As a freelance film critic working in Los Angeles for the past seven years, and a resident of the city since I came from Mexico in my early teens, I’ve been lucky to find supporters at publications and film-related institutions who’ve found value in my work and insights.
That’s why three years ago when the Trump administration rescinded DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) — the Obama-era program that offered temporary protection to nearly a million undocumented youth — I publicly revealed that I’m one of the recipients who would be directly impacted if the courts decided to terminate it.
Confronted with the terrifying prospect of losing everything I’d built up to that point, it seemed imperative to share my story with colleagues in the entertainment industry who previously were unaware of my status. In doing so, the hope was for the issue to no longer be hypothetical for those around me. Now they consciously knew at least one person whose livelihood was at stake. There was hesitation in being open about a painful part of my reality, but such visibility is relevant because it puts a face to a topic that’s so often talked about in abstract data and platitudes.
Fear-stricken since 2017, we’ve moved along a path of great uncertainty. And though the recent Supreme Court ruling safeguards DACA for now, without a permanent solution our destinies continue to hang at the whims of bigoted power. With that in mind, I also acknowledge my own privilege as someone who qualified for DACA while about 11 million other undocumented individuals who contribute to this country, through their work and the taxes they pay, remain completely vulnerable to deportation.
To say DACA was life-changing is an understatement. Prior to its implementation and the work permit that came with it, pursuing a career in film criticism was absolutely far-fetched. When you come from a marginalized background, having big dreams is frightening and disheartening, because external forces and the lack of precedent points to the impossibility of such aspirations.
Slowly, writing became a key to begin paving a road away from the fast-food place where I had worked for seven years, and toward making a living out of a passion. A personal blog turned into unpaid pieces for small websites. Over the years, bylines at places that seemed unrealistic to even contemplate, including the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, have materialized, in great part due to editors who took a chance on me.
Yet the thought of losing DACA and being forced back into shadows remains, and on a more practical level, I’m repeatedly reminded of my condition as an undocumented person via the things I still cannot partake in.
Part of a professional film critic’s job entails attending international festivals, something that’s virtually out of the question for me without real risks. In the grand scheme of injustices, not being able to travel abroad is minuscule, but for the field I’m now a part of, it’s truly limiting. I’ve yet to attend such renowned festivals as Toronto or Cannes, and there’s no certainty that I’d be able to in the new future.
Fortunately, thanks to multiple initiatives like those established by Rotten Tomatoes and Chaz Ebert that aim to include diverse critics at major events through financial assistance, I’ve experienced the Sundance Film Festival and a variety of regional festivals across the country that have served as platforms to network, land assignments and grow within this segment of the film world.
Months after DACA made national news in 2017 and the White House launched a legal battle to do away with it, I was approved to cover the interview room at the Academy Awards for Remezcla, an English-language, Latino culture site. Last February I covered the event for the third time in a row. There’s power in accessing those elite spaces. In stepping on the red carpet at Oscars, I was in disbelief and thought of my younger self and the countless young men and woman who like me have only seen those moments as unattainable dreams.
As part of a group that’s still in the thick of fighting for basic human rights — let alone representation in media — many of my peers and I feel a level of activism in everything we do. That doesn’t mean there’s a loss of objectivity to the work, but the lens through which we approach it carries a different relevance. Likewise, each milestone or triumph, regardless of its size, is an accomplishment shared with the community at large. We feel an added responsibility to our every move, for better or worse, since we are still opening doors that once appeared to be closed for us.
On the surface, I may only be writing about movies, but in doing so, I’m defying the preconceived notions of what’s feasible for undocumented folks. We are part of every industry and do our best to thrive within them, despite perpetual hostility. There are DACA recipients who are activists, lawyers, doctors, nurses, scholars, filmmakers, film critics and everything in between. Our very presence is an act of resilience.
Putting my thoughts on the page, whether I’m writing from personal experience or simply reviewing a new release, speaks to our right to have fulfilling lives beyond suffering and to the importance of having our voice be part of conversations around culture and art. Every written word is a statement to the validity of my existence and that of millions like me whose humanity is constantly questioned, often by those foreign to the hardships that push people to leave their homelands.
From where I stand today, still struggling but with a bit of hard-earned experience, I long for the day when exceptionalism disappears because there will be too many of us — from all underrepresented backgrounds — advocating from within the circles of influence to be perceived as isolated entities.
Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar is a film critic based in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Wrap and IndieWire. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.