The movie introduces us to the father, Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) going off to work in the very early morning. He sleeps on the couch to leave the bed to his son. He says goodbye to his 15-year-old son, Luis (Jose Julian), who asks him for some money for school. The father says he doesn’t have any, and the son jokes, “I’ll jack an old lady then.” The father gives him some money. They live in a one-bedroom house in East LA, that’s more like a shack. The walls are dirty, and the wood is rotting.
Carlos’ boss Blasco picks him up. Blasco runs a landscaping business. The business mainly consists of Blasco’s truck and equipments in the truck. We know that the father is an illegal immigrant. They do landscaping for a rich family, whose house is in a gated estate. We see him working, cutting branches, digging soil, etc. We learned that Blasco has told Carlos that he has earned enough money to return to Mexico, and is going to sell the truck with the equipments and the client list (thus the entire business), and has given Carlos the opportunity to purchase the truck. At one point, he and Blasco need to trim the fronds of a palm tree. The owner of the house watches besides them, asking, don’t you need a cherry picker, and do you have insurance? Carlos says they’ll do it the “Mexican way” and climbs up the tree by strapping a belt to the tree, clipping cleats onto his shoes, using the belt to shimmy himself up, and the cleats to climb the tree.
At school, Luis is with this buddy Facundo. Luis’s girlfriend, Ruthie, comes and asks what Luis is upset about. Facuno says that Luis got his money jacked and points to the person who jacked him and is loitering around. The girlfriend goes up to that person and demands the money back. The guy hits on her, asking who are you, and Ruthie says, “I am the one who is going to get you killed.” When he laughs it off, Ruthie repeats that and adds, “Just ask around who my uncles are.” It’s clear she has gang affiliation. The person gives the money back, joking that he was just borrowing it, and hits on Ruthie again, at which point Luis punches him. Luis, Facundo, and Ruthie chase the person with school security after them. They reach a chain link fence and seeing the police, scatter, but the police catches Luis against the fence.
Carlos and Blasco are eating tacos from a taco truck at a curb when Blasco asks (again) if Carlos wants to buy the truck. Carlos says that it’ll be a big risk because he doesn’t have license and if he gets caught, he’ll be deported. What will you do when I return to Mexico, Blasco asks. Carlos says that he’ll work as a hired hand to be picked from the streets, and stay invisible.
At the police station, Luis is in some kind of gang unit because there are pictures of gang members and their tattoos on the wall. A juvenile officer asks Luis what gang he’s in. Ticked off, Luis says none. The officers don’t believe him and ask him to lift his shirt, wanting to take pictures of his body tattoos for identification. He pulls his shirt to reveal no tattoos. Asked who to contact, Luis says no one, because he doesn’t have a mom and his dad is unreachable at work.
Blasco drives Carlos home from West LA. We see images of the disparities of socioeconomic levels around them: they drive past a crowd of surfer dudes (in Santa Monica), some Hasidic Jewish family walking in the street, the suburbs (looks like Beverly Hills area), and then Mexican gangs, which indicates they are near East LA. When they reach home, it is late at night, Carlos asks about work for next day. Blasco says there are none -- he’s going to try to sell his truck for the best price. Carlos enters his house, checks on Luis, who’s not in bed, and counts the cash he earned for the day. Sound of helicopters fills the background.
The next day, Luis is at the home of his sister, Anita (Dolores Heredia). It’s clear Anita has made it into middle class. The home is nicely furnished and her daughter is off doing homework. They talk about the money, but the sister is reluctant to lend it. She haven’t discussed it with her husband, who she says will say no because he is a cheapskate. Carlos returns home to see Luis in bed. When asked about going to school, Luis says, he is suspended, because of “some b*llsh*t, don’t worry about it.” Carlos commands him to stay at home with, “Don’t you dare to step outside.”
Carlos rides the bus to a nursery where immigrant workers congregate. A pick-up with a white driver comes up. Everyone crowds the truck, but the driver only picks two. Toward the end of the day, only Luis and another person remain. The other person, who we learn later is Santiago, offers Luis half of his Mexican bread, which Carlos accepts.
