You might feel compelled to call Mija, director-producer Isabel Castro’s feature debut, a music documentary, or maybe one about immigration. But neither of those labels would really succeed in capturing the heart or tone of the film. Instead, Mija, which premiered this month at the Sundance Film Festival, is something else entirely. Through its two beautifully captured subjects—music manager Doris Muñoz and Dallas-bred singer Jacks Haupt—Castro’s film is a vivid, gentle meditation on sacrifice, survival, and what it means to be a first-generation American.
When we first meet Doris, it’s 2019, and her life is going well. She’s managing her childhood friend, Omar Banos—the Chicano bedroom-pop star better known by his stage name, Cuco—and his star is on the rise. The youngest of three children, Doris has spent most of her life in fear of her undocumented parents and siblings being deported to Mexico; in 2015, her older brother actually was. Amid all this uncertainty, music became her creative outlet, and alongside Cuco, she’s found a way to live out the dreams her parents had for her. She travels the country, watches her friend sell out venues, and earns enough money to pay for her parents’ green card applications.
In dreamy spoken-word sequences, Doris lets us into her life. Achingly earnest and raw, these narrated sequences turn the film into more of a visual poem than a straightforward documentary. We listen as Doris shares her family’s story with a meditative score by singer-songwriter Helado Negro playing over clips of grainy home videos from the nineties.
We see a baby girl bundled up in her father’s arms. Beaming, the man tells the camera, “This is my daughter, Doris Anahí Muñoz Garcia. Born in this country.” Then we see Doris about to turn 26—the same age her mother was when she crossed the border—and the bittersweet reality of her life comes into focus. This is a young woman whose every decision must factor in the parents who depend on her. Even the name of her management company, Casa Mija (mija is Spanish for “my daughter”), underscores the way in which Doris’s identity is not entirely her own. So when the COVID-19 pandemic brings performances to a halt, and Cuco decides to stop working with her, Doris is thrown into a crisis in which she must weigh her own dreams against her family’s security.
As Castro shared after the film’s Sundance screening, her intention was to create an immigration story that didn’t exclusively revolve around “trauma and pain.” Instead, her eye as a director is thoughtful and warm, capturing little moments of tenderness and intimacy another filmmaker might’ve left out: the crashing waves in Tijuana, the cash Doris carefully counts out for her brother, her father’s grin as he sings along to the Bee Gees in a car ride, or her eyes welling up when her nail technician asks, “What’s next for you?” Other times, Castro lets the camera linger, just for a few moments, as Doris lies on her bed staring blankly at the TV. We learn about the rift with Cuco in voice-over while Doris is in the shower, rinsing shampoo from her hair.
Through Castro’s camera, we become almost like a close friend or family member, someone whose presence in the room doesn’t always need to be acknowledged, but is felt. Coupled with Doris’s narration, this perspective is never intrusive, it’s illuminating—we’re listening to her thoughts as she processes what’s at stake. “We spend our lives with the pressure to honor [our parents’] sacrifices,” she says. “We inherit our family’s dreams, but also their fears.”
With her parents’ lengthy legal process underway, Doris can’t quit. So she takes a risk and reaches out to a singer she discovered on Instagram. Halfway through the film, we travel to Dallas to meet Jacks Haupt, a budding singer whose aesthetic and musical influences are caught somewhere between Selena and Amy Winehouse. As with Doris, Castro brings us into Jacks’s bedroom, in Dallas’s predominantly Latino Oak Cliff neighborhood, where Beatles and Lana Del Rey album art cover the walls.
It would make for a jarring shift in perspective if it weren’t for the narrative similarities at play. Jacks is also the only American-born daughter of undocumented parents, and even at twenty years old, she feels immense pressure to be the family breadwinner. But unlike Doris, Jacks is new to the music industry, and her parents see her pursuit as too great a risk—one that could jeopardize her ability to help them. Through Jacks, Castro allows us to see a different version of this journey—one marked by that same sense of family duty, but messier feelings of guilt and resentment.
With Doris’s guidance, Jacks heads to California to record the first songs for her EP. The two lean on each other over their mutual decision to pursue what they love. As Jacks’s twenty-first birthday approaches, their conversations are underscored by reminders that more than just Jacks’s dreams are hanging in the balance. At 21, U.S. citizens are eligible to petition for residency for their parents and siblings.
In one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes, all of Jacks’s excitement about her budding career twists into pain with a call from her mother. “Why don’t you think about our situation?” her mother asks. “Of all the damn things you can’t do being illegal in this country, and you have all the opportunities here and you don’t take them? That’s what’s very [expletive] disappointing.”
It’s brutal to hear, and it’s tempting to cast the parents as villains, but how can Jacks’s parents see a path for their daughter in the music industry when there are so few examples for them to look to? And how can Jacks be expected to ignore her parents when she’s so acutely aware of what they gave up to bring her here? Jacks wipes away her tears and keeps going.
Unlike Castro’s previous works of documentary journalism, Mija never delves into the intricacies of immigration policy. Instead, it conveys the everyday burdens of families who have to grapple with the system. For children like Doris and Jacks, that means mastering an impossible calculus. They have to be fiercely ambitious, but not too selfish. They must aim high, but be reasonable enough to know when to call it quits. And when they dream, it has to be big enough for everyone else.
More than 16.7 million people in the U.S. live with at least one undocumented family member, and because of the fear these mixed-status families live in, their stories are often hidden from view. Rather than capture their isolation, Mija shows their truth through two young women strong enough to share their burdens. They can find a way forward, and we can feel solace that they’ve found each other, because, as Doris cautions us early on, “dreaming big takes a toll.”