What might community-based television look like today? And what should you do if you never see your own overlapping communities represented adequately on TV? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Armando Ibañez. This present conversation (transcribed by Christopher Raguz) focuses on Ibañez’s web series Undocumented Tales. Ibañez is a Latinx queer filmmaker from Acapulco Guerrero, Mexico. He has lived in the U.S. for more than a decade, currently in Los Angeles. Ibañez engages in LGBTQ and immigrant-rights activism, and is an active member of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. He writes, directs, and acts in Undocumented Tales, a series which follows the journey of a Mexican undocumented and queer server living in Los Angeles. He is especially committed to portraying authentic Latinx characters, and pressing social issues today’s immigrant communities face in the United States.
ANDY FITCH: Could we introduce Undocumented Tales by introducing Fernando? From the first episode onwards, we see Fernando thinking, reflecting, strategically sifting through hopes and threats and desires. We see Fernando caught up in various intimacies, deceptions, and unspoken complicities as he continually adjusts to how undocumented status shapes one’s place in society — all the way down to the most personal relationships. We get to know Fernando, but we also sense that there always will be more to Fernando that we ourselves will never fully grasp. So how do those complex depths in the relationship between Fernando and audience reflect your own response to a situation in which the entertainment industry almost never has adequately represented figures from Fernando’s (and maybe a much broader) immigrant community, and almost never has made them the protagonists of their own story?
ARMANDO IBAÑEZ: Well I think there’s basically a book the mainstream media follows for how to depict the archetypal Latino, Hispanic, Mexican character. I think Hollywood has been following that model for a long time. You might only see a person of color (especially a Latino person) onscreen for a few seconds, or if you’re lucky a few minutes. If they get more than five minutes, then they must be dealing drugs or fitting into some other working-class stereotype.
I got so tired of seeing big movies with Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Cruise as lead characters, and then in the restaurant scene some Hispanic server for three seconds. For me: that’s me! I want to know more about that person. I want to know their story.
In my own work, I have the power to show that story in its entirety. I can ask: “Who is this person? What emotions do they experience? Where do they come from?” In Undocumented Tales, we see a 30-year-old undocumented man still living in the closet, so already that starts to break the stereotypes, the book, the Bible of how to portray Latino people on screen. And like you said, in the first episode we get to see Fernando thinking, and trying to figure out the best life for himself. That scene lets me show all these things that bothered me in my own life, when I was working as a waiter like Fernando, but that I never had a chance to talk about. So I now want to talk about those things through this creative medium. For me: this is who I am, who we are, this is what we think, or at least this is how I see it.
Should we discuss at all writing and playing your own protagonist, and how Fernando’s story might overlap with and depart from your own — maybe less in terms of specific details, and more in terms of a broader emotional range?
Yes I always question myself about that, because audiences will just assume this is my autobiography, but some scenes come from things I have witnessed, or have heard. I want to show the many struggles that our community goes through. Acting has been this whole learning experience for me, and it makes me have to think about how to portray all those emotions onscreen. The series shows us this person we wouldn’t think of as the typical lead character or typical hero. We see somebody confused and a little bit messy — which I sometimes think of as Fernando’s Armando side, or as my personal side of this character. I want an audience to see that we, as a minority group, have to fit into all of these standards, all of these norms, and that it’s sometimes okay to take a break, and I want my people to know that we make mistakes, because we’re human beings of course. So the show actually does make me reflect on myself, on how I’m just as messy as this character. But really for all of the issues and messages that I put into this show: I want it to be my people’s story. I want to portray undocumented characters as human beings and not as the typical perfect immigrant.
Also, I grew up in populations of people of color and low-income families. So it always was weird to see these white, blue-eyed people on the screen. But it took me years to realize that. I came to this country believing in that narrative I saw onscreen, and spent many years thinking that I myself just wouldn’t get any farther in life than what I saw for Latinos in movies and on TV. But then one time I was watching the Tonys, and learned about this musical In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Then I heard the musical was coming to L.A. and I went, and couldn’t believe what I saw. Again I thought That’s me, but it meant something different this time. I started considering the beauty and possibility of representing the under-represented — representing characters who actually look like me.
And what about representing the mood of a particular era, a particular historical moment, as well? In Undocumented Tales’ first episode, for example, the biggest threat Fernando faces comes from a seemingly impersonal (harmful, but not overtly malicious) restaurant chain’s bureaucratic form letter requiring that he provide social-security number and full legal name. In a subsequent episode, a politicized character complains about Barack Obama doing nothing for immigrant communities. Did the impetus for this show develop during the Obama years, amid the assumption of a likely Hillary Clinton administration to follow? Would Undocumented Tales’ main plot circumstances, characters, social questions have changed dramatically had you foreseen the political successes of Donald Trump and his supporters? Or maybe for a more precise question: which concerns would have changed, and which would have played out similarly regardless of whether we had a liberal Democratic or populist Republican administration in power?
