Latinx Files: Q&A with Sundance filmmaker Isabel Castro

music manager Doris Muñoz stands in the crowd of a music concert.
“Mija,” the first feature film by Isabel Castro, premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
(Sundance Institute)

Last Friday, “Mija” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary, the first feature for director Isabel Castro, focuses on Doris Muñoz, a talent manager in the music industry who got her break after helping launch the career of her childhood friend Omar Banos, better known as Cuco.

At its core, “Mija” is a film about what happens when your dreams come true and they have to coexist with your reality. Being Cuco’s manager has enabled Muñoz, an incredibly likable and charismatic character, to travel the world and have experiences that her undocumented family — she’s the only American citizen — could only dream of. Her work has also provided her with the financial means to not only support them, but also fund the green card applications of her parents so they can visit their oldest son, who was deported to Mexico years ago.

Yes, “Mija” is about immigration but it’s about so much more. It’s about the obligations and pressure the children of immigrants feel to do right by those who gave up so much for them. It’s about being the continuation of other people’s efforts, and the conflict that arises when you choose to forge a path that might differ from what’s expected of you.


On the heels of the film’s Sundance premiere, I spoke with director Isabel Castro. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Congrats on the premiere. How did this project come about?

I made my first film in college about transgender asylum seekers and after that experience, I began to grapple with how to continue doing this thing I loved in a way that felt pragmatic and stable, so I went into journalism for a really long time before coming back to independent filmmaking five years ago.

Throughout this time, I’ve been doing immigration coverage and storytelling. I wanted this film to tell the story of immigration in a way that felt different. Thematically and narratively, I didn’t just want to exclusively focus on the pain and trauma. Those things are inevitable and inherent to the experience, but I also wanted to spend more time exploring the more nuanced and complicated facets of it, to explore emotions like guilt and resentment and joy.

Also, I’ve always been a big music fan. I wanted to infuse entertainment into this story, and I thought that music would be a good way to do that.

Right. “Mija” is as much a music documentary as it is a story about immigration, and that it’s scored by Helado Negro kind of gives it this Latinx indie music street cred. How did you first connect with Doris Muñoz?

I came across an article in the California Sunday Magazine on Cuco. I was totally transfixed, obsessed with the idea of not just his music, but of the community. I didn’t grow up in California. I grew up in a really white part of the country. There was just something so exciting to me about what he represented to a younger version of myself. He had just signed a deal with Interscope Records, was touring the country, and in the process of all that, he was able to buy his previously undocumented parents a house.

I reached out to his manager, Doris, and in the course of talking to her I realized that she was an incredible character herself. I had this lightbulb go off in my head where I drew parallels between the film and music industries, where I realized that behind every correspondent or behind every musician, there’s this team that supports them. In those conversations, Doris mentioned that she herself was raising money and trying to get her family papers. She had started a concert series called Selena for Sanctuary, where she’d invite musicians like Helado Negro to cover Selena songs. The profits of those concerts initially went to paying for her parents’ legal fees and then ultimately ended up being fundraisers for different organizations. When she told me that her family was on the precipice of hearing back on whether their green card application had been successful, I knew that in and of itself could be the subject of a documentary film.

You know, it kind of struck me while watching it that “Mija” didn’t feel like a traditional documentary. It felt very dreamlike. The usage of home videos, the voice-over narration, the Helado Negro score, it all felt so intimate, like you were reading someone’s diary

Thank you so much for saying that! It was very intentional. I really wanted to create a juxtaposition between dreams and real life, and to have those spaces intersect and overlap very purposefully.

There’s a scene in the movie that’s very painful to watch. It’s of Jacks Haupt, a musician from Texas signed by Muñoz, calling her undocumented parents to let them know that she’s talked to an immigration lawyer to start the green card process. It quickly goes off the rails. Can you talk to me about that scene?

I don’t want to give too much away because I want to kind of preserve a sense of mystery around it. What I will say is that Jacks’ story explores another facet of the challenge of being the daughter of immigrants. For Doris, it’s a lot more centered around the struggles of being your family’s breadwinner . For Jacks, her experience is that of someone whose parents and family were creating friction in terms of her pursuing her music dreams.

I could relate to that phone call, not because my parents weren’t supportive or I’ve had that call myself, but because as a child of immigrants you do have this unspoken pressure to go into a profession that is stable and that can pay the bills. A creative profession for children of immigrants can feel especially daunting.

My parents wanted me to be a lawyer.

That’s the thing! Every time I talk to a Latinx journalist, they’re like, “I’ve had that phone call!” Our parents have sacrificed so much in order to come here. I don’t think people realize how sad and lonely life is when you’re separated from their family and the friends that they grew up with. And you know, it’s just challenging to want to honor that sacrifice and to make it worth their struggles too. Of course they’re like “be a lawyer!” or “be a doctor!” because that seems more stable than being a journalist, or a filmmaker, or a musician, or a music manager.

What has been the reception so far?

It’s been such, such a joy.

When we initially heard that Sundance was going to be virtual, I think we, along with probably everyone, were pretty disappointed because as a filmmaker you dream about going to festivals like Sundance your entire career. It’s such an incredible honor.

But pretty quickly we realized we had to figure out a way to celebrate this among ourselves. This is such a huge accomplishment for all of us. It’s my first feature film. It’s both my producers’ first feature film. And for Jacks and Doris, I just wanted them to feel like their vulnerability and the access they gave us were going to be celebrated and recognized. So we scrambled and put together an in-person screening the day of the premiere with friends and family. It was just so incredibly joyful to show the film to other people, because for the last three years, we’ve only been showing it to a small team of collaborators. It was so powerful to see how much it resonated with a young Latinx audience.

It’s the absolute highlight of my entire career to hear people say that they feel seen in this film because it was really important to me to create something that addressed some of the themes and questions that we all grapple with but don’t have proper representation of those stories on the screen.

The reception has been wonderful. It’s been more than I could have hoped for.

Speaking of representation, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Sundance isn’t really known for, well, that. What does it say that films like yours and Eva Longoria’s “La Guerra Civil” are finally being showcased at what’s considered to be a very prestigious film festival?

I feel like this is the beginning of a tide shift.

I do think that these festivals and platforms are trying to address the problem, but it’s crucial that they and we try hard as we can to do so. It’s incredible how much media influences our perception of ourselves and of the world that we live in. Sundance and pop culture in general are mirrors that reflect what society deems important and valuable, so it’s crucial that we see our own stories reflected back on to us.

The topic of representation has become increasingly popular, which is really encouraging. But I do think that there’s still a long way for us to go. I just hope that every year keeps getting not just more and more diverse, and that films like mine are not an exception to the rule, that they’re not talked about exclusively because of the value of it being a film about Latinxs made by a Latina. My hope is that these kinds of films will enter the mainstream and it’ll just be a given that they’ll be programmed because they’re good films.

It’s encouraging. But it’s also like it leaves me hungry for so much more.

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