Before I graduated college, I asked my mother, Mami, to teach me how to cook traditional Puerto Rican rice called arroz con gandules. The keys to its authenticity are the essential ingredients and the order in which they must be added. This simple but deeply personal goal—to cook Puerto Rican food—transcended nostalgia and connected me to my cultural heritage. For this reason, the ingredients for success highlighted in Prime Video’s A Million Miles Away deeply resonated with me.
For the average migrant farmer, it is difficult to imagine a life beyond the fields. But José Hernández (Michael Peña) is a dreamer and dreamers are cut from a different cloth. When they reach for the stars, they believe they can touch them. They sincerely proclaim, “The sky’s the limit.” This is why, despite all odds, José believes he is the perfect candidate to travel into space. Based on the actual life of astronaut José M. Hernández, the film asks this rhetorical question, “Who better to leave this planet than a migrant farm worker?”
José’s journey begins as a familiar Latino migrant story, as he navigates a foreign land, sacrifices his childhood to work the fields, and overcomes both exhaustion and a language barrier in elementary school. The film opens with crane shots panning over the fields, providing the viewer with the scale of the overwhelming harvest that imprisons generations of migrants. This is juxtaposed against bright tones that foreshadow the hope that José clings to. Actual shots of migrants and NASA footage are interwoven throughout the film as a way to anchor the story in reality.
While still a boy, José’s family gathers around the television to watch the launch of Apollo 11. The camera zooms in on the reflection of the lift-off in his eyes. Ambition within him ignites an unquenchable flame to reach impossible heights.
Though reluctant at first to buy into this dream, José’s father eventually offers his son five ingredients to success:
1. Find your goal.
2. Know how far you’ve come.
3. Draw a road map.
4. If you don’t know how, learn.
5. When you think you’ve made it, you probably have to work harder.
These ingredients show up against black title screens that divide the film with year markers. They serve as both a reminder of the ingredients and signposts to track José's progress.
José continues to navigate foreign lands as a first-generation college graduate. Though his new role as a federal research lab engineer is impressive, his father observes that José has lost sight of the first ingredient and of his dream of becoming an astronaut. After feeble attempts to get into NASA’s space program, José's resolution continues to wane when his bride-to-be, Adela (Rosa Salazar), mistakes his dream for a joke. After José is married with children, gets a promotion, and is rejected for the space program six years in a row, he justifies giving up his dream for a stable career.
For the Christian, this idea is all too familiar. It is easy to mistake stability for the finish line in one’s spiritual growth and settle for stagnation. But what is the end goal for the believer? Surely, God calls his people to contextualize living out their faith as distinct members in the body of Christ. But even with these distinctions, there is a larger body, with Christ as the head, working toward the ultimate goal of drawing people to himself.
The goal of living out God’s will may seem as laughable as José’s dream. Without understanding where to begin or how to fit into the mission of the church, it is easy to lose one’s way and settle for the mundane stability of life. Perhaps the five ingredients given to José might be of value to the believer’s spiritual growth, as well.
The longest psalm in Scripture, Psalm 119, contains 176 verses devoted to highlighting the delight and the benefits of living according to God's word. The psalm seems to align with the five ingredients in A Million Miles Away. For example, Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”Understanding the function of a lamp is crucial. Like headlights on a dark, country road, visibility is limited to the light’s reach and only progresses as the vehicle does. For the Christian, it illuminates the ultimate goal of conforming to Christ. There is an implication that God’s word not only illuminates the Christian’s goal of Christ-likeness, but requires obedient movement to continually light the path. The fading light in the rear is a reminder of how long the road has been. Psalm 119: 9 asks the question, “How can a young person stay on the path of purity?” The psalmist then answers: learn from God’s word. Verse 107 confesses that life is filled with suffering and that God, through his word, preserves his children.
While the ingredients are important for José’s success, it takes the community of family, co-workers, and a childhood teacher to rekindle the spark of his goal into obedient movement. With adversity every step of the way, he is preserved by the fifth ingredient: when he thought he made it, he needed to work harder.
I think back to the ingredients in the arroz con gandules. While they are crucial, over the years families have put their own unique touches on the meal, preserving a rich heritage while engaging a new generation. When we interviewed the actual José Hernández on the Mixed Take podcast, he was still able to recite the five ingredients that guided him like spiritual disciplines. He also revealed that he has added another ingredient to pass on: perseverance, never give up on yourself.
Psalm 119 also declares that God’s word is the Christian’s heritage. God’s word lights the path before his people and reminds them how far they’ve come. We are called to cling to his word, despite adversity, and allow it to teach and guide our unique steps in obedience to the very end.