The first season happens in 2013, and you do see some political rallies. The second season happens in 2014. So we keep working up to more recent socio-political circumstances. The next season, for example, will deal with same-sex marriage. And we’ll soon get to Donald Trump and how he affects characters living through this political moment. But overall and regardless of who is in the White House, Republican or Democrat, I want to show how these decisions in politics impact our everyday lives.
I want to show every action and every reaction every single character has. I want to represent the hopes in our communities and our families. I want to show us as small cogs in a larger machine, but also as fully developed characters who actual audiences can relate to — as human beings hoping one day to be recognized as real people. And I do want to present the main message that these characters and this community will continue thriving. They’ll just continue pushing forward despite all these political obstructions created by the White House.
In terms of pushing past obstructions, one could hope that anybody in the U.S. emotionally invested in narratives of our mostly immigrant origins would find such tales moving. One could hope that within communities of Latinx citizens and documented immigrants, one would find much room to sympathize with and support Latinx immigrants facing more precarious circumstances. One could hope that, within precarious immigrant communities, one would find some basis for solidarity with gay and trans individuals often feeling hidden, silenced, marginalized, and / or exiled from their communities. Alas, that often doesn’t happen here. We definitely do see upbeat rallies, parties, personal exchanges, suggesting that these characters have what it takes to form supportive cultures. But various social hierarchies still often here produce personal insensitivity, oblivious indifference to others’ struggles, tendencies to exploit as much as to assist the most vulnerable. Do you have any general theories about how power plays out, particularly for intersectional aspects of one’s personal / social identity, that you see this show putting into practice? Or do most plot developments happen on a much more localized basis, as you just imagine how two specific characters might relate to each other?
Again this series does present a lot of real-life situations that I personally know. Fernando might say something like “I’m okay if all immigrant criminals get deported,” and other characters might react and say that’s wrong. Or Fernando keeps having to face being in the closet both as a queer person and as an undocumented person. His character and the characters around him face many complex questions. The series addresses intersections of gender and social status, and that’s what creates a more complex conversation about our community.
Fernando, as a first-generation immigrant, will try to get into college, or will hear other characters talk about politics. Fernando feels inferior to all these people. And here I wanted to show all the different ways that any community might not live up to its progressive values. You see different parts of Fernando’s community supporting him in different ways, but you also see how this community itself has divisions and intersectional boundaries.
You mentioned Fernando at times getting judgmental about people within his own community, and people getting judgmental about Fernando’s judgments. We also see certain constructive characters create space for Fernando to keep learning, to keep contributing to the collective conversation without feeling devalued or dismissed. So again do you want an audience identifying with Fernando to live through all these interrelated experiences: questioning some of its own assumptions, relying on a broader community to help expand one’s personal perspective, promoting tolerance as others likewise stumble toward greater understanding?
Yeah that’s my own story of being an undocumented queer person in the United States. I’ve gone through so many perspectives and experiences in order to accept who I am, and to realize there’s nothing wrong with my emotions or my identity. So even as we see Fernando get confused, insecure, going through new situations, we also see him growing and learning. He’s learning that lying and hiding won’t allow him to achieve liberation. He’s learning about this system of norms designed to limit his behavior. He’s going to have to learn to move beyond these norms. And I wrote the series hoping that my community learns more about tolerance overall. I do believe that the lack of compassion and tolerance within our communities has prevented us from making bigger changes to improve our situation.
The way Fernando lives his life shows you how I hope for the audience to learn to live life. I hope the audience can connect with that desire for liberation even in this current political climate. When I started this show, I just wanted to educate an audience about who we are and what we go through. But now, in the age of Trump, in these really really bad times, I want to continue educating my audience, but also to remind my people how beautiful, strong, and powerful we are. I want to keep telling them not to give up, to keep learning and embracing their identities, especially as undocumented workers. Right now, somebody always is telling us we shouldn’t be here or we shouldn’t exist. This show tries to tell people the opposite. It provides a kind of therapy. People connect to it in ways that patients connect to therapists, or in ways that you connect to people who have experiences like yours.
Again in terms of the diversity within Fernando’s community, I think of Alejandra, a trans character increasingly central in season two, ultimately dying in ways that seem to suggest violent assault. I think of Marlene shifting from secure to insecure legal status as her husband (the basis for her citizenship claims) leaves her. I think of Jessica, a new character from Guatemala, just released from an immigration-detention center. And I of course think of Fernando’s mom, mopping supermarket floors late at night. So as we discuss various nuanced relationships happening within never monolithic immigrant communities, could you outline some questions of gender and sexual identity you see the show exploring?
