Director Alejandra Márquez Abella doesn't usually make films about inspirational figures, like José Hernández, a migrant-farmworker-turned-NASA astronaut at the center of her latest film A Million Miles Away. The director has preferred making films about "despicable" characters, like in her previous films Good Girls and Semana Santa, until something just clicked.
"I like to say that the story found me," she says thoughtfully while speaking over Zoom. "I knew about José because he was on TV and everything, but I wasn't planning on doing this. I don't know if I identified [with the story] because I thought, 'This is a migrant farmworker who became an astronaut.' And I always think of myself as a female Mexican director, and that seemed like it had the same degree of impossibility. I guess I found some kind of therapy going into the project. I found a lot of inspiration and validation and self-confidence in José's story for myself — going into a studio, pitching, earning a project, to have the source of my inspiration in the same material was a gift."
The film stars Michael Peña as Hernández and Rosa Salazar as his wife Adela. The story follows Hernández's journey from a child working in the fields to achieving a lifelong dream of going to space, even after 11 initial rejections from the space program. Despite all his success, watching his story on screen was nothing he had ever imagined happening. The "only thing" he "harps on" about being excluded from the film is his time co-developing the first full-field digital mammography system for earlier breast cancer detection, though he surmises, "It's hard to put a whole life into 2 hours."
Daniel Daza/Prime Michael Peña as astronaut José Hernández in 'A Million Miles Away'
"It's a surreal moment because this is your life and you're looking at it," Hernández says. "You quickly realize that this is a powerful movie that can inspire millions, if not hundreds of millions of people. I got excited because I said, 'This is lightning in a bottle where I think a lot of people are going to benefit from this.'"
While A Million Miles Away focuses on Hernández's path to space, it never loses sight of the community that supported him every step of the way: his parents, who gave up the dream of owning a home in their native Mexico; Adela, who paused her dream of having her own restaurant; and his friends (the amalgamation of three close pals is played by Bobby Soto), who pushed him forward whenever he was ready to give it all up.
"[Adela] said, 'Hey, I was just your wife.' I said, 'No, you propped me up at the times I needed to be propped, and you asked that all-important question: What did they have that I don't have? Which is simple, yet profound,'" the former astronaut recalls. "All these things make a difference, just like Miss Young" — the teacher (played by Michelle Krusiec) Hernández credits for changing his life — "coming to our house and convincing my parents to stay in one place. That made a difference in our family's trajectory."
Daniel Daza/Prime Bobby Soto and Michael Peña in 'A Million Miles Away'
The sacrifices of his loved ones, particularly the sacrifices of Hernández's wife — who also cared for five children while he worked his way up the NASA ladder — became something Márquez Abella knew would be important to include. Adela is not just a character. She represents so many Latina mothers and feels not just authentic, but familiar.
"I am a feminist, so I did have to have the Adelita's involvement be something important. Latinos have this way of managing themselves in a community that is unique," the director says. "I always say that the world should be more Latino because its generosity and companionship and the sense of non-individualistic goals. But that piece of authenticity to me was because [I] know how women, Mexican mothers, Mexican women in general, how pushy we are and how we take responsibility. We take care of things, and I think that was something that had to do with authenticity that I wanted to have in the film, among other things like food and music — and because I'm sick of watching Mexican representation that wants to please someone else and not ourselves."
To be true about the Latino experience, A Million Miles Away is peppered with small moments that make Hernández's story very specifically Latino: a Juan Gabriel needle drop that will have every Gen X Latino screaming "Querida!", the family parties (one question, where were the chairs with sleeping babies?), the over patriarchal dating rules, etc. Márquez Abella also shone a light on the assimilation struggle many Latinos go through when trying to achieve their dreams, but she doesn't cast judgment. In fact, she lends a bit of comedy with her quiet winks as Hernández himself sheds his assimilated skin. He starts off by listening to 1980s rock and ends up listening to Mexican music as his career grows.
Shutterstock NASA astronaut José M. Hernández
"I didn't want to make a movie about someone who becomes an astronaut despite being a migrant farmworker," Márquez Abella states. "This was a story about someone who becomes an astronaut because he was a migrant farmworker, because what you learn in the fields, in the migrant experience, with that kind of parents, in that kind of environment is what gives you the tools that you'll need to do everything that you need to. That was, to me, the main focus. This is not a story of someone who got out of the fields and became 'someone.' Those people are someone, and those people put food on everyone's tables every day, and that's the most important thing in the world."
Entering an arena where Latinos rarely get the spotlight, the film is one of many that is hoping to change what the American Dream looks like and who can achieve it.
"It's the type of movie, given where we're at right now in the world, that probably people need to see and need to feel good about themselves," Hernández says. "But not only that, be able to walk away saying, 'This movie not only inspired me, but it showed me how to dream big and how to convert those dreams into reality.' That's what I'm excited about."
A Million Miles Away is available to stream on Amazon's Prime Video.
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