I Carry You With Me: Making Of–draft

Ewing’s film is essentially a Mexican production with binational support system behind it. Most of the crew collaborators were Mexican, including producer Edher Campos, cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez and casting director Isabel Cortázar.

The American team members included producer Mynette Louie and editor Enat Sidi.

Foreign Director, Not Queer

“I’m a foreign director, a white woman in Mexico making a film in Spanish. I am not queer. I am coming into a culture that’s not my own,” Ewing says. “But I was trying to tell the story in authentic way, making a Mexican film that Mexicans would identify with and see as theirs.”

She paid attention to all the small details: the proper Mexican slang of the 1990s, the popular pop groups, like Moenia, the re-creation of places, a pulque bar, La Oficina, that García’s father frequented.

As a gay man from working-class family, Espitia related to García’s struggles facing homophobia.

“My character leaves trying to become a full person,” Espitia says. “In Mexico he can’t because he is gay, but when he gets to the U.S. being gay doesn’t matter as much but now he is an undocumented immigrant, so he is still just being at 50% of his potential as a person. It hurts me to know that many of us can’t find a place to be entirely who we are.”

To ensure the portrayal of his real-life counterpart felt as accurate as possible, Espitia got an incognito job at a restaurant.

He also wanted to meet García so he could study the chef’s voice patterns and mannerisms. But Ewing was against it.

“I was afraid that the actors would start to do imitation,” she explains. “If you’re playing Margaret Thatcher and we all know what Margaret Thatcher sounds like, maybe you should imitate Margaret Thatcher. But these are not famous people. I was looking for actors who had the essence of Iván and Gerardo. I wasn’t looking for look-alikes.”

Eventually she gave in when the production moved to New York, but the meeting between Espitia and García wasn’t as fruitful as the actor imagined it would be. That’s because Espitia’s job was less about playing the García of today and more García’s memories of himself. He is no longer the same person.

“We are portraying the lives of real characters, and that weighed on me,” says Christian Vazquez, the actor tasked with bringing a young Zabaleta to the screen. “There have been many movies based on real events, but what was particular about this one is that it’s ongoing, it’s still being told.”

Gerardo Zabeleta, Christian Vazquez, Heidi Ewing, Armando Espitia, Ivan Garcia of "I'll Carry You With Me."

The chemistry between Espitia and Vazquez is testament to Ewing’s casting intuition, especially because the actors didn’t know each other beforehand. “I felt really blessed to make my first fiction film in a country that knows cinema, knows how to train actors,” Ewing says.

For Espitia and Michelle Rodriguez, an actress and comedian who plays García’s best friend and journey companion, Sandra, shooting the traumatic desert crossing was a charged watershed moment. Even though they were in a nature reserve with all necessary protective measures, Ewing’s directing style, feeling out the scenes and letting the action play out almost as she might in a documentary, pushed them to feel, if only partially, the fright and helplessness of that ordeal.

At some point while shooting that scene, Rodriguez had an epiphany and said, “This is happening right now somewhere on the border. There are people living through this for real.” This recognition left everyone on set speechless.

“To put myself in the situation of so many Mexicans, and so many Latinos, there’s no way for you not to feel moved and committed with this topic,” says Rodriguez, who is best known for her comedy and cherished the opportunity to play a complex character like Sandra. “Sometimes many of us, we feel distant to the subject because we believe it’s only relevant to only certain places near the border, but I discovered that’s not true. We all know someone who left.”

Of course, for García, the actual border crossing was terrifying. “At some point Sandra and I put our lives in the hands of God because we didn’t think we were going to make it. We thought we were going to die there,” he says of his real-life experience. “But I truly believe love saved me, because Gerardo was in Mexico praying for me the whole night.”

“The responsibility of playing this character wasn’t only about Iván,” adds Espitia. “Dignifying this story had more to do with the members of family that live in the U.S. and that have gone through the same experience, for all the others I know in Mexico affected by migration, and for all the immigrants I met in New York while making this movie.”

“I see migrants as superheroes with superpowers,” Vazquez says, “because they leave everything behind, risking it all for the unknown. They leave behind family, culture, a country — it’s like being born again not knowing what your fate will be, without knowing how strong you are to fight that day in and day out, and even more so in a city like New York.”

While the cast first saw the finished film at the Sundance premiere, Ewing showed a fine cut to García and Zabaleta days before in the safety of their home.

“I was overwhelmed in a good way. I never imagined how she was going to put four decades of our lives in one story,” Zabaleta says. “She made me feel my entire life again in an hour and a half: all of the emotions, frustrations, fears and smiles. Watching it was a catharsis.”

And now the movie that was conceived during the Obama administration and shot during the Trump years is finally coming out under Biden with a title different from its original name, “The Arrivals,” in part to reflect the cultural shifts over immigration that have taken place.

For Ewing, the profound line “I Carry You With Me” or “Te llevo conmigo” encapsulates García and Zabaleta’s tested, evolving and undying devotion to one another, and their resolve to remember where they came from.

“Every relationship is complicated,” García says, “but we have fought together and we have tried to defeat the obstacles that sometimes bring us down. That’s what love is about, supporting each other. When one is feeling down, the other rescues you and gives you hope.”

Of all the things that make him feel powerless, what eats at García most is that he hasn’t seen his son in the 20 years since he came to the U.S. The young man has married and has a daughter now. He has never been granted a tourist visa to visit his father in New York. García doesn’t know if or when he will be able to hug his son and meet his granddaughter.

Despite the countless disappointments, they have faith in the new administration and urge the president and lawmakers to see their contributions to their adoptive home. For now, as Ewing puts it, García and Zabaleta are in an endless loop of remembrances that she tried to evoke in the film. She understands those nuggets of hard-earned nostalgia keep them mentally afloat.

“The only thing that saves you, that keeps us going, that gives us hope is using those memories to bring back the smell of the soil of the ranch where I grew up,” Zabaleta says, “and through those memories be able to hug my family even if not physically.”

“Sometimes I dream about when I was a kid in Mexico and that makes my day,” García says, “because the whole day I carry that sensation of being there. That’s all we have left, to live off our memories and our dreams.”