Demian Bichir learned an important lesson when he left his native Mexico to launch a U.S. acting career and ended up working in a Mexican restaurant in New York: How to live the invisible life of an illegal immigrant with dignity.
It's a subtle quality he brings to his Oscar-nominated role of Los Angeles gardener Carlos Galindo in the movie "A Better Life."
Like Galindo, Bichir came to the U.S. illegally. The U.S. amnesty program in 1986 put him on the road to a Green Card. The character he plays is not so lucky, trying to climb the rungs from day worker to owner of a gardening business while keeping his American-born teenage son from street gangs.
"It was important for me to relate to that time when I arrived in New York," Bichir told The Associated Press. "Carlos Galindo's dignity is similar to all those 11 million undocumented workers in U.S. They live their lives with ... that power and that passion, and they never give up. That's me."
The result brought the first best actor nomination for a Mexican native since Anthony Quinn 47 years ago. Bichir is up against big-name stars Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Gary Oldman, as well as Jean Dujardin in Sunday's ceremony.
Until now, the 48-year-old Bichir has probably been Mexico's most successful low-profile Hollywood actor, having landed string of television and movie parts. American audiences may know him as Esteban Reyes, the raspy-voiced, corrupt Tijuana mayor and love interest of Mary-Louise Parker in the popular television series "Weeds."
The Oscar nod has brought him fame, even if "A Better Life" did not do well at the box office. It now has been getting a bit of a second life in downloads and rentals since the nomination.
He said the distinction won't change him as a person or an actor, though it may bring more opportunities to work with artists he admires. The tall, bearded Bichir, whose impishness comes through even sitting in a hard chair for a formal interview, said he'd rather not name names — then artfully dropped two big ones.
"If I say Woody Allen, and Jim Jarmusch hears I didn't mention him, then he won't call me," he said. "And I want to work with him, too, right?"
Bichir grew up in a theater family that could be considered the Barrymores of Mexico, without the curse, though Bichir has made known his love for tequila. He joked in a press conference after the nomination that he will be carrying a flask on Oscar night.
He is the second of three brothers, all actors, who are so ubiquitous in Mexican theater and film that MTV once created a category for its Mexico awards, "Best Bichir in a Movie."
Bichir currently stars in a Mexican theater version of "Swimming With Sharks" as the lead, nightmare movie mogul Buddy Ackerman. The play is directed by his younger brother, Bruno. All three (the third brother is Odiseo) will be the voices of three inmate pigs in the upcoming animated Mexican film.
Before the brothers' fame, they were part of a middle class family headed by theater director Alejandro Bichir and actress Maricruz Najera.
Bichir first dreamed of being a professional soccer player. His mother recently told the Mexican newspaper El Universal that he was always tearing through the knees of his pants playing in the streets of Tlatelolco, a Mexico City neighborhood famous both as an ancient Aztec market and the scene of a 1968 student massacre.
Instead, he started acting, landing a role in the Mexican soap opera "Rina" at age 14.
Bichir headed to New York at age 21 or 22, he said, to expand his experience as an actor. He ended up busing tables at the Rosa Mexicana, the hardest work he said he has ever done. It was there he learned to make guacamole, something he said his mother did growing up.
"She made delicious guacamole and I never gave it much thought," he said.
The key to his recipe is chopping the avocado. No smashing.
After a short time he moved to Los Angeles, without success, and returned to Mexico, where he starred in films such as "Hasta Morir" (Until Death), which won him an Ariel award, the Mexican equivalent of an Oscar, and the comedy hit "Sexo, Pudor y Lagrimas," (Sex, Shame and Tears). Among dozens of roles, he played Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence, in "Hidalgo: The Story Never Told," released during Mexico's 2010 bicentennial.
His Hollywood roles started with the television movie "The Time of Butterflies" with Mexican actress Salma Hayek in 2001 and include playing Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh's "Che" in 2008, in addition to the recurring role on "Weeds."
Bichir has said in previous interviews that he thought he was reading for director Chris Weitz's "Twilight" vampire series when Weitz proposed a project about a gardener.
"A Better Life" is the first major Hollywood studio treatment of the plight of illegal immigrants, though they have been in the employ of movie executives and stars for decades. Bichir has compared the film to "Philadelphia" as a work that could start to change attitudes toward illegal immigrants the way Tom Hank's Oscar-winning performance perceptions around homosexuality and AIDS.
Mexican migration to the U.S. has dropped by 83 percent since its peak in 2007, when an estimated 500,000 people went to the U.S., according to the Mexican census agency. Still, people in the U.S. and Mexico, including Bichir, are urging President Barack Obama to tackle immigration reform for the millions who already live there and, like Carlos Galindo, stay below the radar to survive.
Bichir says it will take more than one film to change attitudes about the community.
"We lost the first round at the box office. This film did not become a huge hit," Bichir said. "They need to make these types of films important and a success to talk about some real commitment."
Bichir has done what his more famous counterparts, such as Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, haven't: win an Oscar nomination. Salma Hayek was nominated in 2003 for her role as Frida Kahlo.
The last male Mexican native to do so was Anthony Quinn, who was born in the border state of Chihuahua, though he grew up in the U.S. Quinn was nominated, for "Zorba the Greek" in 1964. He also won two best supporting actor awards for "Viva Zapata!" and "Lust for Life."
To have the same distinction as Quinn is "surreal," Bichir said.
"Everyone knows him, everyone loves him and he has always been a pride for Mexico," he said. "All I can say is that I wish I had that career, that at the end of my life I would have had at least a little bit of it ... and I hope it won't take another 48 years to have a Mexican nominated."