“Una Noche” and “Balseros”

The immigrant experience – through some essential movies

Immigration might be dominating the political headlines, but the immigrant experience and the plight of so many families takes on a different meaning when seen through art and film. Here is a list of some of the best movies describing the lives of immigrants and undocumented immigrants.

Una noche” (A Night, 2012), directed by Lucy Molloy, is the story of three Cuban teenagers who decide to risk their lives and flee the Communist Caribbean island in search of a better life in Miami. Like many of their fellow Cubans refugees, they venture the turbulent, shark-infested waters of the Florida straits on a homemade raft.

The plight of the Cuban “boat-people” was depicted in a very raw way  in “Balseros” (Rafters), a 2002 Spanish documentary that tells the story of the tens of thousands who left Cuba during the so-called Período Especial (Special Period), the economic debacle that befell the island after the implosion of the Soviet Union. “Una Noche” is a feature film, and critics have praised the performance of the non-professional actors.

But the fictional e story turned suddenly into reality when two of the protagonists, Anailin de la Rúa de la Torre and Javier Nuñez Florian, asked for asylum in the U.S. while visiting the country as special guests of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.

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A Better Life”, is a 2011 U.S. drama directed by Chris Weitz with an almost entirely Latino cast. Mexican actor Demián Bichir plays Carlos Galindo, an undocumented immigrant who purchases the gardening business—truck, tools, and clients—from his old boss, who wants to return to Mexico.

Carlos’ goal is to provide a better future for his only son Luis (José Julián). But Luis is embarrassed of his working-class dad, hangs around with gangas after high school, and dates the niece of a local gang leader.

One day, another immigrant steals the gardening truck, and Carlos’ life begins to unravel. For this role, Mr. Bichir was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award.


Biutiful”  is a 2010 Mexican-Spanish feature film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu; it was his first movie in Spanish since his directorial debut, Amores perros (2000).

Javier Bardem stars as Uxbal, a divorced father who is raising two children and is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. The tragic story is set in the sweatshops of Barcelona, Spain, and portrays the life of Chinese immigrants to that country.

The title of the film is the Spanish phonological transcription of the English word “beautiful”.  The film was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language film and Bardem was nominated for Best Actor; it was the first entirely Spanish-language performance to receive that honor.

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Los que se quedan” (Those Who Remain) , the 2009 Mexican documentary co-directed by Carlos Hagerman and  Juan Carlos Rulfo (the son of famed Mexican writer Juan Rulfo), is an exquisitely-photographed film about immigrants who crossed the U.S.–Mexico border and return to visit their relatives, told from the point of view of those who stayed home.

The movie offers a poignant view of the emotional costs of immigration. It is also an insightful portrayal of Mexico and its culture.

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El Norte” is a 1983 American and British production, directed by Gregory Nava, the same director of the quintessential Latino films “My Family (Mi Familia)” and “Selena”.

The film features two indigenous youths who flee Guatemala’s genocidal civil war in the 1980s. Traveling through Mexico, they arrive in Los Angeles after an arduous journey and start their new life. Nava based the film on his own experiences growing up in San Diego, California, with relatives on both sides of the border.

In 1995, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


Claudio Iván Remeseira is a New York-based award-winning journalist, writer, and critic. He is the translator of the Spanish-language on-line section of The Nation and editor of Hispanic New York, an online portal and blog on current events and culture.  He is the Editor of Hispanic New York: A Sourcebook (Columbia University Press, 2010), an anthology of essays on the city’s Latino, Latin American & Iberian cultural heritage, and winner of the Latino International Book Award in the category of Best Reference Book in English (2011).

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