I should mention how hard it was to introduce all those characters in a little bit of time. And even with all of that diversity, Fernando’s family, his friends, his new boyfriend also are undocumented. I consider sexuality and gender very important topics because I myself am still learning about them. And as I mentioned before, I’d like the audience to learn along with my character. I want to show that complexity. I want to show a wide range of characters, so that the audience can have an idea of different identities and how people’s gender plays a big role in how society accepts or denies our existence in our everyday lives.
With these characters I show how much any one person’s story differs from the next. So when it comes to Alejandra, for example, I want to show that trans people go through some of the same struggles as the undocumented community, but also have their own complex struggles. Alejandra and Jessica also show us different experiences of violence that people in the transgender community and people seeking asylum face — again as distinct parts of our broader community. For Fernando’s mom and Marlene too, we see so many different struggles, so many different worries, so many stories to tell, and with these stories again breaking the stereotypes that Hollywood has created about us. Our lives are complex and diverse when it comes to race, gender, identities, and struggles, and I think it’s time for mainstream media to acknowledge that.
For one other possibly therapeutic dimension of the show, citizens, or documented residents, often will encourage Fernando to assert himself. This can come across as insensitive to Fernando’s more vulnerable circumstances, but it also sometimes provides a necessary prompt helping push Fernando forward. And as Fernando’s position gets more secure, he likewise starts pushing others to speak up. Could you trace your own emotional relationship to this complex (sometimes unsatisfactory, sometimes invaluable) dynamic of various characters pushing each other beyond what present circumstances seem to tolerate?
You’ve touched on a very important topic because for me, as an undocumented person, I’ve always had to deal with getting advice from people who don’t understand my full situation. So I did want to question that. But also, like you said, some people really mean it, and really want to help, so I wanted to show that part too. We have to learn how to navigate this situation when different communities overlap. Those scenes you just mentioned really move undocumented audiences. We are so tired of having to deal with nobody understanding our struggles — and no matter how much an American citizen tries to understand, they will never fully understand. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they don’t know our true experiences.
Personally, I started finding myself when I started hanging out with undocumented queer people. They helped me discover the strength to create a clear vision of who I am and what I want. And I hope audiences for this show can get something like that. I think it’s really important to surround yourself with people who understand your struggle — so that you can get the support you need. And one thing I’d recommend for American citizens who want to help undocumented people: don’t tell them everything is going to be fine. Don’t tell someone crying or scared that things will be okay. Just be next to them. If you want to support somebody, just be there and listen to that person.
I remember this incredibly surreal situation when Trump got elected. Our community felt a lot of fear, and I remember other people kept telling me not to worry. I was like: “How could you possibly say that, when you’ll never really know this feeling of uncertainty?” So again I hope for an audience feeling this vulnerability to see Fernando going through the same struggles and understanding those struggles.
But I also do feel like we have more allies during this time. People have been showing their true faces. You either have compassion for undocumented immigrants or you don’t. Though still I do think it’s really important (right now especially) to discuss these difficulties of not being able to show your true feelings to people who don’t understand your struggles.
In other parts of the series, I also do want to show how our community always supports each other. You see solidarity even in how these characters deal with their most personal problems. They do form a supportive community and show a spirit of survival that helps them navigate the obstacles they face in this country.
Here for one clear example of where my own understanding definitely feels insufficient: emotional heaviness often appears around the prospect of Fernando “turning bitter.” What would it mean, and what personal, interpersonal, familial, occupational, more broadly political consequences might arise, from a figure like Fernando “turning bitter”?
That comes from a very personal experience. When I still lived in the shadows, when nobody really knew me, I just always felt frustrated. I always had a bad mood, because I couldn’t show my experience to anybody. So you also see Fernando not just lying, not just hiding, but struggling to communicate with people. That frustrates Fernando, and he shows his bitterness. And I know all of that from my own personal experience. I know that feeling that you might just explode.
And it might seem strange, but when Fernando feels uncomfortable in a situation, then he tends to let those emotions out — without really paying attention to his words, and without realizing how they affect people. Again I know from personal experience that when you feel this frustrated, you tend to offend other people. So I definitely wanted to show that. And I also wanted to show all these different views and perspectives our brothers and sisters have in the immigrant community: how they see this country, their definition of happiness, and so on. Like when Fernando hopes to go to school, his friend Julian doesn’t want to do that. Julian feels happy at the restaurant and doesn’t want to pursue those same goals. So these two get into a fight about it, but that scene shows there’s nothing wrong with people having different goals.
When I came to this country, going to college and getting an education and getting a better salary never seemed possible for us. And this feeling that you’re running out of time, that you’ll never make it, that you’ll always be unhappy — Fernando doesn’t know how to deal with all that pressure. His bitterness comes out of that. He takes his bitterness out on a friend, which is not okay. So here again Fernando has to learn and grow, becoming more mature with time.
