There are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. It’s a number that’s been steady for a couple of years and it’s one that we’ll, no doubt, keep hearing as the future of Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) plan remains unclear. But that number doesn’t tell you much. Abstracted into statistics, the lives of these people are brushed aside.
To counter that move, which allows many to disregard the suffering and fear that characterizes living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant, filmmakers have turned to cinema to flesh out these stories. Documentaries like Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, short docs like Free Like the Birds, and activist-driven videos like those produced by Welcome.us exemplify this very work.
As it turns out, Hollywood has been putting these stories on the silver and small screen for decades now. In fact, the Latino undocumented immigrant is a very familiar stock figure in American pop culture. It’s a character that could soon be an oddity considering the percentage of those unauthorized immigrants arriving from Latin American countries has slowed down significantly, while those from Asian countries has risen consistently in the past 15 years.
In the past, the narratives being told were pretty much always the same. As these 25 characters show, Hollywood has mostly tackled stories about undocumented workers as hilarious jokes to be milked or as melodramatic calls to action. In between though, and especially in the more recent examples, filmmakers and TV showrunners have begun exploring the vast diversity of experiences of those living undocumented in the United States.
You’ll find plenty of familiar faces below — hey there Catalina Sandino Moreno, we didn’t know you’d played so many undocumented characters! — a reminder that even our most talented have helped complicate what is often a stereotype on the page, and have instead helped humanize these stories whether in small supporting roles or in big screen outings hoping to make a change.
Maria (Irene Cara), What’s Happening!!
The late ’70s African-American sitcom centered on three working class teenagers in South Los Angeles: Raj, Dwayne, and Rerun. In what’s perhaps one of the earliest attempts by a sitcom to handle the issue of deportation, the episode “Rerun Gets Married” had the chubby teen fall for Maria (played by Fame’s very own Irene Cara). Heavily accented and wearing customary Mexican garb, she asks Rerun to marry her to avoid being deported — something which they don’t go through once the lawyer officiating tells her he can help her without going into what would no doubt be a fraudulent marriage.
Nacha (Lupe Ontiveros), El Norte
Called “the Godfather of immigration films” by Ontiveros herself, El Norte was written and directed by Gregory Nava, who’s made a career out of dealing with the immigrant experience. Following two young Guatemalans (Enrique and Rosa) who embark on a journey north to find themselves a better life. Once in the U.S., Rosa meets Nacha an undocumented worker employed in a sewing factory who takes her under her wing.
Dora Calderon (Elizabeth Peña), I Married Dora
This ’80s series starred Elizabeth Peña as housekeeper Dora. When the U.S. government is about to deport her back to El Salvador, her boss agrees to marry her so that she can stay in the country. Despite a wisp of an accent, the short-lived show often portrayed Dora as very capable of handling her new role as housewife, while keeping the sham of the marriage a secret.
Juan Lopez (Paul Rodriguez), A Million to Juan
Juan is an undocumented worker living in Los Angeles with his young son and trying to make ends meet by selling oranges on the side of the road. Juan’s luck changes for the better and worse when a mysterious man in a limousine (Edward James Olmos) gives him a check for a cool million. The gift comes with a slight stipulation, however. Juan must give all the money back in one month. Now, Juan must decide what to do with the money while fending off people looking for a handout.
Isabel (Elpidia Carrillo), Mi Familia
This independent American drama film directed by Gregory Nava follows three generations of a Mexican-American family. In telling the story of the third generation of the Sanchez family, we meet a Salvadoran refugee, Isabel (Elpidia Carrillo), who’s in danger — not only is she a target for murder but she is about to be deported which leads the family to plead with the youngest brother Jimmy (played by Jimmy Smits) to marry her to keep that from happening.
Rosario Salazar (Shelley Morrison), Will & Grace
In yet another example of the “let’s get married for a green card” storyline, fan favorite Rosario (i.e. Karen’s maid) went ahead and married flamboyantly gay Jack McFarland to secure her stay in the country after we learn she’d been in the country as an undocumented worker. Despite being Karen’s maid, over the course of the show’s eight seasons we learn that Rosario, was a school teacher who received a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of Texas and who’d performed alongside a then-unknown Jennifer Lopez before becoming part of Karen’s oft-dismissed staff.
