me” or “Te llevo conmigo” encapsulates García and Zabaleta’s tested, evolving and undying devotion to one another, and their resolve to remember where they came from.

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“Every relationship is complicated,” García says, “but we have fought together and we have tried to defeat the obstacles that sometimes bring us down. That’s what love is about, supporting each other. When one is feeling down, the other rescues you and gives you hope.”

Of all the things that make him feel powerless, what eats at García most is that he hasn’t seen his son in the 20 years since he came to the U.S. The young man has married and has a daughter now. He has never been granted a tourist visa to visit his father in New York. García doesn’t know if or when he will be able to hug his son and meet his granddaughter.

Despite the countless disappointments, they have faith in the new administration and urge the president and lawmakers to see their contributions to their adoptive home. For now, as Ewing puts it, García and Zabaleta are in an endless loop of remembrances that she tried to evoke in the film. She understands those nuggets of hard-earned nostalgia keep them mentally afloat.

“The only thing that saves you, that keeps us going, that gives us hope is using those memories to bring back the smell of the soil of the ranch where I grew up,” Zabaleta says, “and through those memories be able to hug my family even if not physically.”

“Sometimes I dream about when I was a kid in Mexico and that makes my day,” García says, “because the whole day I carry that sensation of being there. That’s all we have left, to live off our memories and our dreams.”

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