Demian Bichir discusses immigration,art with students in “Southern Border” class

Students in a course on “The Southern Border” listened intently to Mexican actor Demián Bichir on Thursday (Dec. 5) as the Oscar-nominated star of the 2011 movie “A Better Life” talked about the persuasive power of film, the strength of the human spirit and the inevitability of immigration reform.

Demian Bichir, the Mexican actor, on stage (right) with UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Beatriz Manz (far left) and Harley Shaiken, chair of the Center for Latin American Studies (middle). (Photo by Kathleen Maclay.)

Demian Bichir, the Mexican actor, on stage (right) with UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Beatriz Manz (far left) and Harley Shaiken, chair of the Center for Latin American Studies (middle). (NewsCenter photo by Kathleen Maclay.)

As a special guest of UC Berkeley’s Center for Latin American Studies, Bichir made remarks about “Borders, Bridges and a Better Life” and fielded questions in the class led by CLAS Chair Harley Shaiken and Beatriz Manz, a professor of ethnic studies and geography. Afterward, he met briefly with student representatives of the campus’s Undocumented Students Program, which offers guidance and support to undocumented undergraduates.

Bichir’s lifelong acting career has landed him starring roles in a wide range of theater and film productions, including the acclaimed film “A Better Life,” directed by Chris Weitz, about the struggles of an undocumented gardener in East Los Angeles as he tries to improve opportunities for his son, who was born in the United States. The Center for Latin American Studies screened the film in April 2012.

Moving from a role as the larger-than-life Fidel Castro in Steven Soderberg’s “Che” in 2008 to one as the all-but-invisible landscaper named Carlos who focuses on basic survival, Bichir said, enabled him to “give voice to the voiceless.”

And he told the class, “Everyone has a story, everyone has a beautiful thing to teach you.”

Bichir said “A Better Life” has an undercurrent involving the nation’s immigration tensions, but the primary tale is about the universal love of a father. “The most powerful thing is, you have this Mexican macho turn into the best mother ever,” he quipped.

Demian Bichir clearly has a fan base at UC Berkeley, as judged by the line of students eager to snap a photo with him or get an autograph. (Photo by Kathleen Maclay)

Demian Bichir clearly has a fan base at UC Berkeley, as judged by the line of students eager to snap a photo with him or get an autograph. (NewsCenter photo by Kathleen Maclay)

He currently co-stars in the popular FX series, “The Bridge,” which provides a police procedural backdrop for a narrative about the independent, shared and often conflicting cultures and politics experienced by residents of the border cities of Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. Bichir said the show is a perfect analogy for the U.S.-Mexico relationship: “We’re so different, but we’re destined to be together.”

Despite congressional opposition to immigration reform, Bichir said it will eventually happen, in part because Americans rely on undocumented workers for daily help in everything from raising their children, tending their gardens, fixing and serving their food to providing medical and legal services despite their lack of documented citizenship.

“My key message to Obama and Congress,” he said, “is, ‘Stop playing games and just face reality. They (immigrants) make this country better, they make our lives easier, happier. And these people are not going anywhere.’ ”

Although this was Bichir’s first visit to UC Berkeley, he said he hopes to come back, possibly for a screening of his next film. He said he loves the students’ enthusiasm.

Third-year student Cristhian Ayvar, a native of Mexico City and one of the undocumented students who met with Bichir, said their conversation underscored his decision to pursue degrees in both theater and environmental economics. “Meeting Damien was truly pivotal in assisting me to comprehend the importance of following your passion,” said Cristhian, who grew up in Napa, Calif.