Meanwhile ,Luis is out in a park with his buddy Facundo. The park has a lot of Hispanic gang members. Facundo is making fun of Luis, saying he lets his girlfriend bail him out, and what are you doing to do for money, mow the lawn like your dad, bus tables at Denny’s, or park cars? A gang member, Celo, comes up to them (it is hinted that the gang member knows or is related to Luis’s girlfriend), and Facundo asks what to do to join.
When Carlos comes home in the evening, his sister Anita is waiting outside. They go in, and Anita says that she can’t stay long or she’ll be docked her pay, and gets right down to business. She takes out an envelope containing $12,000 in cash. She offers to lend it to Carlos. She reveals that she and her husband put away a little bit as they can. The bank account is joint, and her husband never checks the bank statements. Carlos is reluctant to accept the cash but his sister insists, saying, “If he you do well, everything’s going to change.” Carlos accepts the money.
Carlos buys the truck with the equipments and we see Blasco smiling and waving in the rearview mirror as Carlos drives off. We see Carlos going places to places buying knick knacks (like a statue of a saint) to personalize the truck. He also buys a red jersey. He sits, tired but proud, watching the car being washed at a carwash.
It’s the end of the school day and Carlos drives up to the school. Luis and his girlfriend are kissing. Carlos calls Luis over, and Luis is embarrassed to see him at school. Nonetheless, he approaches the truck. Carlos gives Luis a present, the red jersey, but Luis says, “I don’t understand.” His dad says, “That’s your team, right?” But Luis says, “I guess.” Carlos reveals that he bought the truck, and Luis reacts, “Good for you.” “Good for us,” his dad says. Luis asks him if he can drive the truck when he’s 16, but the dad says, “you’ll need a license.” Luis replies, “But you don’t have a license,” and his dad jokes, “Don’t say that too loud.” He offers to drive Luis home, but Luis says that he’s going to go study with his girlfriend.
Luis isn’t studying but hanging out at the girlfriend’s house. Some gang members are also in company (they have heavy tats and are her uncles). Celo, whom Luis met earlier in the park, says to Luis they’ll “talk about the future” later. Luis goes home at midnight, his ipod earbuds in his ears, and we see scenes of life in East LA at night: a homicide scene crawling with police, Hispanics hanging out at a corner, an all-night taco stand. He returns home at and sees his dad napping on the coach, the equipments from the truck strewn across the living room floor. His dad wakes up, asks where Luis had been, and tells Luis that he’s going to “grow the business,” so they can move out of the area, get to a better school, and that he “won’t have to work Sundays anymore and be able spend time with you, if that’s what you want.” Luis shrugs his father off, saying, “I’m tired.”
The next day, Carlos drives to the nursery to pick up a worker and picks the person who offered him bread, Santiago. They introduce each other and drive to the rich estate. Carlos shows Santiago what to do, buys Santiago lunch. They then come to trimming the palm tree. Carlos empties his pocket his keys and cell phone -- and climbs up the tree in the earlier fashion. When Carlos is at the top of the tree, he marvels the view, and tells Santiago to tie a saw to the rope tied his waist … only to see Santiago running off with his keys and cell phone, and stealing the truck. Carlos climbs down as fast as possible and runs after the truck, which is racing away. When he chases the truck to the front gate, he tries to flag down an exiting Prius, only to have the Prius honk and drive off. He then runs into traffic, sees a police car, but turns away knowing he can’t ask the police for help. He has lost the truck.
When Carlos gets home (it’s around 3:12 am as shown on a clock), Luis finds his dad drunk, knocking on the door (because he’s locked out). After Luis lets his dad in, Carlos collapses on the couch. Through slurs, Carlos says that the truck is stolen and drifts off to sleep. Remorseful, Luis puts a blanket on his dad.
