January of 2020, I’m distracted: my Swedish husband Per, an immigrant to America, is airport-hugging me in sunshine as he heads into the international terminal, gives a final wave from security, and flies back to the damp skies of his home country to wait for a long-anticipated eye surgery to preserve his vision. Our expectation is that he will have the operation, recover for several weeks, and then head back to me in Los Angeles. At worst, he’ll stay in Sweden and I’ll fly over in June, at the end of my school year.
First week of March: I stop at that great teacher supply source, the Dollar Store, and buy a few precautionary bottles of hand sanitizer to put in my classroom, “just in case.” By mid-March, I’m hastily packing that sanitizer into boxes as over the loudspeaker we hear we’re going to “learn from home” for a “two-week” period. My students cheer, and I frown.
“Guys, come on,” I say, “you shouldn’t root for misfortune. People are getting very sick from this thing.” A young man who I know to be sincere says “Mr. C., we’re not cheering because we have no school. We’re cheering because the adults are finally doing the right thing.” Chastened by the realization of the anxiety students are carrying, I watch them file out my door and wish them well. Then I go into the boys’ bathroom to look for toilet paper.
September: Per is still in now-autumnal Scandinavia, and we have no idea when it will be safe for him to make the long flight home. Two seasons of pandemic have been spent apart. We talk in brief video chats fit into a nine-hour time difference window; they’re seldom satisfactory. I pine for him. I long to be like other pandemic couples and talk about dinner, what we’re going to stream next.
I persevered through those long hours of separation with the art form which has always entranced me. When global film festivals went online, it was like my own COVID survival kit had been delivered. I first sampled the riches available in 2020 through queer film festivals like Outfest, which was particularly well-done and gave me the tech confidence to try more. That’s how I, an Angeleno, got to experience the programming of the previously-unreachable New York Film Festival, and the extraordinary film I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Contigo). It hit me like a kiss.
Re-watching is unusual for me; I often feel the pressure, in our endless sea of streaming, to catch something new or on my list (I’m someone who still carries the illusion I’m going to finally watch The Wire). But I followed I Carry You With Me as it “traveled” from NYFF to Savannah SCAD Film Festival to the California Film Institute, seeking to bring some of its tenderness into my very untender socio-political-global-crisis reality. The film knit itself into me, leaving rough burrs in my heart and loose threads in my blood. It was as though the strands of my life—my surreal pandemic life, the latest and most extended physical separation from my husband, the life-and-death stakes—were being twined together with Mexican jute, tied to the story of two men I didn’t know, who understood the pain of being torn apart by impervious, flawed national structures. To be split by the lingering effects of bias and the ineptitude of corrupt governments: that I knew.
When Per and I first met, we spent a weekend together, and then I drove him to where we would say goodbye. I thought, “This was nice, but from everything I know, long-distance relationships can’t work.” But Per turned to me and said, in his impeccable but Nordic-accented English, “I think this is something we should not dismiss.” He was right.
What followed was a back and forth between Sweden and California that pushed at the limits of the damningly confusing U.S. Immigration system. There was a time when its authorities, noticing Per’s passport had several American visits, kept him locked up for hours after he arrived, while no word was given to me as I waited and heard that “everyone” had disembarked. His particular questioner had retained him only after Per disclosed he was returning to a male partner. This is the thing anyone who has been through the migration process understands: too often, it comes down to the agent you get, the interviewer, the judge; whether they had coffee; whether they are a homophobe.
The only thing that offered help: a Supreme Court decision, a long and stressful legal process, and finally getting married one misty December night on a bridge near our Venice Beach canals cottage. I wish I could say our marriage ended the immigration system mental gymnastics, but of course it didn’t. A green card recipient isn’t supposed to stay away longer than a year, which would mean returning soon although warnings projected chaos. Could we trust the immigration system to respond empathetically to the shock of the pandemic?
That same punishing system figures into the tortuous dilemmas faced by the two immigrant men in I Carry You With Me, but the film isn’t delivered as a strident message. Instead, it’s elliptical, impressionistic, traveling back and forth in gossamer fashion through membranes of time. It begins in the present with Iván (Armando Espitia), now older and living undocumented in the US, looking back on his real-life love story with Gerardo (Christian Vázquez). Within those scenes, the film flashes back to glimpses of the two men as children, giving psychological, cultural, and importantly, economic context to their struggle.
