Born on the wrong side of the border

In the final scene of Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir suggests that boundaries and nationalities are “grand illusions,” artificial and arbitrary, though not knowing when a strip of snow ceases to be German and becomes Swiss could cost a man his life.

In the opening scene of Cartoneo y nopalitos, the border between Mexico and the United States is enforced by armed guards. Detained for questioning, Julio (Rodríguez) contends that he, his wife Ana, and their two children intend to spend only two weeks in the United States visiting his father. The Border Patrol agent who interrogates him is skeptical, but he is finally cajoled by Julio’s bright and sassy little daughter Carla (Vargas) to let them pass into Texas. However, once the family arrives in San Antonio, Julio informs Ana that they are not going back to Mexico. He overcomes her objections by insisting that growing up in the United States will mean greater opportunity for the children. His confidence seems vindicated when, more than a dozen years later, Carla (Alejandra), graduates valedictorian of her college class and stands on the verge of a brilliant career in medicine.

However, when asked to provide her Social Security number as a routine condition of employment at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, Carla walks away in tears. “Sometimes it seems my dreams were made of cardboard,” she says, before accepting a job as delivery girl for a Thai restaurant. Despite her educational attainments, Carla’s legal status consigns her to jobs as menial as those of her father, who retrieves cardboard from dumpsters for recycling, and her grandfather’s, peeling nopalitos – cactus shoots. Cartoneo y nopalitos is cinematic agitprop, a sentimental drama designed to highlight the injustice and waste in how we treat gifted young people whose only crime was allowing their parents to carry them across a border. It is a feature-length ad for the DREAM Act, the aborted federal bill that would have allowed someone like Carla to earn the right to stay and contribute her talents to American society. Her story echoes the experiences of several San Antonians who came out of the closet to acknowledge their undocumented status during a recent hunger strike in support of the DREAM Act (the movie is largely based on Benita Véliz, the director’s sister).

Cartoneo y nopalitos offers two aerial shots of San Antonio, the quaint Texas town where most of the story is set. Avoiding the familiar tourist landmarks, writer-director Véliz offers images of urban desolation. His San Antonio is a nexus of isolated strangers from scattered origins. In this film, se habla inglés rarely. The manager of the Thai restaurant is Chinese, and a cop named Clay (Lagleder) and his wife Eva struggle to adjust to the fact that they are not in Kansas anymore. Amit (Lucan), a cunning hustler of Middle Eastern mien who runs a convenience store, supplements his income by smuggling in desperate Asian women on commission from American men. Intent on starting a new life in the United States, one of Amit’s imports, Krupa (Singh), agrees to serve as surrogate mother for Clay and infertile Eva. Amit overcomes her reluctance to bear another woman’s baby by reminding her: “It’s a small price for a new life.”

Following La tragedia de Macario (2005) and Clemente (2007), Cartoneo y nopalitos is the third theatrical installment written and directed by Véliz as part of his immigration trilogy (he has six features to his credit, including two straight-to-video). One of the film’s few natural-born American citizens is a bigoted Latino cop who is especially hostile toward newcomers from Mexico. “You’re too nice to these people,” he complains to his partner. “Don’t assume that they think the way you do.” A champion of tolerance and enlightenment, Véliz sets out to expose xenophobia as a noxious disorder, but Cartoneo y nopalitos is essentially a telenovela lacking nuance or surprise. Its carton-gatherers are cartoons more than fully sculpted characters. Separate plots involving Carla, Krupa, and Clay converge awkwardly and unconvincingly. A manipulative screenwriter shows his hand when Carla’s mother materializes as the cleaning woman in Clay’s house, and when that house, financed on a policeman’s salary, is downright sumptuous.

Carla’s graduation speech quotes “Harlem,” the Langston Hughes poem that begins by asking: “What happens to a dream deferred?” Her own disappointment renders her what Hughes calls “a raisin in the sun.” Veliz, who came to the United States when he was 10 and made his first film six years ago, when only 22, is not deferring any dreams. I await a richer, fuller vintage grape.

Cartoneo y nopalitos (Cardboard Dreams)

Writ. & dir. Pablo Véliz; feat. Mayra Alejandra, Nivi Singh, Tom Lagleder, Ahmed Lucan, Jorge Rodríguez Jr., Carla Véliz, Angélica Vargas, Pedro Castañeda (not rated)

Showing at CineFestival’s opening night

More about San Antonio's CineFestival

8pm Thu, Feb 3

Teatro Guadalupe

1300 Guadalupe

$8 (individual screening)

Special festival passes ($15-$110) can be purchased through or by calling (210) 271-3151

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