POV: What would you say Al Otro Lado is about?
Natalia Almada: Al Otro Lado, which means “to the other side,” is a story of Magdiel, a 23-year-old aspiring composer from a fishing town called Sinaloa on the west coast of Mexico. He writes songs about the fishermen in his community who traffic drugs to the United States, and he’s at a crossroads in his life: he has to decide if he should immigrate to the United States illegally, or start trafficking like a lot of his friends, because there’s an economic crisis in his neighborhood and he can’t make it as a fisherman anymore. His story is paralleled with the story of Los Tigres del Norte and Chalino Sánchez, famous corrido musicians, who are also from Sinaloa, and who also immigrated illegally to the United States.
POV: Why did you bring the subjects of illegal immigration and corrido music together in one film?
Almada: I’m also from Sinaloa, Mexico, and I was interested in looking at the economic crisis in the region, which was forcing a lot of people to make a really difficult decision about how to get ahead in life. The only options that a lot of people saw were to either traffic drugs, or to immigrate. At the same time, I wanted to make a film that wasn’t just about the economic crisis in a third world country, because I felt that it alone wouldn’t be very interesting to people. Music is such an integral part of Mexican culture, and of the way that we express ourselves; it’s really the voice of a group of people who rarely get their voice heard in the mainstream media. So I decided that the music was a perfect vehicle to talk about the economic crisis.
POV: What do you want American viewers of the film to know about the people who are trying to cross the border illegally?
Almada: For an American, it’s very easy to look at a typical immigrant story, and say — “Well, these people don’t have anything, so thank god they’re coming here, they’re going to achieve the American dream,” or, “These people are coming to the United States to take our jobs, benefit from the economy, and not pay taxes.” The injustice of all the people dying on the border is somehow lessened if we Americans think of them as people who didn’t have family, money or opportunity.
But that’s not the case. Many immigrants are people who are leaving things behind, and it’s not just the poorest of Mexicans who are immigrating, it’s also people like Magdiel, who do have a home, a family and an education. These people are Mexico’s strongest economic class, and they could really help the country progress, but all these people, who have ambitions and who want more in life, are leaving and it’s putting Mexico in a really difficult situation. People don’t tend to think about that very much.
POV: Music is a huge part of this film. Why was the inclusion of music so important to the topic? And how did you decide which musicians to work with?
Almada: In Al Otro Lado there are three main themes. There’s immigration, drug trafficking and music, and to people from outside of Sinaloa these are three separate issues, but if you say to someone from Sinaloa, “I have a film about immigration, drug trafficking and corridos music,” they would say, “Well of course, it makes perfect sense.”
I really wanted the music to stand out, and the lyrics to be in place of what would be a voiceover narration, telling the story and filling in the context of the culture, the humor and all the things that I wanted to be a part of the film. So that’s why there’s so much music throughout the film.
Working with the musicians was really great. I had the help of Elijah Wald, a corrido expert, in deciding who would be the best musicians to work with, and in contacting them. Elijah did a great job of pointing us to people like Paulino Vargas, who is a very famous corrido composer. Elijah also helped me contact Los Tigres del Norte, who had started playing in the ’70s at a hotel that my family owned in Sinaloa at the time. So when I met them, there was immediately trust and connection between us because our families had worked together in the past.
POV: Who are the corridos singers that appear in the film? Tell us a little bit about their following in the United States.
Almada: The film follows two major corridos singers. One is Chalino Sánchez, a legendary figure from Sinaloa who was murdered. After he died, there was a corridos craze in L.A. and a lot of the Latino kids from L.A., who used to try to assimilate to American culture through rap, abandoned rap a little bit and started to embrace corridos music. These kids started to dress in the style of Chalino Sánchez, with the hat and the cowboy boots, and it was really a way of embracing their roots. I was really interested in the fact that they’re an immigrant group trying to assimilate to life in the United States, but they were creating a new cultural identity, where these kids are still Mexican but they’re also American; they’re somewhere between. The fact that they were embracing both Tupac and Chalino at the same time was interesting to me.
Los Tigres del Norte are different from Chalino because they’ve been around for three or four decades, and they have cross-generational appeal. When you go to a Los Tigres concert you will find people in their 60s and 70s, families, kids, a huge range of people.
POV: You and your family are from Sinaloa. How did that influence your approach to making the film?
Almada: I think the fact that I’m from Sinaloa and that my family has been there for many generations was key both in terms of how I approached the film and also in terms of the access I got to my characters.
For example, Magdiel’s grandfather had worked with my grandfather, so this family history and connection allowed for so much more trust with his family and with him from the start. We also went into dangerous, heavy drug trafficking areas of Sinaloa to shoot, but in those neighborhoods there would be places where my grandfather had built a dam, and so the people who lived there automatically knew my family name. They opened their doors to me, protected me, and I never felt like I was in danger. All of that was due to my family being from Sinaloa, and having had relationships with people from many generations.
In terms of my perspective and how I approached making the film, I think being half American and half Mexican allowed me to understand the sense of humor that I wanted to capture in the film. I was also able to target things that were necessary for an American audience to understand. My background allowed me to make a film that could speak to people on both sides of the border in different ways.