Texas Connect


Iliana Sosa tells her family’s legacy through an award-winning documentary

Old man standing in cemetery
Julian Moreno visits a cemetery in “What We Leave Behind.” Photo courtesy of Emma Miller of Marcona Media

In 2014, Iliana Sosa borrowed a camera, hopped on a bus with her mother and grandfather, and documented her grandfather’s monthly 17-hour trip from Durango, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. 

The journey sparked a seven-year film project titled, “What We Leave Behind.” The documentary follows Sosa’s grandfather, Julián Moreno, as he unveils his relationship with the U.S. and his homeland, Mexico. 

“We’re just an American family who happen to live on different sides of the border, and are dealing with these circumstances of not being able to be together,” Sosa says. “I hope (the film) broadens people’s eyes to what an American family looks like.”

Sosa’s grandfather worked throughout the U.S. as a farmhand during the Bracero Program. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. allowed millions of Mexican men to cross the border legally for short-term agricultural labor. Later in life, Julián’s main connection to the U.S. was his extended family. He took the monthly journey across the border for 20 years to see them. 

“What We Leave Behind” premiered in March of 2022 at the SXSW Film Festival and won both the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award and the Fandor New Voices Award. The film is available in select theaters and on Netflix in the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 

For Sosa, an assistant professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin, this documentary is not just a labor of love — it is also a momentous achievement, preceded by a 10-year grind of freelance filmmaking. 

“(Filming) was a slow process in the sense that I didn’t have money at the beginning and then I was applying for a lot of grants,” Sosa says. “Slowly but surely, I got funding and support to really make the project happen.” 

Iliana Sosa sits with her grandfather at a dining room table. Photo courtesy of Iliana Sosa

“What We Leave Behind” studies the themes of labor and family between two different countries. Sosa’s identity as a Mexican American inspires her work’s exploration of how children of immigrant families navigate the duality of their identities.  

“I’m really drawn to hybridity, and not being from one place or another, but how do you adapt as a child of immigrant parents,” Sosa says. “I feel very American, but I’m also very Mexican. How do you straddle (that) culturally and linguistically?” 

Her grandfather’s story stems from a deep seed of love and pride toward her family and her Mexican heritage. Isidore Bethel, editor and co-producer of the film, says Sosa’s adoration is in part what drew him to work with her.

“The thing that I found so magnetic about Iliana from the get-go was that her family was only a source of pride, beauty, poetry and spiritual grounding,” he says.

Sosa became interested in filmmaking as an undergraduate student at Southwestern University when her mentor and Latin American history professor, Daniel Castro, screened the film “Central Station” in class. Encouraged by Castro, Sosa attended film school at UCLA and graduated with an Mater of Fine Arts in film production and directing.

Later, teaching became another of Sosa’s passions. She discovered her love of working with students while lecturing at The University of Texas at El Paso from 2019-2020. Sosa began her job as an assistant professor at UT Austin in the fall of 2020. She teaches documentary and narrative fiction classes to both undergraduate and graduate students. 

“I don’t see (teaching) as a job,” Sosa says. “I love seeing students develop their own voice. That’s something I try to encourage. I wish I had followed my own intuition and voice more when I was in school.” 

Iliana Sosa on the set of “What We Leave Behind.” Photo courtesy of Iliana Sosa

 Emma Miller, the producer of “What We Leave Behind,” praised Sosa’s collaborative nature. She says Sosa trusted both her and editor Bethel with the documentary’s overall vision. 

“(Sosa is) very intuitive and knows what feels right to her, but she really allows for collaborators, space and trust,” Miller says. “I think often the best directors can lead in a way that brings out the best in those they’re working with, and that’s true of her.” 

Bethel says Sosa felt something was missing when they viewed the cut late in the editing process — she wanted it to properly convey what Durango felt like. Months later, Sosa’s intuition remained strong, and they decided to include shots of the landscape in Durango. During that scene, Sosa explains her grandfather’s connection to the land, an intimate element that helped wrap the film. 

“What We Leave Behind” holds an even deeper meaning for Sosa now that her grandfather has died. Although he never got a chance to see it, Sosa says, she thinks her grandfather would be amazed at the film and its positive response. 

Sosa says she hopes the film will provoke viewers to reflect on what they value. She wants the documentary to touch on growing closer to family and to expand people’s ideas of a typical American family. 

“I’m forever indebted to him,” Sosa says. “It’s beautiful and bittersweet because I wish he were here to see (the film and its response), but at the same time I’m just honored that I was able to do it.” 

Julian Moreno and workers take a midday break in “What We Leave Behind.” Photo courtesy of Emma Miller of Marcona Media