By Chris Byrd
NEW YORK (CNS) — Catholic themes and imagery prevail in PBS’ new documentary “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” The film, a topical look at issues surrounding immigration, debuts Monday, April 15, 8-10 p.m. (central time). Broadcast times may vary, though, so viewers should consult their local listings.
A joint production of “Independent Lens,” “Frontline” and the Latino culture series “Voces,” the raw, personally intimate program is written, produced and directed by David Sutherland. In it, Sutherland and his crew join Marine Corps veteran Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Perez in 2014, the fourth year of her struggle to secure husband Marcos’ legal return to the United States.
The Mexican national, who had been living in the country without documentation, was deported after being arrested in a traffic stop. If he attempts to return to the county illegally before 2020, we learn, the United States could bar the 43-year-old permanently.
As “Marcos” opens, Elizabeth appeals to the City Council of her hometown of East Cleveland, Ohio, to advocate for her spouse. Veronica Dahlberg, the founder and executive director of HOLA, an immigrant rights advocacy organization in northeast Ohio, supports Elizabeth.
“Semper Fidelis,” the Marines’ well-known Latin motto — which translates as “always faithful” — helps to motivate the thirtysomething wife and mother’s fierce determination to reverse her husband’s removal.
Elizabeth understandably believes her honorable service to her country should weigh in her favor. But Marcos’ arrests for misdemeanors in California a decade before he met Elizabeth work against him.
Immigration attorney David Leopold, however, is willing to take on the couple’s longshot case. He believes they could prove Marcos’ absence constitutes an extreme hardship for Elizabeth and her young sons, Rocky and Pele. This factor could help bring Marcos back to America on humanitarian grounds.
Perforce a single mom, Elizabeth contends with raising her boys as she calls attention to her family’s plight, which, in her view, reflects a heartless immigration regime. “My family,” she says, “is paying for this broken system.”
As he awaits word of his fate from America, Marcos lives in Mexico City, working as a soccer referee. Coping with the anxiety his separation from loved ones and uncertainty about the future engender, the exiled father grows progressively more depressed. “I want,” he says to his wife, “to have a family, to be responsible, to be a dad, to be next to you.”
Away from his children, however, Marcos can only interact with them during Skype hookups. Viewers will find these moments deeply affecting and gut-wrenching as the kids kiss the computer screen and become agitated because they can’t comprehend why their dad isn’t with them.
“Marcos” features some spontaneous vulgarity, which is forgivable given the pressure the parents are under and the reality of always being on camera. A brief section also introduces Alejandro, Marcos’ brother, who is transgender and can neither hear nor speak. Even as they sympathize with him as an object of hatred and ostracism, viewers will naturally need to asses Alejandro’s lifestyle in light of church teaching.
The film’s problematic elements are relatively mild and fleeting, however, so adults should have no problem tackling them. Mature teens well-grounded in their faith will likely do so as well.
Among the show’s assets are the glimpses it gives us of Catholic faith and values at work. In one of the film’s more memorable moments, Elizabeth, at wits’ end, untangles her rosary beads and prays before a statue of Mary outside her parish. “Oh, Mary, I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” she says.
“Marcos” also honors the couple’s pro-life values — they now have four children — and the critical relevance of a father to the lives of his children. Additionally, the need for Catholics to care for immigrants and pursue social justice is implicitly affirmed.
As marchers supporting the family’s cause carry images of the Madonna, some viewers may be reminded of Cesar Chavez’s protesting farmworkers.
Sutherland’s cinema-verite approach may leave his audience feeling as if they’re intruding on his subjects at their most vulnerable and frazzled moments, which can occasionally be unpleasant to watch. By the program’s end, moreover, the Perez parents’ quarreling becomes somewhat tedious.
Still, “Marcos” presents an unflinching examination of the human impact of a deeply flawed immigration system, one that raises fundamental, universal and timely questions. As such, it makes for sometimes challenging but ultimately valuable viewing.
Chris Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.