Sophie Cruz, the Little Girl Who Commanded the Pope’s Attention, Took Over the Tribeca Film Festival

As part of the Tribeca Film Festival, the fest’s programmers organized an Immigration Panel tied to the world premiere of Free like the Birds. Paola Mendoza’s short film focuses on Sophie Cruz, the six-year-old girl who made headlines earlier this year by running up to the Pope during his DC visit, becoming the poster child for pleas for immigration reform.

“We have to fight,” she kept reminding the audience, many of whom were in tears after watching Mendoza’s eight-minute doc on the Cruz family and their energetic activist who has spent the past week alone attending oral arguments at the Supreme Court and speaking to the media about why families like her own deserve respect from American legislature. As Mendoza pointed out during the Q&A that followed, Sophie cried as well, “because when I saw Pope Francis hugging me I remembered that time and it was exciting and I felt love. And a lot of peace.” It was the first time the Cruz family watched the film.

The panel which was divided into three segments, began with a Q&A with Mendoza and the Cruz family about the film. It perfectly captured why it is that Sophie has become such a perfect spokesperson for the plight of those, like her parents, who are undocumented and who fear what might happen should the Obama administration’s attempts at reforming immigration be crippled by lawmakers around the country. Responding to Buzzfeed reporter and Q&A moderator Adrian Carrasquillo’s oddly long-winded question about activism (“The other day you spoke in front of the Supreme Court and you said a message to the judges: that you have the right to live with your parents and the right to live without fear. Now that you’re a little activist and you’re surrounded by other activists, have they given you any good advice or taught you anything on how to deal with all the stuff you’re dealing with right now?”) Sophie elicited the biggest laughter of the night by innocently asking, “What’s an activist?”

It was a reminder that she remains, at heart, a six-year-old girl whose biggest claim to activism is rooted not in ideology or politics but on her deep-rooted and instinctive belief that her parents shouldn’t be scared of being deported and separated from their families. She put it more simply when asked by an audience member what she’d tell other children in her situation: “I would tell them to fight for DAPA & DACA and immigration reform; they have the rights to live with their parents and their protections. And they also have the right to be happy and live without fear.”

Afterward, former editor-in-chief of Cosmo for Latinas, Michelle Herrera Mulligan sat down with actor-activist Rosie Perez, president Todd Shulte and Carrasquillo to talk about the political discussions surrounding immigration reform. And later, Mendoza took the stage again to talk with filmmaker Cary Fukunaga about the role of filmmaking in these very discussions. Find some highlights from these conversations below.

On What We Can Learn From ACT UP

Perez: I’m dating myself but whatever, in the 30 years that I’ve been an activist for different causes and this has been one of them, the one thing that I’ve always found is that you have to be loud in order to really affect change. And right now the numbers show that a majority of Americans are for this. And we question ourselves, well then why are the political people saying that they are not? And it’s because there is a loud minority that are happening here in the United States. They are drowning out that high percentage of Americans who feel that this is the right thing to do. And when you think of the AIDS movement and you think about how an organization like ACT UP really brought the AIDS crisis to the forefront they refused to be silenced. They refused to be denied. And this is the same thing that needs to occur in regards to immigration reform. When you see a beautiful film like Paola’s film on the Cruz family, it really touches your heart and puts the understanding of what’s at stake.

“This is what I learned through my activist upbringing: you cannot assume that all your friends are on the same page.”

Sometimes I feel we preach to the choir, right? And you say, well I already know this. Okay. So you know this, right? How many people that you know know what you know? This is what I learned through my activist upbringing: you cannot assume that all your friends are on the same page. You cannot assume that all your neighbors or all your political friends are on the same page. And you cannot assume that because you feel so strongly about a subject that that’s enough. I really feel that Sophie is a spirit, a living spirit that has been given to us as a blessing. A child that had the nerve, had the audacity, had the courage to break through barriers and run to the Pope and say, see me and see my fight.

So if this touched you tonight, and I assume it does since you’re here, make sure it touches other people’s hearts. Make sure it touches your friends and your neighbors and the people that you can’t stand. Go to them. And ask them to join the fight. Because we cannot let the loud minority to win. We have to really address the situation.

