“They took away the only thing I had.”
Even the strong Aleteia (Monica Betancourt in her debut film) has her breaking points. Her biggest, most frequent offender is the institution that’s supposed to protect us all: the U.S. government.
“La Leyenda Negra” is at once a story of Trump’s immigration policies, coming of age in a Latinx community and LGBTQ+ love. Directed by feature-film newcomer Patricia Vidal Delgado, the film follows the story of Aleteia, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. A promising scholarship at UCLA is all Aleteia grasps onto as she struggles to work her job at a taco stand and attend Compton High School. She’s befriended by Rosarito (Kailei Lopez in her debut film), her classmate who realizes she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd, and the two become fast friends within a week. The streets of Compton are tough, but Aleteia and Rosarito are tougher; Aleteia’s soft, hunched shuffle differs from Rosarito’s confident strut, but both are secure in their city.
Delgado poignantly captures the Latinx teenage community in a way I haven’t seen other filmmakers do. There isn’t a huge emphasis on family, an important but usually exaggerated aspect of immigrant stories. There’s drinking, smoking, bullying, sex and everything in between. Who said teenage life was ever pretty? Aside from making high school problems seem like middle school problems (Why are Compton High seniors arguing about going to a salsa class? Or being picky about who they sit next to on the bus?), Delgado’s portrayal of teenagers is tough but accurate.
There’s a difference between undocumented Latinx immigrants and those that are legal and choose to support Trump’s deportation policies, and Delgado makes sure we know it. Aleteia listens eagerly to podcasts of a local Compton resistance leader who vehemently announces “A is for Anarchy,” while Monica (Irlanda Moreno in her debut film), a wealthy girl with power in the Latinx community, declares that “homework is for losers” from the back of the bus before continuing her praise of Youtuber Jenna Marbles. There’s barely a comparison: Monica’s chief concern is causing drama at the party on Friday while Aleteia’s is making ends meet.
The hesitant romance between Rosarito and Aleteia is just as beautifully done – Delgado shows us that LGBTQ+ love has a firm place in the Latinx community. The shy smiles between the two girls evolve into uncertain touches, then tentative brushes of shoulders. Time slows down, the intimacy making me feel like an intruder. In a memorable scene, Rosarito gently puts makeup on Aleteia before heading to a Quinceañera. Both girls are vulnerable but are just as eager to mask their emotions. Aleteia relaxes in quiet surrender as Rosarito dabs on the final bit of lipstick. Delgado is careful not to make the physical transformation too extreme; Aleteia is the same woman, but the added strength in her freshly lined eyes shows us what she could be if she wasn’t held back.
Most of “La Leyenda Negra” is directed delicately, but Delgado also shows us how quickly anger can spill into rage, threatening to knock on the doors of violence. Trump’s policies deported over 250,000 undocumented immigrants in 2018, the same year that Temporary Protection Status (TPS) was terminated for El Salvador nationals in the U.S. Delgado challenges us to see the humanity in immigrants and their desperation to stay in a country that despises them. The pull of a better life is what calls undocumented immigrants like Aleteia to the U.S., and their life is by no means glamorous. Aleteia struggles with normal teenage rivalries at the same time that she faces larger ones – the carjackings she sees when she looks out her window, the fear of losing her scholarship and the heartbreak of possible deportation.
Delgado’s decision to film in black and white is the icing on the cake. There are no gray areas in her characters; you’re either rich or poor, legal or illegal. But “La Leyenda Negra” makes us think about these tricky in-betweens – what do you do if you’re caught in the middle?