The next morning, Luis is cooking breakfast. Carlos is grateful, but says he has no time for breakfast because he to go find the truck. Luis offers to go, despite his father’s protests, saying, “This is our problem.” For their first lead, they head to the nursery and ask about Santiago. A person, Jesus, says that he knows where Santiago lives, and will take them there for $50 the amount he would lose from not working. After hearing the location is South Central. Luis is indignant, suspecting a rip-off, saying, “That’s Cripland. You want to take us to Cripland to find a Mexican?” to which Jesus says something like, yep, that’s me.
Carlos calms Luis down and the three take a bus. As they get to South Central, we see a sign, “Too many Mexicans, not enough bullets.” Jesus takes them to a tenement building, but Jesus doesn’t know which room. They are afraid to go door to door, but Luis realizes that Santiago has stolen Carlo’s cell phone, and calls it. They hear the ring and follow it to an apartment.
After knocking and having the door opened, Luis bursts into the apartment. The room is darkened with blankets covering the window. A woman answering asks, what they need Santiago for. At first, the dad lies and says that he owes Santiago money, but relents and says the truth. They go into the bedroom where the ringing is and sees many bunk beds with immigrants sleeping in them. A person who has the cell phone tells them that Santiago had lived here, but has moved to somewhere closer to his workplace. Santiago works as a day laborer during the day and as a dishwasher at night. Luis spies a picture on the wall of Santiago posing in front of a night club and Carlos asks nicely if they can take the picture. The person agrees, and also reveals that Santiago sold him the cell for $40. He hands Carlos the phone and Carlos voluntarily gives back the $40, despite Luis’s protests. After they exit, Carlos offers to pay Jesus $50, but Luis says, only half, because he didn’t produce Santiago. Carlos, an honorable man, pays the full amount.
Carlos and Luis ride the bus to a landmark tower in the photo. (We see a scene of an immigration rally.) They track down the nightclub but it’s closed (because it’s daytime). Walking around, they see Congreso Nacional Charro, which is a Mexican horsedancing rodeo event. They enter the arena; we hear Norteno music, which Luis says he hates, but we also see the dad moved seeing events like horsedancing. (It reminds him of home.) We see Luis is Americanized in that he doesn't understand the announcer’s heavily accented Mexican language but Carlos tells him to listen closely.
Father and son have dinner at the arena. They hear a song and the father says that Luis’s mother use to sing that song when he was a baby all the time. Upset, Luis says that he doesn’t want to hear anything about his mother, and asks, “Why did you have me? I mean, why do poor people have kids?”
It’s nighttime and they go to the nightclub. Carlos approaches a bouncer and to Luis’s surprise (he said that Carlos will never get in dressed like that), the bouncer lets Carlos in. Carlos comes face to face with Santiago in the dish room. Santiago runs out the back door, but in the meantime, Luis,who’s been trying to get to the kitchen from the outside, catches up to Santiago and tackles him. He kicks Santiago on the ground repeatedly and riffs through Santiago’s pockets, to find a money transfer receipt. Santiago has sold the truck and wired the money home. He kicks Santiago some more, only to have his dad pull him off. Angry, Luis says, “you beat me but you won’t let him get beat?” and runs off.
The next day Carlos approaches an apartment, which we learn lives Luis’s buddy Facuno. Luis had stayed there overnight. Luis says not to worry about him but his father says, “I worry about you all the time.” Carlos says if Luis will help him get the truck back he learned from Santiago that it was sold to the black market but Luis says no. After Carlos leaves, Facuno asks if Luis is ready for the gang initiation, which is to join a gang fight. Facuno gives out pointers to protect themselves, such as covering their heads, but Luis gets annoyed and leaves. He joins his father sitting at a bus stop.
At night, they approach a car lot in the LAX area. It’s obvious the lot is a chop shop. We see the lot of cars, a person cutting up car parts in the garage, the security booth, where an officer has the gun on the desk. Carlos climbs over the barbed wires, but doesn’t know where the truck is. Luis walks around and sees the truck, and climbs the wire to tell his dad, but gets stuck in the wires. Carlos cuts Luis down and they move to the truck. They find all the equipments there. They make too much noise which alerts the dog patrolling the lot. It barks, the people in the garage approach the truck, and the officer gets out of the booth. Carlos and Luis get into the truck and Carlos starts the truck and races it toward the gates. The security guy is there with his gun drawn and pointed at the truck, Carlos pushes Luis down and drives toward the officer… the officer at the last moment jumps out of the way without firing a shot. The truck crashes through the gate and onto the road.
