On May 1, the Day Without Immigrants boycott will demonstrate the impact immigrants have on life in the U.S. These 11 great movies show how the immigrant experience has been reflected on the big screen
Credit: Moscow on the Hudson: Kobal Collection

Image credit: El Norte: Everett Collection

El Norte


”El Norte” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY This is one of the first films to look at illegal immigration from the immigrants’ point of view. Here they’re Guatemalan peasants who make their way to America, the ”north” of the title.

THE STRUGGLE Siblings Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) escape a brutal military government in Guatemala to find hardship in Mexico (which is just as inhospitable to illegal immigrants as the U.S.) and finally crawl through a rat-infested tunnel to California, where the best they can do is find low-wage, black-market jobs. It seems they have merely traded one country’s economic oppression for another.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT The immigrants experience a haunting Grapes of Wrath-like struggle at every stage of their journey, and Gregory Nava provides lush, epic-on-a-budget direction.

Image credit: Maria Full of Grace: Everett Collection

Maria Full of Grace


”Maria Full of Grace” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY This film looks at the plight of drug mules, women from South America who risk their lives to escape poverty by agreeing to smuggle drugs to the U.S. in their stomachs. Pregnant Colombian teen Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is a typical mule, swallowing dozens of large, greased, watertight pellets before boarding a flight to JFK.

THE STRUGGLE The film is unsparing in looking at the gauntlet of risks these women willingly undergo, including the potentially lethal rupture of the pellets, arrest by wary customs officers, and the cruel indifference of their drug contacts in America. In the case of women like Maria, who ultimately chooses to stay illegally, there’s also the difficulty of finding jobs and housing, though she does find a community of fellow Colombian expatriates who are willing to help her assimilate.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT The charismatic, Oscar-nominated Moreno, whose sympathetic portrayal of the resolute Maria is both heartbreaking and inspiring.

Image credit: Spanglish: Everett Collection



”Spanglish” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY In a look at the influx of Mexicans that is a defining element of life in Southern California today, Spanglish tells its story from the perspective of an illegal immigrant and single mom, Flor (Paz Vega), who works as a maid for a well-off Anglo family, the Claskys (led by Adam Sandler and Téa Leoni).

THE STRUGGLE As the title suggests, the issue here is assimilation. Flor and her bright daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce) both find it awkward and embarrassing that the girl has to play the adult and serve as her mother’s translator. More important, Flor worries that assimilation means her daughter will become too much like the Claskys: vain, shallow, materialistic, and snobbish.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT There’s the novelty of Sandler, as the most decent of the Clasky clan, playing a mature and responsible adult. And there’s his character’s fumbling but sweet efforts to bridge the chasm between himself and the luminous Flor.

Image credit: The Border: Kobal Collection

The Border


”The Border” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY Here’s what the illegal-immigration situation looks like from the point of view of U.S.-Mexican border-patrol agents like Charlie (Jack Nicholson).

THE STRUGGLE Charlie watches as the same hopefuls try again and again to cross the Rio Grande, and as his fellow guards, led by Cat (Harvey Keitel), become embroiled in a black-market smuggling operation that’s a virtual slave trade in illegal workers and babies.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT Nicholson stars in a rare, understated performance that may be his most overlooked, and Englishman Tony Richardson’s taut direction turns this melodrama into an efficient thriller.

Image credit: Mi Familia: Everett Collection

My Family (Mi Familia)


”My Family (Mi Familia)” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY This multigenerational epic spans the Mexican-American experience of the 20th century via the tale of one family, from patriarch José Sanchez’s immigration on foot to Los Angeles in the 1920s to the professional accomplishments of his grandchildren decades later.

THE STRUGGLE In this saga by Gregory Nava (less tragic than his El Norte), the Sanchez family faces the mass deportations of the 1930s (even the American-born Maria, played by Jennifer Lopez, is among those rounded up at gunpoint and sent to Mexico), gang violence in the 1950s, and political oppression in 1980s Latin America (where Toni Sanchez, played by Constance Marie, is a nun and political activist).

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT The star power of the cast, which includes J. Lo, Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, and Edward James Olmos

Image credit: The Perez Family: Everett Collection

The Perez Family


”The Perez Family” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY This dramedy looks at the Cuban immigrant experience in the Castro era. Released after 20 years as a political prisoner, Juan Raul Perez (Alfred Molina) goes to Florida in search of his wife (Anjelica Huston) and now-grown daughter (Trini Alvarado). Joining him in the crossing is prostitute Dottie Perez (Marisa Tomei), who’s unrelated but who poses as his wife to breeze past immigration officials.