Maya (Pilar Padilla), Bread and Roses
Based on the “Justice for Janitors” campaign of the Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles, Ken Loach’s film follows Maya (Pilar Padilla) who crosses the border from Mexico to the United States in search for her sister, Rosa. Maya eventually reunites with her sister and gets a janitorial job in a large office building where her poor English isn’t too much of a hindrance. There, she ends up teaming up with a lawyer (played by Adrien Brody) to fight for better working conditions.
Catalina Aruca Hickey (Nadine Velazquez), My Name is Earl
Within the absurd world created by Greg García, Catalina is a hilarious embodiment of plenty of stereotypes: the housekeeper at Earl and Randy’s motel, Catalina is also a stripper at Club Chubby who’s often wearing nothing more than a bikini. She came to America in a box from a Banana Republic called “Guadelatucky” (though she’s seen also in La Paz in flashbacks) to escape from her mother (whom she killed).
Raul (Wilmer Valderrama), Fast Food Nation
In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s best-selling nonfiction book about the American food industry, we’re introduced to Raul (Wilmer Valderrama) who, along with his love interest Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and Sylvia’s sister Coco (Ana Claudia Talancón) are shown to be undocumented workers trying to make it in Colorado. Raul and Coco end up working menial jobs at Uni-Globe a meatpacking processing plant, while Sylvia ends up working as a hotel maid.
Rosario Reyes (Kate del Castillo), Under the Same Moon
In this weepy drama, Kate del Castillo plays Rosario who heads to the United States to earn a living. She leaves her son Carlitos behind while she takes on housekeeping jobs in Los Angeles, sending money to her son every month.
Inez Soriano (Gina Rodriguez), Law & Order
Before she was Jane, Gina Rodriguez did a stint (actually two!) on Law & Order. In the 2008 episode “Illegal” she played Inez, an undocumented woman whose friend gets killed during an immigration rally in New York. Struggling with her accent and knowing she’ll be deported if she cooperates with the police, she nevertheless tells the authorities all she saw in hopes that her dead friend will be buried in the U.S.
Ignacio Suarez (Tony Plana), Ugly Betty
Ugly Betty, arguably one of the highest profile Latino-centered shows of the last decade, tackled the issue of undocumented immigrants when Betty learns that her father had entered the country without paperwork, after fleeing Mexico with his beloved Rosa. Throughout the show, we see Ignacio being a caring parent and grandparent, eventually going through the process of becoming a legal resident of the United States.
Ignacio (Raúl Castillo), Amexicano
Almost a decade before he booked Looking, Raúl Castillo starred in Amexicano, an indie movie directed by Matthew Bonifacio about an Italian-American man who bonds with an undocumented Mexican who speaks little English. When Bruno (writer Carmine Famiglietti) is tasked with doing some construction for his landlord (building a fence!), he turns to the Mexican laborers around his Queens neighborhood, from whom he learns about his own prejudices.
Anita de Los Angeles (Adriana Barraza), Rage
In this curiosity of a film (among other things, it features Jude Law in drag), Adriana Barraza plays an undocumented seamstress living in New York who — along every other character in the film — is seen giving an interview to a young blogger on his cellphone giving us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes of New York Fashion Week.
Mireya Sanchez (Alice Braga), Crossing Over
This crime drama features a series of interwoven stories that deal with immigration including issues of border patrol, green card processing, naturalization, and counter-terrorism efforts. One of the stories presented is that of Mireya Sanchez (Alice Braga), a woman who is deported back to Mexico and who’s forced to leave her child.
