A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient from humble beginnings, Pacheco’s story is much like that of Nico, his character in “At the Gates.”

Most weekends, Ezequiel Pacheco can be found working at JK Snack Shop in Watts. His parents, Ezequiel Pacheco and Veronica Morales, started this small business, which serves everything from “bionics” to hot food, after years of working as paleteros on the streets of Los Angeles.

But in the past two weeks, Pacheco, 26, has been busy with a project he’s passionate about: promoting the thriller “A las puertas,” the feature debut of writer-director Augustus Bernstein, where he stars in a bilingual role as a young undocumented immigrant hiding from Immigration and Customs Enforcement along with his mother who works as a maid inside the home of his wealthy white employers.

“I’ve gone from selling ice cream to cooking chicken with my family – and I’m still working with them today – to now making movies and starring,” Pacheco said during a recent video interview from New York, where he was for the film’s theatrical release.

A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient from humble beginnings, Pacheco’s story is much like that of Nico, his character in “At the Gates.” Born in Ayutla de los Libres, a town in the Mexican state of Guerrero, Pacheco was brought to the U.S. at the age of 1. Knowing only Watts as his home, learning of his undocumented status shocked him as a child.

“My parents told me, ‘You weren’t born in the United States. You were born in Guerrero. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I asked, ‘So when can we go see my house?’ They said, ‘You can’t, you don’t have papers,'” he recalled. “I thought, ‘What does that mean?'”

The family lost their home due to financial hardship when Pacheco was in seventh grade. For a long time, he admits, being ashamed of his situation affected him deeply.

“Being poor made me feel very insecure growing up, but now I have a story to tell,” said Pacheco, who eventually found his confidence playing soccer. “I was the smallest on the team, but I was always the biggest dog. I didn’t let any adversity break my heart.”

Growing up, Pacheco had no intention of becoming an actor. Acting found him at age 19 through an advertisement for AGB Studios, a Glendale-based acting academy, that his parents heard on the radio. They first enrolled his younger brother, Kenny, since Pacheco had been left out of the program. But eventually the school’s director made an exception and admitted him.

That twist of fate, among others in his short career, convinced him that acting is his calling.

“God has walked with me everywhere. I’m going to keep walking with him all the way to the top,” he said. “Acting came very easy to me because after so much trauma, this seems to me to be one of the greatest privileges in the world.”

Eventually, and after several training programs, Pacheco landed a job acting in scenes at the Sundance Directors Lab, the annual program the Sundance Institute holds in Utah for emerging filmmakers to hone their craft. To get there, he took the first flight of his life.

There, Pacheco met one of his most treasured mentors, Oscar-nominated actor Ed Harris. Since then, the Hollywood veteran has become an endless source of encouragement and career advice for the burgeoning stage actor. Harris’ confidence in Pacheco’s talent is such that he sponsored him to attend Imagined Life acting school to continue his training.

“[Ed] puts so much confidence in me that I don’t feel any pressure when I do these things,” he said. “If someone like that believes in me, I have no choice but to believe in myself.”

Pacheco got his first taste of success after landing a supporting role in the Netflix series “On My Block.” But just as he was starting to gain momentum, a lack of acting opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to get a job delivering packages for Amazon.

“It was a very humbling time for me that I’m very grateful for because now I’m able to see through the veil of it all and not get caught up in the dopamine of fame,” he said.

It was during one of his shifts at Amazon when Pacheco received the email informing him that he had landed the starring role in “At the Gates.” Although Bernstein didn’t explicitly set out to cast an actor who related so closely to the plight of his script’s protagonist, finding Pacheco enriched the production not only with his dramatic gifts but also with his sincerity.

“His life experience was more than just a part of his character; he ended up being the soul of the project,” said the director. “Her participation allowed us to talk about U.S. politics in greater depth and humanized the challenges faced by many children in our country.”

Pacheco plays Nico with admirable inner resolve. As the white family that takes him and his mother, Ana (actress Vanessa Benavente), in demand his gratitude, Nico questions his intentions for helping and challenges the submission expected of him.

“That’s why it was so important to find an actor like Ezequiel, who exudes a powerful dignity and demands more for his future,” Bernstein notes. “He’s not pigeonholed by the words on a page. At any moment he can do something wild and magical.”

In addition to the emotional complexity of the role, Pacheco also enjoyed the opportunity to perform in two languages through dialogue that felt more authentic than in previous experiences.

“I had a great time speaking Spanish in ‘A las puertas’ because nothing was stereotypical. I didn’t drop Spanish for the sake of dropping Spanish like Hollywood forces us to do,” Pacheco explained. “I was able to speak real English and speak real Spanish.”

Pacheco’s parents and family members were in the audience at a recent screening of “A las puertas” in Los Angeles. During the Q&A session following the film, the young actor was visibly overcome with emotion.

“I’ve seen my parents suffer so much, so when I saw them watching my film it brought tears to my eyes,” he said. “I’m in such a hurry to help my parents financially and get them a house. I’ve never had a room to myself. My brother and I still share a room.”

Despite his personal challenges, Pacheco goes through each new opportunity with the unshakable conviction that he will not fade away, but will achieve lasting success, not only to make his parents proud and inspire others like him, but to leave a legacy.

“I don’t like to have mental limits, because you are what you think, and I think I’m going to be great,” Pacheco said. “There’s nothing wrong with thinking that way.”

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