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'A Million Miles Away': From Mexican American migrant worker to NASA astronaut


In the new film "A Million Miles Away," Michael Pena plays Jose Hernandez, who chases a childhood dream of becoming a NASA astronaut. The thing is, Jose comes from a Mexican American migrant worker background, and he thinks that works against him. Even though he's a successful electrical engineer, he used to work the field with his family, moving around from town to town, not even learning English until he was about 12 years old. But one night, his best friend, Beto, offers a perspective that makes the stars align.


BOBBY SOTO: (As Beto) Tell me something. Who better than a migrant, somebody that knows what it's like to dive into the unknown?

MARTÍNEZ: It's a true story, so it's not a spoiler when I say that Jose does, indeed, make it to space. The movie's out on Amazon Prime Video. It's directed by Alejandra Marquez Abella, an up-and-coming Mexican director who's been learning what she can achieve in a predominantly white male Hollywood system.

ALEJANDRA MARQUEZ ABELLA: Because you grow up watching how a director looks, and I didn't want to feel that I had to become someone else. And through the whole thing, I just realized that I wasn't going to change the perception that others have on who I am. I just could accept myself. And I think that was, like, a big change in my career.

MARTÍNEZ: So how did you want to approach this film? 'Cause I was looking at all the things you've done, and I would assume - is it fair of me to say - that this is the biggest project you've ever been part of?

ABELLA: This is my biggest project. Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. So how did you want to approach just the bigness of it?

ABELLA: I think Jose's story was a big inspiration because I felt really small, you know, in front of this project. And I kept thinking, well, if Jose went into NASA, he walked into NASA - no? - as a Mexican farmworker...

MARTÍNEZ: Literally walked into NASA to drop off his application, as we see in the film.

ABELLA: So that was just such an inspiring thing to have in my mind, and it just pushed me.


MICHAEL PENA: (As Jose) I've applied 12 times, and, yes, sir, I've been on the verge of giving up after each and every rejection. But you know what, sir? Here I am. So you could turn me down again, but rest assured, I'll be standing here again in a year.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And then accepting your origin's a big theme in this movie, because I think for a lot of people that accept who they are, they think that maybe that caps who they can be. And I think one of the persistent stereotypes I always feel about migrant workers is that they're hard workers. But what we see in "A Million Miles Away" is ambition. And that's something that I don't know if people associate with migrant farmworkers - that they have ambition.

ABELLA: I haven't thought about that. But you're right, I think. Yeah. I think it's a combination of ambition and work ethic. I think the field brings an ethic to those who inhabit that life. I think migrant farmworkers are invisible. It's not just their ambitions that are invisible. But I think that we should think of migrant farmworkers every day, no? Their labor and their dedication is so important. It maintains everything else.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Identity is also a big theme in this movie. And one scene, Jose feels like he is the lone Latino at his engineering job. Actually, he probably was the lone Latino at this job. This is when he is trying to figure out how to conceptualize his dream of becoming an astronaut. And he feels like, in his job, that he sticks out, and he consistently turns down his mother's offer to pack enchiladas for his lunch. And in this scene, his sister kind of calls him out on it.


PENA: (As Jose) I already told her, no, I don't want to be known as the enchiladas guy at work. So thank you.

MARILYN URIBE: (As Lety) Oh. Oh. OK. I see.

PENA: (As Jose) What do you mean you see?

URIBE: (As Lety) Nothing. I just see.

MARTÍNEZ: There's this dish in Ecuador - that's where my family's from - it's called bolon - plantains - fried plantains that are crushed up and then mixed together with chicharron and egg. I'll never forget the day that I didn't want to take it to school because it wasn't what every other kid at school was eating. It's, I think, a situation where - I know I found myself in this situation - where I'm the only person in a room that's like me, and you feel like you stick out, and you don't want to.

ABELLA: I know. I've been in that situation a lot, and I think it was a very important experience that I wanted to take to the screen. And that's a criticism that I'm doing to myself and to that attitude that I think we Latinos may have a lot of times. And I just think that being unique in a room makes you powerful. It shouldn't make you weak.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, when it comes to setting goals, because one of the things that struck me in this film is Jose's father, when he was a boy, told him of the five ingredients that he uses to keep focused. What's your goal? How far do you need to go? Draw a roadmap. If you don't know, learn. When you think you've made it, you probably have to work harder. Now, in this scene, Jose reveals what his goal is to his future wife, Adela.


PENA: (As Jose) I want to be an astronaut.

ROSA SALAZAR: (As Adela, laughter).

ABELLA: I think every kid in 1969 wanted to be an astronaut, so he wasn't special because of that. And I think that the hard part for him was sort of landing that idea into a reality in his heart and in his mind. Like, how do I pronounce, you know, these words - I want to be an astronaut - without getting people to laugh at me?

MARTÍNEZ: I think he had gotten to a point where he didn't care who laughed at him. He seemed to say it in a way where I don't care who thinks it's stupid, I'm - that's my goal. I'm going to say it out loud and put it out there in the world.

ABELLA: Yeah. And I think it takes for you to say it out loud to become real. But it also - I think it - you shouldn't care if people laugh at your dreams, you know?

MARTÍNEZ: It's hard, though. I mean, when you have a dream that seems like - so like there's no way you could achieve it or it just seems like, you? You want to do that? It's hard to face that wave. It feels overwhelming.

ABELLA: I know. But I think you should consider that it's easy for everyone else to laugh at someone's dreams. It's not hard. It's judging the other without making an effort of anything or being vulnerable or, you know? So I guess it's such a courageous thing to be able to name what you're after and to say it.

MARTÍNEZ: That's director Alejandra Marquez Abella. Her new film is called "A Million Miles Away." Alejandra, thanks a lot.

ABELLA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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