As much as the film uncannily held a convex mirror to my situation with Per, it also reflected me as an individual: a gay Mexican-American man, watching a film about two gay Mexican men in love who are, as it turns out, from the part of Mexico my family is from, and who may or may not want to move to America.
How many films has a white straight male watched in which he sees white straight male actors portray him, even to the point of his own geography? Over the years, I’ve gotten quite used to seeing and reviewing the work of gifted, beautiful, but mostly white actors and directors, along for a ride of cinema-by-proxy.
Now, I was experiencing what that white male demographic experiences regularly, and it felt rare; even rarer, the film was excellent. It was a film I could tell I would not only feel affection for, but pride. It keenly mattered to me that one of the movies I thought most important of this jagged year was as solid and richly cinematic as God’s Own Country, Happy Together, and other celebrated LGBTQ dramas.
I’ve been avoiding naming this experience as “representation matters,” because the film is subtler than that, and because I’ve thought about the issue of representation for so long, it’s almost become an abstraction. The circumstances of the characters are not exactly the same as mine, but they connect in a way I haven’t felt often. The hardships depicted didn’t have to be an exact match with my own; they just had to be hard.
Why did this film electrify such circuits in me? I tried to break it down.
RECUERDOS DE PUEBLA
The first half of I Carry You With Me is set in Puebla, Mexico, with a brief sojourn when the couple goes to visit Gerardo’s family in Chiapas. This is the second major cinematic appearance of Puebla recently; the city was featured in the detailed, panoramic black-and-white shots of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
When I first saw Cuarón’s memory piece, I felt like he got the details so right it was worth his dedication to the extensive sets. Admittedly, my visit to Puebla was long ago. Our cousins, a family of medical professionals and architects, lived in a house with a winding staircase. I was so young then that my teen cousin Lolita played us the brand-new single by The Beatles, “And I Love Her,” and taught us the words in Spanish. My grad student cousin would hoist me on his shoulders every night when singing vendors came to the kitchen door after dinner, selling trays of fresh and varietal pan dulce. I was like a Chicano Oliver Twist, temporarily seen for the prince I really was, pointing down as adults did my royal bidding and lifted the towel off the bread, ushering up the fragrance of warm, sugary conchas like incense.
I remember the buildings of Puebla were full of tile and colonial arches, long doors, shiny brick lanes, big parks and streets like nothing surrounding our tract home in smoggy, suburban southeast Los Angeles.
But by the ‘80s and ‘90s of I Carry You With Me, many of those buildings appeared tired, weathering several stages of national calamity. Though they retain the look and the structure of a great city, shabbiness has snuck in, and sometimes interiors look as if they are lit by refrigerator light or the glare of a detention center.
Director Heidi Ewing’s opening shots depict a Puebla that has seen some decline. First, we meet the real-life Iván as he is today—a somber Latino on a New York subway. He appears anguished as he looks outside the windows of the train, even as he’s reflected in them. As Iván looks back on his life, we hurtle back to Puebla.
Ewing’s opening-sequence tracking shot is a thrillingly confident gambit. Think of how many directors (mostly male) have used a long tracking shot to take you into an environment full of potential dazzlements—nightclubs, casinos, wedding parties, a colorful catalog of wonders coming in and out of frame as we are escorted into a new world on a Cadillac, most often through a man’s point of view.Ewing takes us through long corridors of a nondescript building, down to the bowels of a restaurant with chipped ceramic-tiled walls, and finally to a dishwashing station where we meet Iván as a young ambitious man, a chef who is never given the chance to escape his Sisyphean cell of dirty plates and pans. We are most definitely not in an environment of dazzlements, except for the affectless buzz of fluorescent ceiling bulbs.
The teeming, festive Puebla of Roma has devolved into a city which many of its inhabitants report as “unsafe.” Among the most vulnerable: queer people, who experience rejection and violence even from neighbors. In I Carry You With Me, Puebla’s cobblestone streets provide the stage for both a tipsy walk home and an attack of the most wounding Spanish anti-gay words leading to sudden violence which of course goes unpunished.
