I Carry You With Me: Tale of Friendship and Love between Two Mexican Men

Gay Pride

I Carry You With Me is based on the true story of chef Iván García (portrayed by Armando Espitia) and Gerardo Zabaleta (Christian Vazquez), directed by non-queer woman.


PARK CITY, UTAH - JANUARY 27: Ivan, whom the story is based upon, Armando Espitia, who portrays Ivan, director Heidi Ewing, Christian Vazquez, who portrays Gerardo and Gerardo, from left, of "I Carry You With Me," photographed in the L.A. Times Studio at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) didn’t know that she would end up making a poignant documentary, when she first met Iván García and Gerardo Zabaleta at a bar on the Lower East Side of New York City, some 16 years ago.

I Carry You With Me (“Te llevo conmigo”) hits theaters this week after several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film blends fiction based on real events and documentary footage to map the love story between García and Zabaleta, two Mexican gay men, restaurant owners and, unbeknown to her then, immigrants without legal status.

“It surprised me that aside from speaking Spanish, she was really good at dancing salsa,” García says about the director so casually while partying. Ewing recalls that the couple’s curiosity was sparked by her Cuban accent when speaking Spanish, which she picked up on the island while making her 2003 documentary
“Dissident: Oswaldo Paya and the Varela Project.”

They were at the 2012 Sundance Film Fest, where García and Zabaleta had come to support Ewing, whose documentary Detropia was premiering. One night over dinner and tequila, Ewing asked why she had never met their mothers and why they never visited Mexico.

“That’s when Gerardo and I opened up to her. She gave us that trust. We were ashamed to talk about our status, to tell people that we are in this country without documents, that we are living in the shadows,” García says. “That night we talked about family and I told her about my son.”

Ewing emailed herself a note in the middle of the night with details from their conversation. “This is such a potent story of love, triumph and loss, what you give up. I was floored on a personal level,” she says, “and as a storyteller I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get over this story.”

Originally from Mexico City and Chiapas respectively, García and Zabaleta were raised in a hyper-masculine society, which was not accepting their sexual orientation.

As a young man in the 1990s, and already a father, García worked in kitchens wishing to become a chef. Zabaleta was a systems engineer teaching computer skills. Living heterosexual lives by day, the two met at a clandestine queer bar in Puebla. Their love and ambition to achieve economic prosperity prompted them to set out separately on a border-crossing odyssey. Eventually, they built a life in New York City and are now the proprietors of the Williamsburg restaurants, Mesa Coyoacán and Zona Rosa.

Although they pay taxes, support their community and employ American citizens, their immigration status remains uncertain. García and Zabaleta have been together for 25 years and have not been to their native Mexico in more than 20.

Ewing’s first instinct was to make a documentary about García and Zabaleta. She began interviewing them and shot footage of their daily lives. At first, the pair were terrified of exposing their life publicly, especially since many of their employees share their precarious immigration situation.

“It was a long and painful process,” Zabaleta says. “Every time we discuss the fact that family members get sick or die and we can’t go say goodbye because we are still without documents, the pain returns. We can’t hide it.”

“Over time, talking with Heidi,” García adds, “we understood that this film could be really good for the millions of us who are here dealing with this situation. We thought about the message of hope and encouragement to reach for your dreams. That’s what we wanted to share.”

The more the director captured material in the present, the more she realized these scenes would best function as the film’s third act. This meant she had no way to include the memories they had entrusted her with in a visual manner. She had never used reenactments or animation in her previous work.

“Memory is fuzzy, strange and elusive. That’s hard to do in documentary,” Ewing says. “I had to face the fact that this was better suited as a fiction film. That was a daunting moment because I’d never made one. I’d never wanted to make one.”

Determined to depict García’s and Zabaleta’s recollections and learn the craft of fiction storytelling, she brought in Mexican screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga. “That is how the entire movie was constructed, by taking the position of a listener. In documentary film we listen a lot,” she says. “That’s what we’re good at.”

Borrowing from the real stories of people who are normally unseen in this country, Ewing transforms them via fiction to some poetic results.

Ewing also decided to use voice-over as a device to add emotional depth, inspired by director Terrence Malick, whose meditations are naturalistic and dreamlike.

The film’s final musings show the blurred lines between García’s recollections of his childhood and his subconscious while asleep.