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American Crime's Benito Martinez Explains Why Luis' Son Came to the U.S.

Plus: Why he's gone to look for his son

Malcolm Venable

American Crime
unveils Episode 3 of its third, most sprawling and (so far) best season Sunday. This week, we'll go deeper into Luis Salazar's (Benito Martinez) new life in North Carolina, after he trekked across the border from Mexico to look for his missing son Teo (Andrew Steven Hernandez). We'll also see how Kimara Walters' (Regina King) devotion to fighting teen prostitution has impacted her personal life and how 17-year-old sex worker Shae (Ana Mulvoy Ten) will start anew. But the most gripping story is easily Luis' realization that his farm "job" is essentially indentured servitude, and how hard it'll be to find his son against such massive odds.

In our chat ahead of Sunday's episode, Martinez explains why Luis took off in search of his child, and previews a scene that begins to explain why Teo took off in the first place.

American Crime's excellent Season 3 is a glimpse into red state blues
Why has Luis been willing to make such a risky trip?
Martinez: John [Ridley, creator] is a master at crafting characters and their needs and making sure that their need is paramount. Luis needs to find his son. And no matter what happens, no matter what it takes, he's going to do anything he can possibly imagine to find his son.
I'm embarrassed to admit my Spanish is not that good, so I could not understand the conversation between Luis and his son that causes Teo to storm off. Can you shed some light on what was said?
Sure. The translation is, "You know you're just hurting your mom's feelings." And Teo goes, "Well, I'm not trying to hurt anybody's feelings," and Luis goes, "Well you are." [Teo says] "Well, it doesn't matter, I'm going to go anyway." And it's just a snippet of a full conversation where he's telling the family that he has to make a journey to the States because he wants to be a chef and he wants to have a better life. This wild dream. It's akin to a kid going, "I want to be a Hollywood actor." And it's like, Wait a minute. You have a nice house -- a nice everything here. And he's like, "I don't care. I have to go and try this." So that's what he's telling us at the dinner table that he has to go try this. And my wife is crying and I'm upset and the whole challenge is to find out what happens. Because that conversation, that argument is the last conversation they had. And it's made Luis sad that's where they left off. And he realizes he's got to get his son.

To your point about telling your son, "Look at where you live," it looks like the family was doing reasonably well -- they're eating dinner, everyone's dressed and clean -- so the life that had in Mexico was pretty decent, is that right?
Exactly. You picked up on all of it. And that's the other part of what we're trying to say. Not every immigrant that comes here is a destitute person who has no other hope. Some people have a dream. Some people are just trying to get opportunities here that they don't have at home. Not because they're running away from a gang or this, that or the other. They just have that American dream. Yeah, he has a great life in Veracruz. But it ain't New York City, where you can be a chef in the finest restaurant. And in order to get there you have to take that risk.

As all types of people from all over the world have done.

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Are they reunited?
That's a great question. Hmmm. That's a great question, but I want the viewers to make up their own minds so I'm going to say keep tuning in and find out.

Benito Martinez, American Crime

Benito Martinez as Luis Salazar in American Crime (ABC)

Nicole Wilder, ABC

As of now, it's hard to see how all these stories are interconnected. Are they? How do those dots become connected?
Well, the overall concept is about the human toll. Who puts our food on the table. When you see girls on the street, they're indentured to someone. When someone's picking food, they're indentured to someone. What Regina's character is trying to do is have her own truth within that and try to help these kids on the street. And some of them are OK with that. They want to be on the street. They hate home and they're like, "I want to be on the street." We're seeing another side of slavery. Modern-day slavery. You can argue that farming or prostitution or some people that work as nannies -- all their rights have been taken away is a form of slavery. In the in end that's what this season's examination is. Whether we're an immigrant or a person who can live in their parents' house anymore. When we lose our rights and we give that away for someone us to control us, that is indentured servitude. And it's really happening on a large scale now. Our intention this year is to shine a light on it, put a human face on it with heart and compassion.

What was it like filming those scenes where you're crossing the border? It looked intense.
I felt like such a wimp. We're shooting there and when I wanted I could, you know, go get some water. There are toilets nearby. And you realize: So many people make this journey. The sacrifice it must be, the physical toll it must take. And it's dangerous. I was humbled. I was humbled by the effort just as an actor filming the crossing as opposed to people who have done it to get a better life for themselves.

How'd you prepare?
Lots of different things. One of the cool angles that John wanted to explore was a father that would do anything for his kid. So I watched a few movies, like MissingwhereJack Lemmon looking for his son. The Limey which is a guy from England [who] gets out of jail and he's looking for her. So there was different elements of that mystery. And I got a chance to work on some of the farms we filmed at. I picked tomatoes and talked to the workers, got dirty, dealt with pesticides. I did as much work as I could to be in the moment and aware and respectful of the characters that we were portraying.

What about working on the farm stands out as memorable to you?
The surprising thing about it -- and I've worked with the Farmer's Union out here in California before, been to award shows with them, and I'm very aware of the plight of unionization, helping kids get education, health care, toilets on site, different things I've worked with with their organization in the past. For me, working with the farm workers, it was joy. Because these people have done it for so long they're so good at it, they're masters at what they're doing. They have the right wardrobe, they know exactly when it's break time, they share food, they tell stories. The girls are over here they guys are over there. There are these different elements. It's like a cool school almost. They have cliques. And they find a way to enjoy the work the best they can. For me it was just sheer joy getting to talk to these workers and find out how happy they were to just be working.

Obviously you all began shooting this before we found out who would be living in the White House. What would you say you hope for people to see in the light of that context?
For better or worse this story was going to be told as John says, regardless of who's living in the White House. It needed to be told. We need to examinethe human toll on our society, our food markets, our sex industries. ... Now it's looked at in a different lens. But the whole point is to have the discussion. To have a deeper understanding of people and these issues as opposed to sensationalizing. It happened to be far more relevant than we anticipated because of the political climate at the moment. That's the luck of the draw I'm afraid.

Immigration is obviously a big issue in the Latino community. How do you feel bringing this story to life?
Tremendous pride. Part of the challenge of being an actor in Hollywood who happens to be Latino is that you are oftentimes asked to play characters, maybe a farm worker, but he's not a three-dimensional person. He's going, "Oh, Señora, can you help me get my papers?" And that is of course for the A-story for the hero of the piece to go get the papers and lawyer and uplift the person in need. What we're doing with this -- maids, farm workers, gang members -- these are people in all our cultures but they seem to be represented more with Latinos. And what I think is imperative is that we represent them as three-dimensional people. These are people who have families; this is somebody's child. My character, you look at him on the street and [you might disregard him]. But you look at his backstory, he's a successful man in Veracruz. How did he get there? The hope is that we diminish the stereotype and the judgement and start to see people with more compassion. That's why taking on a character like this and making him a fully-fledged person is important to me.

What surprising things are we going to learn about Luis' background?
Well, he juggles. He knows how to drive a tractor. ... I'm kidding. You're not going to find out too many more surprising things about Luis and his background but you will start to understand the world that he's in more and more. Which is sometimes dangerous and sometimes mundane. So there's an element of mystery.

So we're going to see how all these people are connected soon, right?
In years past there was a specific crime that happened and we look at all the people and the elements of the crime. In this case it's not a specific crime but how a country is using people and how people are used as dispensable products. And the modern-day slavery, who's giving up liberties for someone else. That's the examination this season. And the cost of human life. What is that evaluation?

Right. Because there's a body at the beginning. Somebody is dead. Who?
Keep watching. And it'll all become very clear.[Laughs]

American Crime airs Sundays at 10/9c on ABC.