On The Current Election

“I’m so tired of people thinking that immigration belongs solely to Latin people”

Perez: I am a proud Democrat. Criticize me if you may: no matter who I go Blue. But I was there at the political debates there in Brooklyn. Immigration reform wasn’t a major topic. It didn’t even come up. And I’m sitting there. Exploding in my seat. Two seats away from is Debbie Wasserman Schultz. And I’m looking at her and she can’t do anything. I’m like, YOU’RE IN NEW YORK CITY! It is the immigration hub. And I’m so tired of people thinking that immigration belongs solely to Latin people. Because in the Brooklyn Navy Yard there was EVERYBODY up in there. Just like there is in Brooklyn and in Queens. It was everybody! And if your skin color is not brown and you’re a white person and you’re here undocumented, you are so freaking lucky it’s disgusting. And that’s the truth of it. We should hold [Sanders and Clinton] accountable. Yes, I am all for Fight For 15 and yes I am for this and that. But you know what? This is a crisis in America.

Schulte: The biggest enemy that we have is not the opposition. It’s a lack of intensity. If there’s 3 in 4 Americans who agree with us, then what we have is mismatched intensity. It is making people who are supportive be advocates of this issue. The question becomes, how do you take the choir not only into a bigger choir, but really make this a core deliverable for whoever is in the White House?

Carrasquillo: What’s interesting is that no matter who comes out of the Democratic side the gulf in immigration is probably one of the biggest ones [in this election]. I mean literally Trump has a wall that is both symbolic and real; he wants to build a wall. And there’s not just been a Hispanic issue, there’s been talking about limiting Muslim immigration, and then you have on the Democratic side where both Sanders and Clinton saying that they’d want to not only continue Obama’s immigration actions but go further and try to help and do relief for as many people as possible.

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On The Struggles of the Latino Community

Herrera Mulligan: I was on the founding team of Latina Magazine. And I’ve been in the press for over 20 years. And I’ll say that every time the issue of race comes up, it doesn’t get the same traction that I feel like it should. I’ve seen that consistently over 20 years across many brands. The only explanation that I can come up for it is that somehow there’s this tremendous pain around race in our community that’s very hard to talk about. I haven’t seen the same galvanization around the topic of race yet.

Carrasquillo: Somebody told me one time that in the 80s, there was this magazine with Edward James Olmos on the cover that said “The Latino Decade Is Here” and clearly there’s been a lot of time that has passed and I don’t know if the decade of the Latino has arrived. What’s true is that Latino identity is fractured; it’s not the same way as it is with African-Americans as an example. This conversation comes up when we talk about why there’s not a Latino leader. I think it’s more geographical and cultural than ethnic, right? So it’s obviously a challenge.

On Art and Activism

Fukunaga: When I did [Sin Nombre] and especially Victoria para chino, which was a short film I did at NYU based on a refrigerated trailer that was transporting immigrants from the border deeper into Texas—it’s based on a true story from 2003; the trailer overheated and people asphyxiated and about 23 people died, including a little boy—I was so horrified by that mass death and just wanted to tell a story that would put the audience into that position. I think very much in the same way [Free like the Birds] creates an intimate connection between an audience member and a story. And I thought, If I can make the audience experience that horrifying feeling, that claustrophobia of being in a dark trailer, and if they have a hard time breathing during that short film then there’d be that much more empathy for the experience who have to live with that on a daily basis crossing the border. Did I think that was going to effect change? I didn’t have grandiose thoughts on that level. Just, this is important to me; whoever watches I want them to have this experience.

On “Being an Immigrant Means You’re A Foreigner in Two Countries”

Mendoza: I was born in Colombia, raised in the States. I went back to Colombia for a few years when I was a teenager. You know, I’m in the States now, I’m not in America most of the time but there are horror stories that have happened to me by my fellow Americans because of what they think or assume that I am. I have come into the States, crossing into the States and I’ve been put in that immigration room so many times because I’m Colombian. Because I was young a lot when I was traveled—thinking that I was traveling with cocaine. So I’ve been put in that immigration room and there’s been a lot of crazy things. And in Colombia, I’m not Colombia: I’m American. Yo soy “la gringa.” Like, I’m way too gringa to be Colombia. And it was difficult for me until I finally accepted this kind of outsiderness where it would allow to watch and observe. And I see myself now as a bridge between a variety of different places. Like a chameleon because I’ve never really belonged anywhere so I can fit in wherever I need to fit in. And I can relate to people on a whole different level.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13 – 24, 2016. We partnered with Tribeca to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the Latino talent at this year’s fest. Follow our coverage on and