Natalie Flores (America Ferrera), The Good Wife
This long-running ABC show tackled its fair share of hot topics, usually with the help of A-list guest stars. That was definitely the case with the storyline behind Natalie Flores (played by Ugly Betty’s America Ferrera). Flores, who’d been brought to the U.S. by her parents in 1986, is shown to be talented and smart (she’s a college student when we first meet her) and ends up getting help from Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) in securing a path to citizenship.
Machete Cortez (Danny Trejo), Machete
Called the “the first summer blockbuster of the immigration crisis” and the prime example of what its director Robert Rodriguez calls “Mexploitation,” Machete follows Danny Trejo’s infamous character in all its gory glory. Lest you forget, Machete Cortez is a former Mexican Federal who finds himself taking up arms against both the drug lords in the south who would kill him and the politicians in the north who would deport him.
Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir), A Better Life
The role that earned Demián Bichir an Oscar nomination had him playing the role of Carlos, a gardener working in Los Angeles who finds himself trekking through the city with his son in search of a stolen truck. The sympathetic portrayal of Carlos, a hardworking undocumented immigrant trying to make a living for himself and his child, made the film a critical favorite and was eventually made into a Telemundo telenovela called Bajo el mismo cielo.
Raquel Saldana (Valery Ortiz), Hit the Floor
VH1’s Hit the Floor, a show following the NBA Cheerleading team, the Los Angeles Devil Girls, managed to include a storyline about Raquel (Valery Ortiz), a single mom who’s an undocumented worker. She agrees to enter into a same-sex marriage with a good friend in order to stay in the country. Given the sudsy drama the show is known for, Raquel’s story eventually involved a murder, a cover-up, and a death that let spill how far Raquel had gone to keep her undocumented status a secret.
Alba Gloriana Villanueva (Ivonne Coll), Jane the Virgin
Jane’s abuela is, as we learn once her granddaughter initially moves to sue Luisa over her pregnancy, an undocumented immigrant. Having left her native Venezuela and entered without proper paperwork, she’s lived her life quietly and piously. While we know she understands English, she often speaks to her daughter and granddaughter in Spanish.
Oscar Vazquez (Carlos PenaVega), Spare Parts
Adapted from the Wired magazine article, “La Vida Robot” the film follows the true story of a group of students who won the first prize in the 2004 Marine Advanced Technology Education ROV (“remotely operated vehicle” aka robot) competition. Oscar and two of his fellow Robotics Academic Club members were, at the time they won, undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
Carmen (Catalina Sandino Moreno), East Los High
In the show’s third season, we meet Carmen (Catalina Sandino Moreno), the mother of Bomb Squad’s Eddie, who is not only undocumented but whose health is slowly deteriorating. Despite her sons pleas to apply for DACA as a way to resolve her immigration situation, she remains suspicious of doing anything that would alert the government of her status, even if it means foregoing the possibility of better healthcare.
Placido Gonzalez (Carlos Alazraqui), Bordertown
FOX’s short-lived animated show about two families (the Buckwalds and the Gonzalez) living in the southern border town of Mexifornia attempted to tackle the issue of immigration armed with the type of humor that had made Family Guy and American Dad successful Seth MacFarlane-produced shows. The head of the Gonzalez family, Ernesto (voiced by Nicholas Gonzalez) is a successful business owner, and his father Placido is undocumented (and often cranky), skirting the line between laughable stereotype and scathing parody.
Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), The Affair
In the second season of this Golden Globe-winning Showtime show, Cole (played by Joshua Jackson) meets a beautiful undocumented bartender from Ecuador called Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno). When we first meet her, she’s paying her way through school and hoping to better her life. The season sees her relationship with Cole grow stronger to the point where they plan to wed.
Felicia (Yara Martinez), True Detective Season 2
Felicia is a bartender at Black Rose bar, which is the bar frequented by Ray Velcoro (played by Colin Farrell). Felicia, who bears a scar on her face, is revealed to be a kind of Harriet Tubman-like figure for undocumented workers, hiding them out in a secret room at the bar during the smuggling process. Despite it being ambiguous whether she herself is undocumented, her character opens up the dangerous path many undocumented workers and those who help them take.