Cataloging the woes of their limited jobs, Iván and his affectionate childhood friend and confidante Sandra (comedian Michelle Rodríguez, pitch-perfect) go to an LGBTQ club for a night of relief. Ewing shows us a hidden safe space far removed from the brash bars of pride parades or Bravo shows. Along with a certain underground Mexi-goth chic, there’s decrepitude, providing a place not only for expression but for hiding.
Yet as Ewing glides the camera through the bar, I had the oddest sensation, one which I also had when watching Roma: I felt like I could smell the building. I can remember Puebla’s odor of limestone, of damp plaster, of corn masa cooked so often it is baked into the walls, even that sickly sweet smell of spilled liquor wafting through open windows.
In this bar so atmospheric you might know its scent, Gerardo initiates a flirtation with Iván, with a laser pointer no less, the early 90s specificity of that prop adding to the frisson of the scene. This heady first meeting is edited fluidly, capturing even the shyest throwaway glance, as Ewing sets the stage for Iván and Gerardo’s first tentative yet decidedly flirtatious conversations. I found myself swooning.
SE DESMAYA EL ALMA
When I first met Per, like Iván and Gerardo, we locked eyes across a bar, and then spent much of the rest of the night looking back, alternating glances with stares. As an introvert, that’s often as far as I went unless the other guy approached; thinking nothing more might happen, I left. I walked to my car drenched in regret on an unusually empty street. Or so I thought.
Per “happened” to leave at the same time, his footsteps joining mine in an awkwardly exciting rhythm. He called to me and we chatted—about the Rufus Wainwright concert we’d both been to that night, about where we were from, where he was staying. We were bathed in orange street light on littered sidewalks studded with parking meters; not an amorous setting. But if Heidi Ewing had filmed our first moments, you still might swoon.
I know this because of the mood Ewing brings to the way Iván and Gerardo engage each other after their initial chase. From the bar to the bathroom to finally a balcony over which a hazydawn begins to illuminate Puebla rooftops, Ewing, Espitia, and Vázquez replicate the dizziness of falling in love and the humorous attempts of romantically experienced and defensive men to control what’s happening. The gay-male-specific teasing, the gradual revelations, the soulful eye contact doled out in flickers, the erotics of the first kiss—these layers build a “first date” romanticism that made my heart swoon with pleasure.
Armando Espitia and Christian Vázquez are masterful at these sexual subtleties, the infinite variety of smiles young lovers use, the hope that lies within a pause, the perfect moment to cock an eyebrow. But it’s not all batting of (gorgeous) eyelashes—the actors have the craft to simultaneously convey the steely, dignified determination Iván and Gerardo draw on to find connection and refuge in a society that denies them shelter. In kind, if not direct stylization, I felt the way I did watching Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain or Pedro Almodóvar’s Law of Desire for the first time—I was that woozily alert.Sitting in my living room, on one side of a couch made for two and staring at a laptop screen that had to substitute for a movie palace, I was stunned to recognize, as if for the first time, that this is the overlay of all queer love stories and taken for granted in heteronormative ones: the strength it takes for gay couples simply to stake their existential ground, a place to build their together-home. And the realization I was finally seeing this acknowledged with men whose skin and eye color looked like mine, and who spoke in linguistic nuances I could understand, is what made my soul swoon.
Indulging that swoon felt like a life preserver in the sampling sea that is pandemic streaming, and a reminder of how rare it is to find a scene which evokes not only its characters attraction, but the origin story of a real couple. We know the beats of a “falling in love” scene; we reflexively react so we can get on with the plot. The all-night date in I Carry You With Me is a balm for that callus, delicately constructed to seduce us into a journey with people who are rarely in the center of a cinematic experience. To get love-drunk with two Mexican men, a restaurant worker and a school teacher, feels both essential and transcendent.
VIDAS DOBLES, AMORES DOBLES
Using a filmic technique that recalls the felicities-on-the-fly films of Terrence Malick, Julie Dash, and Barry Jenkins, but wholly original to this movie, Ewing and her co-screenwriter Alan Page Arriaga begin to layer in the tensions that will turn this initial spark of love—which seems potent enough to light the sky—into an epic of thwarted passion. Through flashbacks to each man’s childhood, we learn that their desire to be recognized and allowed to live by their own loves and choices has required not only courage, but the endurance of trauma.
