As a middle schooler with big dreams living in San Bernardino, Calif., Doris Anahi Muñoz made her bedroom walls a canvas. She painted her hands on the back of her door, with the words, “These are the hands of Doris Anahi Muñoz, and they’re going to touch the hearts of millions.”
As the main subject of the Disney original documentary “Mija,” Muñoz, an artist manager-turned-musician, aims for her story to do just that: connect with children of immigrant families who are yearning to pursue a career in the entertainment industry, yet who may feel alone or guilty about their desires when their households face urgent daily struggles.
The film’s director, Isabel Castro, follows Muñoz as she works to catapult the careers of Latin musicians including Cuco and Jacks Haupt while helping her undocumented Mexican family navigate the green-card system.
“A lot of us, we carry the weight of our families, and I needed a film like this growing up,” Muñoz said in a recent video interview from Boyle Heights, Calif., where wooden bookshelves outlined with cascading foliage and porcelain vases filled the room. “So, I’m just glad that being in this seat as a protagonist allows other people to see themselves.”
Muñoz, the only of her parents’ three children who was born in the United States, grew up playing saxophone and violin in a family of Evangelicals who hoped she would use her talents to become a worship leader. During the summer after her sophomore year of college, Ed Sheeran, with a nod, invited her onstage to sing along to his hit single “Lego House” at a radio event, reigniting her passion for music.
She wrote songs and performed live for a while, but she realized that she was uncomfortable in the spotlight and would rather work behind the scenes. Her first major project on her own was managing Cuco, a bedroom-pop artist who broke out by staying true to his Mexican American heritage and making music for Latino kids who felt unseen.
The film traces Muñoz’s early work with Cuco as she orchestrates his sold-out concerts and helps him land a seven-figure record deal, a success that helped fund her parents’ application to become permanent residents of the U.S.
When the pandemic hits and (spoiler alert!) Muñoz must cope with the pressure of splitting with Cuco, she rediscovers her purpose in Jacks Haupt, an indie singer-songwriter from Dallas who, like many young artists, has struggled to find a wider audience.
Haupt, 22, grew up listening to Joe Bataan’s “Mujer Mía” and other Latin soul classics in her Chicano household, and also took inspiration from Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin. Haupt’s bilingual music has since pivoted to a more electronic, trip-hop sound, and she often sings about heartbreak and mental health.
Haupt calls music her diary, and it has been a support system for her over the years. But at the beginning of her musical career, she said she lacked the support of her family. “Working in the arts as a photographer, videographer, immigrant, POC parents are more like, ‘This isn’t making money,’” Haupt said in a video interview from Dallas.
Building a career in the arts can take money and time — resources that are in short supply for immigrant families facing challenges like navigating the path to citizenship and finding financial footing. The film documents Muñoz’s tight-knit bond with her family: expressing gratitude during a Thanksgiving meal, taking trips to visit her brother, who was deported to Tijuana, Mexico, and the ongoing battle for her parents’ green cards.
“For those who feel alone in their process, I want this film to hold them,” Muñoz said. “I had big dreams about my family reuniting and coming together and hopefully telling their story one day as a kid.”
The “Mija” director Castro’s credits include the documentary shorts “USA v Scott,” about an American geographer facing prison time for aiding migrants in Arizona, and “Darlin,” a New York Times op-doc about a Honduran mother’s fight to reunite with her son after they were divided by the U.S. border detention policy. Castro said she was drawn to Muñoz and Haupt’s stories as an indie music lover who recognized a lack of representation for Latin artists in that world.
“I just became really interested in the ways that Doris, Cuco and the entire community were really trying to figure out a place for themselves in this exact musical space that I had grown up listening to,” Castro said.
The film shifts from Haupt’s dreamy onstage performances and Los Angeles recording sessions to a heated phone conversation with her mother about what is traditionally considered profitable work. Castro said the conversation was reminiscent of ones she had held with her own mother, in moments when she felt guilty for not living up to expectations.
“My ambition and my career is rooted in a sense of responsibility for the sacrifices that my parents made for me,” she said.
“I hope people, especially Latinx viewers and viewers of color, will come away from the film feeling a sense of hope,” Castro added, “feeling a sense of security that pursuing creative careers is a worthwhile ambition, and that it can pay off with hard work and tenacity.”
In the time since “Mija” was filmed, Muñoz has closed her management company and has begun releasing her own music under her artist name, Doris Anahí. Last week, she performed at the film’s premiere in Central Park, as did Haupt. (The film opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Aug. 5, and will come to Disney+ on Sept. 16.)
“Our parents come from a generation of survival,” Muñoz said, “and we are a lucky generation that gets to think about thriving rather than surviving.”