When it comes to undocumented immigration stories, we tend to gravitate toward those heroic narratives of individuals beating the odds and triumphing over adversity. Ivy league valedictorians, robotics whizzes, and fearless activists all help remind us that immigrants – documented or not – are what truly make this country great. But as a new short documentary from the Los Angeles Times shows us, undocumented immigrants don’t have to be larger-than-life to be heroes.
The Life of an Unaccompanied Minor in L.A. follows 19 hours in the life of a young Guatemalan-born high school student named Gaspar Marcos, who came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant at age 13. Left orphaned when he was only five years old, the Chuj-speaking Gaspar made the trip up north on his own, without so much as a backpack and a limited working knowledge of Spanish.
After a few tumultuous years, Gaspar managed to land a steady job and enroll in high school in LA’s Westlake neighborhood, where 25% of the student body migrated from Central America. Like many of his friends, Gaspar spends his days sitting through English-language courses, only to move straight into a 12-hour work shift that helps cover his rent, food, and a $10,000 smuggling debt he has yet to pay off. As Gaspar himself admits, some night he sleeps 3 hours, some nights he doesn’t even sleep.
Interviews with educators from Gaspar’s school make it clear that his story is just one of many, and Gaspar himself reflects on the importance of his friends, with whom he can share experiences and talk about his dreams. Along the way we see Gaspar go from school to home, then to work, and finally back home well into the early morning hours. As his eyelids close, heavy from sleep, one educator praises Gaspar’s uncommon intelligence in voiceover.
But in this documentary, it’s Gaspar who has the last word: “We can’t fall back. This is the life we’ve been given. We have to overcome it, by any means possible.”