Iván, as a maturing boy, is fascinated by the transformative power of the ruffled gowns his seamstress mother makes for quinceañeras and bodas. He already senses he will have to construct a public image he can hide behind, and he intuitively seems to be wishing to escape his fate and be noticed in the room.
For Gerardo, his simple existence and personal expression flag him beyond his understanding for harassment by his own father. As in so many queer origin stories, the father tries to man the gay boy up. You could fault it for embracing a stereotype of Latinx adult men, but I Carry You With Me risks a shadow/light archetypal vision of Mexican fatherhood that seems totemic, myth-extending. Gerardo’s father is a cruel, embittered man, looking to sink his talons into whoever’s most vulnerable at the moment; besides his wife, that turns out to be his gentle son, who only wants to please and survive. There’s an enraging night sequence of unforgivable and scarring bullying so sharply detailed it sears into your consciousness.
We’re sometimes prompted to expect Iván’s father to be a variation of the same. But when he discovers intimations of who his son is emerging to be, he is unexpectedly tender, transparent in his thought process, quick to become pragmatic and pivot to the best way to protect Iván at a near-unconsciously vulnerable moment. Immediately, I flashed on the shame I felt when I realized my parents caught me in childhood queer play—it was an ache in the pit of my stomach that took weeks to go away, and the shame burned into my response mechanisms. My father loved me, this I always knew, but I’d already started on a path that could lead to frightening separation. Iván’s father similarly prioritizes his relationship with his son over acting out of “masculinidad toxica.” Even as Ewing and Arriaga delineate young queer ache and the response it provokes in their parents, the contrast is less about stereotypes of Mexican machismo and more a reminder that responsive adults always have a choice if they truly love, even if the culture that produced them was marked by silence and social repression.
The meetings between the adult Iván and Gerardo, as they interact with their families as they exist now, demonstrate the growing sympathy and knowledge they have for each other, the way they begin to get knit together. And “families” includes the spouse and child Iván has separated from—his wife Paola (Michelle González) wants more support than Iván can give in his meager job, and threatens to deny him access to his adoring and adorable son when she starts to confront him wondering if “what they say” is true. Choices narrow.
In the bliss of their growing love, dilemmas wander through these Puebla hallways and alleys, in search of the lovers who think they can escape them. Gerardo’s friends warn him about dating a closeted man who married a woman. They see each other across the street. There’s a fireworks scene that does what all good fireworks scenes do: magnifies sparks. Later, Iván finds he must confront his double life.
I’m a schoolteacher in a school system which has fired teachers who found love and stability with someone of the same gender, even teachers who teach what the school wants them to teach about compassion for migrants. I understand double lives.
ESTAS ESTACAS PUEDEN PERFORAR TU CORAZÓN
Stay in your home country and start to seal into a permanent lower class; become bitter like the men you see around you; let your beloved son suffer; watch ingrained and persistent cultural anti-gay behaviors close the walls down even more. Or, risk your life for a fraction of a chance at succeeding in America, just when you have a love in your life you want to risk everything for and hunker down with. If you leave, your best friend wants to come with you, but can she make the journey? Can you? Your lover wants you to stay; he has fought hard to establish a good life not so easily uprooted. He sees America as “lonely.” One of you has a father with ill health. Your child is starting to forget you. Your boss says you have no chance of advancing in your career.
Whatever you choose, none of it is fully in your control; your autonomy is compromised by the soul-destroying inferno that is the US immigration system, and the subsequent vicious trafficking economies at the border. When you’re not in direct danger of losing your life or self-direction, you are in danger of losing the love it took you so long to find. This is where Iván and Gerardo are before the film leaps into its next expression.
I contemplate this as Per and I search through scads of politicized science, in both our countries, to uncover when it would be best for him to come home. There is no best. Film structure may depend on stakes, but in real life you get tired of the way society creates them to pierce and thus weaken your heart.
IRSE ES QUEDARSE
It doesn’t give too much away to note that I Carry You With Me captures the persistent melancholy so many immigrants learn to live with. All the characters get weary of being distant, despite strides in technological connection. If in America, the jacaranda blossoms and clamor of Puebla’s markets beckon, as do faltering loved ones. If in Mexico, the chance to provide or live openly is thwarted. Due to your “status” as fulfillment of arcane legal code, your status as human being is put aside.
