Paradise is a relative term, and Shangri-La is simply a matter of perspective. The Garden of Eden doesn’t sound like Eden to me – with all that time outside, all those wild animals lurking behind every tree, and no desks in sight to put my feet up on, I wouldn’t have lasted three days – while others might argue that a dark room with a computer and an ashtray is cold purgatory. I suppose that with the right set of eyes, anywhere can be heaven. Take East Los Angeles, for example, a poor neighborhood that somehow manages to combine the worst characteristics of the American city with the worst attributes of the American suburbs: In the mind’s eye of 9-year-old Mexican Carlitos (Alonso), that concrete jungle of endless strip malls and fast-food restaurants is a wonderland. Four years ago, his mother, Rosario (del Castillo), left him in their small Mexican village to seek work as a domestic across the border and hasn’t been back since. Now Carlitos lives with his grandmother and waits for Sundays, when Rosario calls him from America and describes to her son the sights of her adopted city – Domino’s Pizza shops, painted brick walls, Laundromats, etc. – which, to his lonely ears, sound like castles, cathedrals, and playgrounds. Carlitos dreams of that Los Angeles barrio the way the Spanish conquistadors dreamed of El Dorado, so when his grandmother dies, he resolves to make the perilous journey across the border and into America to reunite with his mother. As a work of dramatic fiction, Under the Same Moon
isn’t anything to ring bells over. Its parallel stories of two lost souls seeking each other across geographical divides is never more than one small step away from mawkishness and cliché, and oftentimes less. But as a sociological study, it’s fascinating. It’s rare that the stories of those behind our landscaping and housekeeping and fruit-picking get told; usually we’re too wrapped up in the lives of the beautiful white people whose lawns are getting mowed and whose houses are being cleaned and whose fruit is being picked to notice. Journeying across the United States with his reluctant guide, Enrique (Derbez), a grouchy migrant worker whose heart is just waiting to be melted, Carlitos stumbles into a world that exists far below the country’s radar, one filled with safe houses, underground transportation rings, quick getaways, and a spontaneous sense of community born out of the desire for survival, a world where Immigration officers are always lurking and even the basest acts of sentimentality are imbued with real social urgency and pathos, not to mention high, outlaw adventure. Carlitos may claim reunion is his goal, but he finds his true paradise on the road, tramping through America while living outside its laws like an immigrant Huckleberry Finn.