It often feels like if Fernando turns too bitter and closes himself off, then this show will just shut down, because it will have lost its emotional center. And for one complicated relationship we haven’t yet explored much, what seems most important to discuss, or still to develop in future episodes, about Fernando’s relationship to his mom? Or why do I want so badly for this particular relationship to work out better?
I think this reflects something we see a lot in our Latinx community. Our families don’t talk about emotions or affection. Because of this, we see Fernando in the closet around his family, but not around his friends. Again that helps him grow into this character with a more complex narrative. He keeps coming out little by little. He has this really religious mom who doesn’t know he’s gay. She puts all this pressure on him to get married, since he’s already 30. Fernando pushes back against this expectation in our community, and my personal experience fits into that. So we see Fernando at home, talking to his mom about himself, but with his mom not knowing the true Fernando. Again that sad reality reflects many people’s lived experience of societal rules that forbid you from becoming yourself, or from acknowledging your true gender.
In a future season, Fernando will have to embrace his identity and come out to his mother and his family, and we’ll see the complexities of everybody adjusting to that. We’ll see that added struggle, and fight, and journey for Fernando. This show’s audience really relates to that, with so much of the undocumented LGBTQ community still in the closet — at least sometimes. Maybe as activists we fight on the streets for LGBTQ rights, but we don’t bring that fight into our own homes. I remember first relating to activists in my community because I saw them going through the same thing I was. I don’t need to explain anything to them. And I’m very lucky to live in L.A., with this big community of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants. So many ideas for this show come from that community and its complex relationships to family.
In terms of varying degrees of vulnerability, could you discuss your relationship or the show’s relationship to characters like Rudy the dishwasher, characters who don’t position themselves as openly in some ways (at first, at least)? Looking to season three, how much more glamorous might the already well-coiffed Rudy get now that he lets himself experience the sexual pleasures he used to only ask about?
First, I wanted to expose this ignorance in our communities, this way of treating gay people like they’re not human beings. When I tell people I’m gay, they feel like they can just ask whatever they want about gay things. I wanted to address that, but without portraying Rudy as a villain. Rudy asks messed-up questions, just like people do in real life. Someone like Rudy maybe doesn’t want to embrace himself, and acts this way because he feels the need to fit in. And we do have a lot of Rudies out there living double lives, sometimes criticizing other people for living double lives. You get so many complexities within our LGBTQ community.
In terms of insider / outsider relationships, and how someone can at the same time be openly undocumented at home and closeted at home, and can be both part of a community and hidden from that community, could you keep discussing what most inspires you and your film crew about sharing undocumented status, sharing intimacy around this experience — as well as challenges no other film crew ever has to deal with, which are just everyday occurrences for yours?
I probably should start with another personal experience. When I finally found the courage to pursue my dreams, and overcame this feeling that I never could become a filmmaker, I reached out to people who could help with this Undocumented Tales project. And when I began to reach out, everyone was so open and willing to tell their stories, and to help with this series. I never actually said “I want a whole undocumented cast and crew” or anything like that. We do have American citizens involved, but we mostly have an undocumented main crew and cast, without people really getting paid, but with everybody giving so much passion. It can feel crazy to have the whole crew and cast waiting for you to tell the story, and just curious to listen to what you have to say. But we’ve developed that kind of community.
I always thought that to make change you had to become an activist, and lead rallies and organize people. But I’ve learned you also can make change by following whatever passions you have. You can create change on the screen. And you can just feel that passion in this film crew, because these are our real lives and our real stories. When we were shooting the scene where Fernando gets in an argument with Julian because Fernando feels he is running out of time and can’t pursue a better life, crew members were actually crying on set — because they know the exact feelings these characters were going through. I think this makes our project different. There is a lot of heart in it, a lot of community, and you don’t always see that in other productions.
Of course that all feels even more overwhelming when this political moment is such a roller coaster. I remember meeting with actress Mia Peñaloza to rehearse a rooftop scene — two days after Donald Trump got elected. We met at an apartment, just me and her, and just started talking about Donald Trump. We both felt devastated and hopeless, and shared stories for around three hours about how disappointed we were. We never even rehearsed! And we didn’t know each other well back then, but now we’ve become very close friends. That happens when you can talk to people who go through the same things you do. You get some therapy. You get this chance to talk it through, even at what can seem like some inappropriate moment. Mia and I just had to talk that day. On top of dealing with everyday life, we were dealing with all this hate working on our communities and our people. Donald Trump wanted us to feel the despair we felt that day. That day Donald Trump was winning, because we felt so defeated and wanted to give up. But we found a way to take all of those emotions we deal with every day and put them back into the work. We won and will continue thriving because that’s who we are, a beautiful community that keeps going every day no matter what.