There are some remarkable moments in the American sojourn portion of the film. A white college kid patronizes Iván, casually, with no self-examination; it makes you realize how often we see this scene from the kid’s point of view, how rarely from that of the immigrant who must take the slight without flinching. There is a conversation between Iván and Gerardo that lays out their central conflict in such emotionally acute ways it’s devastating to witness, yet no fault can be laid between them.
If I Carry You With Me falters anywhere, it’s in its later portions. At 111 minutes, it was the rare film I thought could use at least 10 or 15 more. As dedicated as Ewing’s journalistic style is, I still felt like scenes were missing, moments to make sense of the friends they have now, bits of “where did that come from?” that bump for a second. But ultimately, the propulsion of this journey comes from the fact that it is true; everyone involved brings us to the intersection of the personal and the political.
At the same time, all I had to do was look up from my computer to realize that, as important as Iván and Gerardo’s love story seems in the world of the film, in a real world of petty autocrats presiding over the biggest health crisis in a century, theirs would be the last considered. And that’s what shatters.
I wept some good tears, and then I turned to my emails with Per, full of possible dates for his return, more CDC reports, forwarded articles, rescheduled flights, worrisome layovers, conflicting instructions for protection from a divided government.
You’re on your own here. You’re the last considered.
EL FIN SIN FIN
I Carry You With Me ends in its chosen style, with the fluttering of memory abounding, but now each thin sheeting of remembrance properly carries weight. Ewing frames just the right images to provoke a wistfulness for a gentler world, and then uses a familiar but incredibly effective documentary technique which allowed me to move, finally, into catharsis. I won’t say what it was, but it released all I’d pent up: the beauty, the representation, the story which isn’t over at the film’s end. Iván and Gerardo, for all their travails, were good company, and somehow it consoles me to know their story is still unfolding. But like a hundred million displaced persons, there is no guarantee of resolution.
In October of 2020, Per and I were coordinating the logistics of reuniting. I was concerned, but put it down. The virus seemed to be waning, an election was my focus, and I listened to podcasts about how to maintain a relationship during the pandemic, wondering if the me who longed to live with my husband again would, true to human nature, soon be complaining about whether he borrowed my sneakers and widened them out.
In November, I stocked the fridge. I bought new plants. Soon we’d be on a less lonely sofa, watching online film festivals together. He was scheduled to fly back the third week of November. I noted the crowded Thanksgiving possibility, but his flights kept getting re-scheduled and he had to grab what he could; booking flights these days requires, like everything else, the ability to withstand torture.
When he finally flew home, after nearly a year apart, we agreed he would stay at an airport hotel until he got tested. All we needed were two negative tests; you know, like the old days of AIDS. Only in this case, if even one of us was positive, we couldn’t live in the same space.
On the day before Thanksgiving 2020, I tested negative. Per tested positive.
December 2020: Per keeps trying to teach me Swedish words. “Te llevo contigo” is what I try to teach him, but it’s not translating over a quarantine video chat where he’s trying to distract me by putting floating star filters and Snoopys over his face. We continue the latest in our series of countdowns to reunion.
But then, after several days of normal temps, he had a fever spike. Reset the clock on worry and cohabitation. I still have not hugged him, but I leave him coffee and sandwiches outside the motel deck door. I wait until he comes to the window, waves. Hand upon the glass stuff. Separation. I flash on Iván and Gerardo, smiling with desire on their daybreak balcony. What did they risk not knowing because they knew they wanted each other?
Soon, Per and I will somehow mark our anniversary, that misty night when people lined the Venice canal sidewalks with candles and sparklers as we said our vows. What I want these days has been burnished: just to walk up the bridge with him. Or even look out towards it from our window.
I think of I Carry You With Me (Te Llevo Contigo) and its urgent theme: even at a time when we need to focus our lens on the temperature of our planet, on the temperature of our racial equity, and on the temperature checks we get everywhere we go, we still need to relieve the inflamed ache of injustice migrants live with every day, no vaccine for that on the horizon. In the end, the film posits a simple but devastating question: shouldn’t people who manage to find a calm love in this world be able to shelter in it together?
As I walk away from Per’s motel window, I turn to look back, but he’s already slipped behind plastic white curtains. They sway a bit, then resettle into a form that fits the rectangular pane.