Espitia in 'I Carry You With Me'
Jun 28, 2021
‘I Carry You With Me’ portrays the American dream in slow motion
An innovative film tells the a decades-spanning true story of a forbidden romance that begins in Mexico and endures in New York today
As a boy growing up in Puebla City, Mexico, Iván García watched his grandmother make chiles en nogada every fall, when the ingredients were in season, and knew that he wanted to be a chef. No matter that in Mexico it takes years to work your way into a kitchen job, and that’s if the restaurant owner’s family members and friends don’t take the jobs first. No matter that Garcia is gay and Mexico’s macho kitchen culture is notoriously homophobic.
He simply knew he would be a chef.
Not only was Garcia able to realize his dream, but now it has been turned into a landmark film, “I Carry You With Me,” that features documentary footage of Garcia and longtime partner (in business and in life) Gerardo Zabaleta, along with actors playing fictionalized versions of the men when they were younger.
This is not an overnight, Cinderella story. Garcia’s kitchen career moved slower than it takes to watch water boil. But if he had stayed in Mexico, it might never have taken off.
“They push you and there’s a lot of pressure” there, says actor Armando Espitia, who plays Garcia in the film. “People treated me very badly on the first day. It wasn’t a very humane way to treat people.” The movie’s director Heidi Ewing wanted Espitia to experience kitchen machismo to give the actor a taste of what gay men like Garcia are up against in Mexico.
And although he is gay, Garcia has a son, Ricky, with a woman named Paola. There is a scene in the film, just as there was a moment in his life, where Garcia is distraught because Ricky needs a new pair of shoes but he doesn’t have enough money to buy them. The pressure cooker of being a gay father in a homophobic culture and industry, and needing to provide for Ricky, proved too much for Garcia. He crossed the border in the early 2000s to work in New York City because, as he puts it, “I’m talented and they love talent over here.” Zabaleta joined him a year later.
In a little over a decade, Garcia worked his way up from delivering food, to washing dishes, becoming a chef, and ultimately going into business with Zabaleta as successful restaurateurs—sending remittances home to his son all the while.
The two first met at gay bar in a old abandoned mansion in 1994, and were inseparable from that moment on. Garcia pursued a kitchen job; Zabaleta taught students to use computers using his engineering degree, never planning to work in kitchens. It would turn out to be the best job Zabaleta could get in the States, though.
The couple supported each other in those first hard years, especially brutal winters, in New York. They learned English together and eventually built a life for themselves around their Williamsburg restaurants Zona Rosa and Mesa Coyoacan. But Garcia’s heart was still with Ricky in Mexico. As of this year, Ricky’s visa application to visit his father was denied. The father and son haven’t seen each other for nearly 20 years, but they’re hoping next year Ricky’s visa will be approved.
“Iván has been asking for forgiveness his entire life,” says director Heidi Ewing. He’s asked for forgiveness for the things he can control and things he can’t. Garcia and Zabaleta have to be separated from their families to create a life for themselves in Brooklyn, where they employ 80 people at their two restaurants. Garcia talks about returning home but the reality of his status means that he can never leave the country for fear of never being allowed back in.
A seasonal dish, served year-round
“I made chiles en nogada when I met Gerardo, and I think that’s why he fell in love with me,” Garcia says with a laugh. The couple’s restaurant Mesa Coyoacan serves chiles en nogada year round despite being a seasonal dish in Garcia’s native Puebla City. “Modern Mexican cuisine is fine, but making recipes from my grandmother and capturing the flavors I tasted when I was a kid is what I do,” says Garcia.
In Puebla City, you can only make chiles en nogada from August through October because the ingredients (pomegranate, peaches, apples, and walnuts) are seasonal. When Garcia came to New York, he discovered he could buy pomegranates anytime from Spain or get walnuts from India, and so on, so the dish stays on his menu. “People are impressed,” says Garcia. “They say, ‘oh my god, this is the only place in the world where I can have chiles en nogada the entire year’.”
Last year, while Brooklyn was in lockdown, Garcia and Zabaleta kept both restaurants open and partnered with nonprofits who paid them to make meals for hospitals, doctors, nurses, and schools. “Thanks to God for those nonprofits,” says Zabaleta. The partnership helped keep their entire kitchen staff on payroll.
From the kitchen to the screen
Like Garcia and Zabaleta’s careers, “I Carry You With Me” has been a long time in coming. The film was born over drinks at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Filmmaker Heidi Ewing met the couple at a wine bar called Xicala in 2004 and the trio bonded instantly. Garcia and Zabaleta joined Ewing at Sundance in 2012 for a screening of “Detropia,” her documentary about Detroit’s manufacturing decline. At the afterparty, the couple told Ewing about growing up gay in Mexico, their grueling journey to New York City, and opening their own restaurants in Brooklyn. Inspired by their secret history, Ewing developed a fictionalized version of the story. Nine years and one pandemic later, it’s playing in theaters.
“This movie represents the next step we need to take as a society,” says Espitia. “We see immigration as a symbol. We are not seeing the faces of it. We are not seeing the human beings behind it.”
Ewing, who is a cinéma vérité documentarian, struggled with how to tell the story of the couple from childhood to romance—from the risky border-crossing to striving in the U.S.—but she couldn’t find a satisfying way to tell it. So Espitia plays a fictionalized version of Garcia and Christian Vasquez plays Zabaleta as young adults. The real Garcia and Zabaleta appear in the third act, which is almost entirely a documentary about opening their newest restaurant Zona Rosa.
“It was pretty hard to open our feelings and show them to the world,” says Zabaleta. “It is not easy as a gay couple and as immigrants.”
Almost everything that happens in “I Carry You With Me” is true to Garcia and Zabaleta’s story, with the exception that it ends on an imaginary note with Garcia visiting Mexico, which hasn’t happened. Yet.
The couple is working with lawyers to fix their immigration status, but it’s as complicated now as it was 20 years ago, when they came to New York. “The immigration laws right now are very behind the times, so we are hoping this new administration can change it,” says Zabaleta. Until then, you can find the couple at their restaurants in Brooklyn—and you can see their story in movie theaters now.
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