THE STRUGGLE Assimilation into the strange ways of America (even in the established Cuban community of Florida) is one issue. Cultural authenticity becomes another insofar as none of the top talents behind the film — Molina, Tomei, Huston, Alvarado, and director Mira Nair (Mississippi Masala) — is of Cuban descent.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT The always stellar Molina (Spider-Man 2) and Huston

Image credit: Moscow on the Hudson: Kobal Collection

Moscow on the Hudson


”Moscow on the Hudson” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY During an era when defections from the Soviet Union made headlines, this bittersweet 1984 comedy stars Robin Williams as Vladimir, a Russian musician who defects (fittingly, at the temple of capitalism known as Bloomingdale’s), only to find that freedom in America sometimes means the freedom to fall through the cracks.

THE STRUGGLE In the movie’s melting-pot Manhattan, Vladimir falls in with an ethnically diverse group of immigrants, all struggling to sink or swim on their own. Moving from one service-industry job to the next, Vladimir falls for Italian-born sales clerk Lucia (Maria Conchita Alonso), only to learn that she’d rather date someone more upwardly mobile, or as she puts it, more American.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT Williams shines in an atypically muted performance, while Cuban-born, Venezuelan-bred Alonso sparkles in the role that put her on the Hollywood map.

Image credit: In America: Bernard Walsh/Kobal Collection

In America


”In America” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY Set during what appears to be the 1980s, the film centers on an Irish family who emigrate illegally to the U.S., as many people did during what was an economically bleak time in Ireland. They settle in New York’s then-gritty Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.

THE STRUGGLE In this semi-autobiographical tale by filmmaker Jim Sheridan and his daughters, the father (Paddy Considine) has trouble finding work, the mother (Oscar-nominated Samantha Morton) has a troubled and catastrophically costly pregnancy, and the threat of dire poverty looms constantly.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT The two little girls (real-life sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger) are enchanting, especially when they form a bond with their AIDS-afflicted neighbor (Oscar-nominated Djimon Hounsou), himself an immigrant from Africa.

Image credit: Green Card: Everett Collection

Green Card


”Green Card” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY As the title suggests, the movie takes an anecdotal look at green-card marriages. French avant-garde composer Georges (Gérard Depardieu) enters a sham union with New York City botanist Brontë (Andie MacDowell) in order to avoid deportation. Only when they invent a fake romantic history to fool the INS do the two realize they’ve fallen in love for real.

THE STRUGGLE In Australian writer-director Peter Weir’s movie, immigration rules are depicted as arbitrary and burdensome obstacles that keep lovers apart and talented foreigners from becoming assets to America — though after you hear Georges at the piano, you may be rooting for deportation.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT The couple’s enforced courtship is actually rather sweet, and you can read their foibles (she’s a health nut; he likes butter and tobacco) as emblems of their national character.

Image credit: Alamo Bay: Everett Collection

Alamo Bay


”Alamo Bay” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY In the years following the Vietnam War, the immigrants known as the Boat People flee from Vietnam and land on American shores. In the movie, they’re met with less than open arms by the Texas fishing community of the title.

THE STRUGGLE The Vietnamese become scapegoats for the locals’ fears of lost jobs and their lingering resentment over the war. Racism becomes a factor as well when the Ku Klux Klan gets involved in the dispute.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT The always magnetic Ed Harris, as an increasingly desperate and violence-prone fisherman, and the thoughtful direction by Frenchman Louis Malle.

Image credit: Mississippi Masala: Kobal Collection

Mississippi Masala


”Mississippi Masala” documents the immigrant experience

THE HISTORY How color-blind is the contemporary South? Jim Crow is gone, but how do Indian immigrants fare there? Here, a community of Indians (who’ve come to America after being ejected from Idi Amin’s Uganda in the 1970s) tries to remain culturally intact, even as one of their own (Sarita Choudhury) falls for a local African-American man (Denzel Washington).

THE STRUGGLE In Indian-born director Mira Nair’s first American film, the couple’s romance runs into predictably bigoted responses from both communities.

WHY YOU’LL WATCH IT Leading man Denzel is at his most affably low-key and charming, and in a romantic mode that we hardly ever get to see him play anymore.