The first time Moises Serrano addresses the camera in Tiffany Rhynard’s Forbidden, he’s wearing a shirt that feels both triumphant and transgressive. It reads, “Undocumented and Unafraid. Queer and Unashamed.” He wears it proudly. It speaks to his firm conviction that it is only through owning these labels that one can truly effect change. For him, though, there’s an another identity that perhaps is even less legible than those he wears on his shirt: he’s from the South. He was raised in Yadkin County in North Carolina, the son of Mexican farmers who migrated north in 1991 in the hopes of finding a better future for their kids.
Like so many other DREAMers, Moises’s story is one of feeling adrift and alienated in the same country that he’s always called home. But as so many before and beside him, Moises has become an outspoken advocate for immigration reform. He fought for the DREAM Act and more recently for DAPA and DACA. As charted in Rhynard’s documentary, that openness always came with very real threats. As we learn, his sister eventually lost her job when her employer found out that she, like her brother, was undocumented.
Yet there’s no denying the way Moises’s own story is more complicated than the usual narratives about undocumented Latinos we often see in the news and on the big screen. As he shared with me over Skype ahead of his film’s premiere at Outfest, “One of the defining aspects of my childhood was always feeling alone. Always being alone because I was gay. And then add on top of that the different layers of oppression: being Mexican, being an immigrant, being undocumented. It was just, it made me that much more alienable from everyone else.”
Moving back and forth in discussing his intersecting identities isn’t merely a rhetorical exercise for Moises. In the film he refers to the moment when he first disclosed his immigrant status as a “coming out.” It’s an unintentional reminder of the way he’s constantly had to think about being a queer and an undocumented man as two intimately connected aspects of himself. One of his hopes is for the LGBT community to understand the importance of taking up immigration issues as central to the spirit of equality that are touted at pride parades and queer rallies.
This explains why the film, subtitled “Undocumented and Queer in Rural America,” shuttles effortlessly between Moises’s speeches at immigration panels and his advocacy at pride events. Between stories of how his family has been shackled by unfair rulings on immigration and his breathless joy at hearing the Supreme Court strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. That latter moment is one of the most moving in the documentary. It’s followed by the type of frank and awkward conversations gay couples have been having since that historic SCOTUS decision. Would he and his boyfriend Brandon finally take the plunge and get married? Wouldn’t that be the easiest way for Moises to find a path towards attaining legal status? It would definitely pave the way for him to finally head to college, a dream he’s had to defer given that community colleges and state universities alike make it hard if not outright impossible for undocumented students to apply, let alone enroll, not to mention afford them.
When we discuss his current relationship with Brandon over Skype he remains coy about it, admitting that “relationships are hard work” and that the one thing he’s learnt is that it’s not perfect, not quite the Cinderella story he may have first imagined for himself. I try to not read too much into his hesitancy though it’s clear there may have been more at stake for Moises in finding someone at the time he met Brandon than just finding a companion. “I was just really disillusioned with people that I was meeting,” he told me. “I was just really longing for a really human connection. I had never really had one in my whole life.” There was no budding Latino community around him while he was growing up, he felt estranged from his family (“I was completely Americanized. We had different tastes in music, food, style of dress, and interests”), and he had to endure being left out for being gay within the groups of white kids he went to school with.
It explains why he was so upfront with Brandon about wanting a relationship and nothing less. “That was kind of why I told him ‘I’m not playing around. I want to go on a date. I want to do everything that straight people do: go on a date and eat pasta or spaghetti, and drink wine. All those things I never had I wanted.’” When, in the film, Brandon quietly admits that the prospect of marriage “is a little scary,” you’re confronted with the way personal questions become politically motivated when you’re in any way disenfranchised.
“I hate to see my family have to cry on film in order to humanize this issue.”
It’s a testament to Rhynard and her fellow collaborators, D.P. Kathi Barnhill and editor Heather Mathews, that the film so accurately gives a face the immigration issue. Though, as Moises notes, that’s what makes the film all the more heartbreaking. While he loves celebrating the strength of his mom and his sisters, he admits that it also saddens him every time he watches them tell their stories on camera. “I hate to see my family have to cry on film in order to humanize this issue,” he notes, but he’s “doing it because I know that we can change people’s hearts and minds and hopefully build a better narrative of immigrants in this country.”
Rather than ask him what he hopes audiences will take away from the film, I push him further, asking what he wishes those of us moved by his story and his plight can do. It doesn’t surprise me that rather than give me a boilerplate answer about raising awareness he hits me with an impassioned plea about the importance of state and local elections.
“I don’t think people realize how much of an impact state elections have on immigrants.”
“We need to very cognizant about these issues and I think number one is voting on your local elections. I think everyone pays attention to presidential elections but then after we vote for them, everything else goes down hill.” He uses North Carolina as an example of a state who’s wielded its power to pass oppressively discriminatory laws like HB-2, the so-called ‘bathroom bill.’ “I don’t think people realize how much of an impact state elections have on immigrants.” From driver’s license requirements and in-state tuition plans (currently being denied to approximately 55,000 students in North Carolina) to law enforcement regulations like 278 g that target undocumented individuals for deportation, many of the issues that affect the lives of undocumented people in the United States are handled at the state level.
As he awaits how the Outfest crowd will greet his doc, a bittersweet moment given the disappointing news out of the Supreme Court earlier this summer in regards to DAPA, Moises remains committed to the fight. Unafraid, unashamed, and as Forbidden shows, undeterred.