Iliana Sosa’s family lives on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. She remembers her grandfather, Julián Moreno, taking 13-hour bus rides every month from Durango in northwest Mexico to El Paso, Texas, where she grew up.
Now a filmmaker, Sosa has directed an award-winning documentary about her grandfather, “What We Leave Behind,” that premiered at the South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in March. The film will get a nationwide release on Netflix starting Friday.
“I wanted to document his work as a bracero and capture that oral history,” she said in an interview with NBC News. “So many braceros have already passed away. And their stories have also gone with them.”
Like Sosa’s grandfather, millions of Mexicans came to the U.S. through the Bracero program, a temporary work program that issued work permits between 1942 and 1964. It was initially created to deal with labor shortages from World War II when so many men had gone to war.
“What We Leave Behind” tells a very personal story about Sosa’s maternal grandfather, who after spending much of his life riding buses to the United States started building a house at age 89, in a plot of land next to his rural home in Mexico.
Viewers will see Sosa’s silver-haired grandfather wearing a white cowboy hat. On camera, he looks wrinkled, thin and resilient, made tough by a lifetime of work — he shovels dirt and carries wooden planks at the construction site of the new home.
At times the movie can be slow, compelling viewers to adapt to the rhythms of Moreno’s farm life. And as the new home goes up cinderblock by cinderblock, the camera also documents how his health is declining.
Sosa said that while “What We Leave Behind” began with the idea of documenting Moreno’s bracero past, it turned into a seven-year project that shows his connection to Mexico and how it shaped his frontier-like perspective.
“I think the way my grandfather saw Mexico was that this was his home, a very beautiful way of life, of appreciating time and life for what they are — they did what they did because it was what they were able to do,” she said.