What if Stephen Hawking was not a wealthy, genius, white man and an “Oxford royalty” who managed to achieve so much despite his illness. But instead a simple man, one of the six children of a modest, hard-working Mexican immigrant couple living in the predominantly Latinx Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.
This could be the story of A Sacred Journey, a documentary from filmmaker Ernesto Quintero about his family journey since the ALS diagnosis of his then 35-years-old brother Juan Quintero.
The film starts in present days, showing us how much care a person suffering from a debilitating disease, or extreme disabilities like Juan, would need on a daily basis. Alongside a medical staff monitoring his condition, it takes more than 10 people, including friends and family, take turn days and nights ensuring his well-being by nursing or staying with him at all times.
We learn that the Quintero’s parents are Juan’s primary caregivers, and they made it their life’s mission that he keeps on living decently way past the initial three years a doctor first gave him.
“…it takes more than 10 people, including friends and family, take turn days and nights ensuring his well-being by nursing or staying with him at all times.”
We would later see how the extraordinary matriarch gave everything up—her flower shop, and most of her time, to be able to take care of her son 24/7. She went back to school in order to be his certified caregiver and graduated valedictorian from her nursing assistant course despite not being fluent in English. This is only one of the many examples showing us how Juan’s fatal diagnosis changed everyone around him.
The film director himself, Ernesto, had a serious drug addiction before learning about his brother disease, but, in a way, the devastating news saved his life. Juan’s determination to overcome ALS had a huge impact on him and turned his life upside down for the better. He started his filmmaking career by documenting Juan’s journey and being with him ever steps of the way.
Juan was a very active man doing a highly physical job for his own construction business. He was described as a “super dad” of two children (including a son who was also tragically diagnosed with a rare blood disease and has been in and out of hospital since early childhood). He was known in the community as a generous, kind, and exemplary man. Friends and neighbors testify about his good nature on-screen while we are shown various footage from the family’s home videos speaking for themselves. And so, over the years, we watch Juan goofing around with his brothers, being in the local basketball team, doing hammer work on a rooftop, or later, cheering his son up during the various blood transfusion appointments despite having his own disease impacting his body functions and movements at a rapid pace.
It is moving to see how Juan painfully comes to term with his disability by gradually becoming completely dependent and in need of human or machine assistance. We witness how difficult this was for him and his pride as a very independent man from a community not necessarily prepared to adequately help its members deal with something like Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“The director makes it a priority to highlight the importance of proper care or the difficulty to find help for those in need of assistance…”
A Sacred Journey also reminds viewers that, although at first, we are more or less all equal facing natural catastrophes or such illnesses, people from less affluent environments – as opposed to people like the aforementioned Stephen Hawking – will always be less advantaged in the aftermath. And this is were A Sacred Journey surprises. It helps to raise awareness about crucial medical or healthcare issues and is truly relatable to “normal” people, particularly within the Latino community, which is an important aspect of the documentary.
The Quintero’s story will now forever be part of Lincoln Heights as the city granted them approval for a mural by a friend and renown local artist influenced by the Chicano mural movement depicting Juan’s journey.
A Sacred Journey is far from perfect on a technical level and very rough in parts, but it can be better appreciated as a whole as it is very personal and unfiltered. In addition, it is an important project as the director makes it a priority to highlight the importance of proper care or the difficulty to find help for those in need of assistance (especially considering the cost of the equipments necessary to maintaining a person like Juan’s vital functions or enabling them to “speak”).
In the end, A Sacred Journey is the true story of a man, a family, their struggles, how they learned to deal with one devastating revelation and overcame obstacles thanks to a strong community bond and faith in the power of healing.
A Sacred Journey (2019) Directed by Ernesto Quintero.