As a child in El Paso Iliana Sosa saw her mother’s father for a day or two every month. Julián Moreno always brought Sosa and her sister candy but never removed his sombrero. Even though she was bilingual, Iliana had some difficulty understanding his rural Durango way of speaking Spanish, so their conversations were short.
Moreno made the 17-hour bus ride from a small town in the Mexican state of Durango to the U.S. border. After his El Paso visit he made his way to Albuquerque to see his other children before the long trip back to his home.
Family took priority during the monthly visits.
“He talked about why he never remarried, because he didn’t want someone else telling his children what to do,” recalls Sosa, now an Austin-based filmmaker. “I think he wanted to just keep some semblance of being unified, despite the fact that his family is on different sides of the border.”
Now, Sosa’s documentary feature about her grandfather, “What We Leave Behind (Lo que dejamos atrás)” will see its premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.
After graduate film school at UCLA, Sosa had already made several short films, but found herself at a transitional point in life. Yet she was also ready to take on a new project, and when a friend encouraged her to make a film about her grandfather, Sosa ran with the idea.
“I just borrowed a camera and went on a trip with my mom,” she says. “My initial idea was to document my grandfather’s work as a bracero, and just talk to him about those experiences and his travels to the US.”
World War II brought the federal Bracero Program into existence. After the Great Depression caused the forced deportation of nearly 100,000 Mexican citizens and US-born Mexican-Americans, their brazos (arms) were suddenly needed for wartime farm work. Moreno was one of the four million who eventually participated in the program which continued into the early 1960s.
“I think [travel] was just part of my grandfather’s life, and that’s what he did as a bracero,” says Sosa. “Even when he wasn’t working as a bracero but working as a farm worker in Mexico, he talked about how he sometimes walked from town to town trying to find work. Movement was always part of his life.”
Unfortunately there was no movement yet on funding Sosa’s film of Moreno, so she moved on to other projects. She co-directed the award-winning short “An Uncertain Future,” and co-produced the feature documentary “Building the American Dream” — projects that dealt with immigrants in a shifting political environment.
Sosa was nevertheless determined to return to Mexico to continue filming her grandfather. By the time she did in 2017 she found him in his late 80s, a markedly less active man and no longer farming. Instead, he had a new project in mind – building a bigger house next to his own.
So, Sosa shifted the focus of her documentary to Moreno’s new project and his life as an elderly man, still very lucid and with a sense of humor, but also with an awareness of the approaching end of his life. That awareness propelled him to finish the new house and have something he could leave behind for his children.
In Sosa’s 71-minute film we get to know a remarkable man, a powerful example of the millions of Mexicans who, among countless other accomplishments, continue to be the strong backbone of rural agriculture and urban construction. Moreno proudly states, “I may be small. But I’ve never been scared of hard work. I’ve always thrown myself into it.”
Fortunately for Sosa, Moreno threw himself into the filming, starting many mornings by asking her, “So, what are we going to film today?”
As a participant-observer filmmaker, Sosa chose not to appear in the film herself but to leave her voice in. When Moreno jokingly questions if what she is doing is actually work, both Sosa, off-camera, and her mother, pulling up weeds on-camera, laugh.
In fact it’s the filmmaker’s mother, María Elia, who takes center stage towards the end of the film. She was the first to leave for the United States, even though she was just 14 at the time, compelled to help support the family, especially since her mother was already terminally ill.
Sosa uses the traditions of Día de los Muertos to create some very moving scenes. While her cousin makes a beautiful wreath of blue-and-white ribbons, her grandfather carries a bucketful of bright yellow-orange cempasúchil flowers (marigolds) to the cemetery to put on the grave of his beloved wife, gone for half his life.
Even though Sosa describes that day’s shooting as chaotic with so many people in the cemetery, what remains in the final film is quite moving.
Sosa uses wide, single shot scenes of long duration to great effect throughout “What We Leave Behind.”
“Every time I go to Durango, life there moves at a different pace, a different rhythm,” she says. “I want people to feel that a bit and just to take time to appreciate those small moments.”
A sweet example is Moreno sitting at the kitchen table with his great-granddaughter Marisol as she watches him swatting flies while her mother Rosa whips up the egg batter in which to dip a chile relleno for baking.
Sosa worked with cinematographers Judy Phu and Monica Wise, and with editor Isidore Bethel, who had also edited the film “Caballerango.”
In editing, Sosa kept certain long duration shots to allow for her voice-over narration, explaining aspects of the lives of Moreno and his children, other times revealing parts of her own life.
“I just felt there was something missing. We got a lot of feedback from people saying, ‘Oh, I wish there was more of you’,” she says. “I wanted to explore voiceover [so] I started writing. I would write and then [Isidore and Emma, my producer] would both comment on what was interesting.”
As we watch three silhouetted chickens on a wall while the sun sets, we hear Sosa relate her mother’s childhood recurring dream of fearfully crossing a swaying bridge. This nightmare was never erased even after she had crossed the actual Puente Negro from Juarez to El Paso many times.
And then on one of their jaunts, Moreno took Sosa to the ruins of “La Casa de Cien Puertas.” It was built in the early 20th century for a woman who promised to marry a man only if he provided a house with 100 doors. While looking at the remains of this mansion, we hear Sosa’s voice: “I lived with a man for eight years. He wanted to buy a house and build a family. He gave me a gold engagement ring. After so many years together, didn’t he know I preferred silver?”
Sosa decided to include this very personal revelation for a reason.
“For me, it was important to include because I feel the film has always been sort of like a marker at these different points in my life,” she says. “(This) film was always something very stable in my life.”
While the documentary is primarily a celebration of the life of a loving father, grandfather and hard-working man, we sense where it is headed. Sosa continued filming to the day of Moreno’s death.
Moreno accepts the inevitability of death. But then comes a scene in which he looks at his daughter María Elia, and his eyes suddenly change into those of an innocent child whose fears of the unknown seek consolation. That look is both dreadfully sad and yet so touching and human.
All too soon, we see a closeup of Moreno’s hand being held by his daughter. A fly walks over his palm, but this time there is no swatting.
The final scene is a slow walk through the interior of the new house. It patiently awaits the arrival of any of his children who wish to visit or perhaps even move back.
Moreno remained intent on leaving something material for his children. I would like to think that he realized he was also leaving them beautiful memories of a loving, caring father who came to visit every month for 20 years. Not every adult can have so many memories of an aging parent. Now thanks to his loving granddaughter and her powerful story-telling skills, Moreno is forever visible in “What We Leave Behind.”
“What We Leave Behind (Lo que dejamos atrás)” premieres during the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. See schedule.sxsw.com/2022/events/FS14780