As they are driving normally now, Luis is saying this is the most awesome thing he’s ever seen. They stop at a stop sign, only to see in the mirror a police cruiser parked on the opposite side of the road. They turn stone silent and drive away slowly, only to see in the mirror the police cruise make a U-turn. The police cruiser flashes sirens and pulls them over. The father dejectedly looks at his son when the officer asks, “License and registration.”
We see the father on a prison bus. It is stops at an immigration detention center in Agua Dulce. We see the father being processed, given the orange jumpsuit. In the background are instructions of the processing such, “We will give you a five dollar calling card,” “We need to determine if you have HIV/AIDS,” “You will be entered into the Homeland Security Immigration database,” and “We will release you to the general population (in Mexico).”
Carlos meets with a lawyer, who is from an NGO doing pro-bono legal representation. The lawyer asks if there are any attenuating circumstances for a political asylum, but after hearing the home situation, says that sole proprietorship of a son is not enough for asylum. He offers Carlos the option of contesting deportation, which works for only 3% of all cases, but he’ll have to stay at the detention center for 3-6 months. He also cautions, “Mr. Galindo, I must warn you. If you come back to the U.S. through the service of a coyote, there will be legal consequences. Is that clear?” Carlos heads back and is almost jacked of his calling card by a gang member. But he held steadfastly onto his card. The gang member says, “Crazy old man,” and makes a shanking gesture.
Meanwhile, the father’s sister Anita has picked up Luis, and is saying, you can stay with us but we need you to behave, because Linda (the daughter) is only 12, implying that she doesn’t want Luis to be a bad influence. Luis gets ticked off, and says that Anita has left them after she’s gotten her green card, but Anita says no, she owes his father a great deal. After she came to the U.S. (illegally), Carlos took care of her for six years before she met her husband. Still angry, at a stop, Luis jumps out of the car. He (eventually) returns to the home in East LA, and sees a message in the voice recorder. It is his father’s saying that he hear that he’s not with Anita, that all he ever wanted is for Luis to have a better life, and asks Luis to promise to go to the new school. He also says, “I’m going away. You need to come soon.” (About the truck: Luis had told Anita his dad said to sell the truck to recover the money.)
There’s a knocking on the door and it’s Facuno trying to recruit Luis. Luis tearfully hides while the knocking grows more insistent. We see Facuno has joined the gang as his face is beaten up. Facuno, Luis’s girlfriend, and Celo are waiting outside. They leave and Luis quickly packs a duffel bag of memorabilia and his father’s clothes.
Luis and Anita go to the detention center, and ask to see Carlos at the visiting office. But the immigration officer says, it’s too late, Carlos has left. Luis grows tearful and pleads to check again, saying, “I know he’s here.”
An officer pulls Carlos out of the line for the deportation bus. Luis and his dad sit down in a visiting room. Luis gave his dad the duffel bag. He dad tearfully says, “You asked me why I had you. People do what they always do in the village. I married and headed north. Then we had you. But people change. Your mother changed. She wanted more in life” and left them. “I had a lot of anger inside me,” but one thing that sustained him was the son, “that it would make me feel everything’s worth it if you become somebody. Sorry about failing you. I was never there.
Luis tearfully replies, “You were always there.” He then realizes that it’s his father who had been singing the Mexican song to him when he was a baby. The father finishes the visit saying, “Stay with your aunt.” Luis says to his father, “Promise me you’ll come back,” as the guard breaks them up.
Four months later, we see Luis playing soccer in a park and pulling off the red jersey, which his father has given him, and handing it to the aunt and her daughter. Meanwhile in Mexico, a group of immigrants is with a coyote. As they near a desert which the coyote said crossing would lead to the U.S., we see Carlos say to himself, “Let’s go home.”
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