Coming to Term: A Tale of Loss and Sisterhood

La Leyenda Negra's writer-director Patricia Vidal Delgado on the poignant bond that brought her and her film's lead actress together.

My father died in 2008, when I was 21 years old. I was at art school at the time and I did the only thing I knew how to do with my feelings – put them in my art. I made a video installation called Coming to Term (embedded below) and although the language of the piece was raw and brutal, it was no less violent than watching a parent die from cancer.

Fast forward several years and I’m in my final year of film school. I’m writing my first feature script, La Leyenda Negra, about a TPS-eligible teen who fights for her right to stay in America while risking her family, her friendships, and her first love. The main character embodies all the qualities that my father encouraged me to cultivate: an inquisitive mind, a mistrust of blind authority and an inalienable sense of freedom. The name of my heroine is Aleteia and she possesses a strength that belies her teenage years. She is complex – outspoken yet humble, independent yet lonely, tough yet heartbroken. Casting her would not be easy.

I had previously shot a short film in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton that had featured the acting talents of my friend Juan Reynoso. Apart from being a professional actor, Juan is also the Head of TV and Media Production at Compton High School. When I told him how much I’d enjoyed filming in Compton, Juan suggested I meet with some of his current and former students who were interested in acting. This led me to Monica Betancourt.

Monica Betancourt (center) during the filming of La Leyenda Negra

Monica, who had never acted before, auditioned for the role of Aleteia in early 2018. Looking back at the casting tapes, she told me that despite not being an immigrant herself, she was sympathetic to the plight of TPS-eligible teens who might have their immigration status revoked. “It’s scary, [they] don’t have permission to be here and then [they could be] going back,” she said. “Maybe all of their family is over here and they don’t have family over there … When they get kicked out, where do they go?” She had family members who were undocumented and spoke of the constant fear of deportation: “Sometimes when we go certain places, we can’t take them, because maybe they’ll check their papers. As a family you just want to be with each other, but you’re scared, because you just want to go some place and have a good time, and you can’t.”

Monica was intelligent, sensitive and mature enough to sympathize with someone else’s lot in life. If there was any one quality that an actress needed to have in order to bring a conflicted character like Aleteia to life, it was empathy. And Monica had something more, an inner strength that was born from the grief of a recent loss.

Monica Betancourt with her late father.

Monica had lost her father in January 2018. She was 19 at the time and she later told me that what she felt, most of all, was “a big hole in my heart, sad and a little strange at the same time.” In the hospital room, she had witnessed her father die in front of her. Immediately after the trauma of his passing, she had developed a stutter which she said made her unable to articulate clearly. But she eventually willed herself to recover, because she knew that she had to be strong, to be there for her brother and sisters.

Some time after my father died, I remember wondering if things were ever going to be OK again. Dad was always so sure, so steady, so very much in control. Could we ever be certain about anything without him? How would we distinguish between the good choice and the bad choice? Would we ever feel less lost?

The character of Aleteia has several emotional scenes in La Leyenda Negra, but none more cataclysmic than the scene in which she receives the bad news that her dreams of higher education and a life in the U.S. have been compromised due to her immigrant status. Monica told me that, in order to prepare for the scene, she would need a few moments alone in which to remember her father. To find the parallels between Aleteia’s loss and her own. The feeling of the ground opening up beneath your feet and taking your world with it. Your sense of security, your sense of protection, the sense akin to a child taking for granted that nothing bad can happen because her father is near.

When Monica took Aleteia’s anguish from the page and brought it to life on set, I cried. Apparently I wasn’t the only one, but I wouldn’t know, because as soon as I managed to control my voice and say “Cut,” I ran to hug Monica.

We might have been lost, but at least we’d found each other.

From that point onwards, my faith in Monica’s ability to chart Aleteia’s emotional journey was absolute. I trusted her completely and made a point of transmitting that confidence to her every day we were shooting the film. Letting her know that, even if she didn’t think she could do it, I knew that she could. I cheered her on like my mother and my big sister cheered me on and still do, to this day.

Patricia Vidal Delgado and Monica Betencourt at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Emily Assiran/Getty Images for Pizza Hut; reproduced here with permission.)

La Leyenda Negra’s world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival was a long-awaited breakthrough. For Monica, it felt like a celebration of her hard work and dedication. For me, the experience was even more special because I got to attend the festival with the little sister I never had. It’s a memory that we will hold onto forever. Sisters in loss, sisters in art.

Patricia Vidal Delgado is the writer and director of short films Bué Sabi, Isa, Ico, 88, The Hood and Caroline. Her work has screened at both national and international film festivals including the Raindance Film Festival, Philadelphia Film Festival, Curtas Vila do Conde and the IndieLisboa International Film Festival. Delgado’s films have garnered a total of 11 wins and 39 nominations. La Leyenda Negra, her feature film debut, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT category. As of March 2020, Patricia is a Sundance Institute FilmTwo Fellow and is represented by the talent agency Luber Roklin.