Julio Torres’s “Problemista” Is Inspired By His Own Story

We live in a society that insists if you work hard, you can probably achieve the goals you’ve set for yourself. But “Problemista,” the first feature film by writer and comedian Julio Torres, which is now in theaters worldwide, poses the question: is working hard always enough? Loosely based off of Torres’s own immigration experience, the film follows Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador struggling to make his dream a reality in New York City who loses his job and desperately needs to secure a sponsor to stay in the States. Even after taking a freelance assistant gig with an erratic art critic named Elizabeth (played by Tilda Swinton), Alejandro (played by Torres) finds himself in one of the most relentless and nightmarish mazes of American bureaucracy — the US immigration system.

“I think that I’ve always been fascinated with how soulless and how isolating bureaucracy can be, and I think different people experience that differently,” Torres tells PS. “This is the way in which I experienced it. But the term ‘American dream’ wasn’t really a term I was thinking about when writing this. I just wrote something that I felt was true and that felt honest — emotionally honest.”

Before his days writing “Saturday Night Live” skits, landing his first HBO standup comedy special “My Favorite Shapes,” and writing and starring in HBO’s “Los Espookys,” Torres, like his film’s protagonist, went through his own nightmarish immigration journey. He left his native country of El Salvador and moved to New York to pursue his dreams of being a filmmaker and enrolled in The New School, where he studied film writing. As an international student with no work visa, Torres relied on on-campus jobs or occasional, low-paying odd jobs he’d find on Craig’s List. The limitations that came with what he often refers to as the “invisible bureaucracy guardrails within the US immigration system” left him feeling hopeless and isolated.

But Torres wants to make something clear to viewers — he didn’t create this film to fill a diversity quota or even with the intention of creating a film that represented the experience of a Central American immigrant (a narrative we don’t often, if ever, see). He created this film to simply mirror his own experiences.

“It’s sort of what happens when different kinds of people get to make movies; you get to hear all these different kinds of stories,” he says. “It’s not like I set out and thought about, ‘What’s a list of interesting topics?’ This is just something very close to me, and I really honestly was not thinking about how universal or relatable or not relatable the movie would be. I just made it and felt it could go either way. But people seem to be connecting with it.”

It’s a similar approach many other Latine actors, writers, and storytellers have been trying to take. They don’t want to take on roles or create films for the sake of representation. Writing films or shows or taking on roles marketed as “Latine” projects often comes with the pressure to represent an entire community and the risk of coming off as inauthentic. These days, Latine actors and storytellers are more interested in creating art that mirrors or speaks to their real-life experiences, with the hope that it resonates with audiences — regardless of their background.

“Not just diversity like cosmetically — not just like for the poster,” Torres says. “Just diversity of thought. Diversity of opinion. Diversity of experience. Diversity of styles, too, because movies for the longest time or sometimes still feel like they’re all the same. And it’s because we’re abiding by the same rules. But different parts of the world tell stories in different ways and so I’ve actually been reflecting a lot about that . . . I feel like this movie is so full of stuff and it’s maybe because that’s a Latin American/Central American sensibility.”

As someone who has experienced what it means to work hard and still hit a wall because of a broken system, Torres deeply relates to and empathizes with the frustration that comes with being an immigrant living in the States. If audiences take anything away from the film, he hopes it encourages both curiosity and empathy for folks in similar situations to Alejandro.

“Sometimes I feel like I made the movie, and now people should open it like a little treasure chest and take whatever they like. And if they don’t like anything, they can go ahead and close the treasure chest,” he says. “But if I can be a drop in the bucket of just advocating for empathy and encouraging people to look at those around them and try to think about their perspective — not only would they gain some context in terms of where other people are coming from, but it would help make life feel a little less lonely.”

Johanna Ferreira is the content director for POPSUGAR Juntos. With more than 10 years of experience, Johanna focuses on how intersectional identities are a central part of Latine culture. Previously, she spent close to three years as the deputy editor at HipLatina, and she has freelanced for numerous outlets including Refinery29, O Magazine, Allure, InStyle, and Well+Good. She has also moderated and spoken on numerous panels on Latine identity.

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