In California’s Central Valley, tucked between the county jail and the shooting range, 100 Mexican-American farmworking families live, love and strive at the Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center. Until every December, that is, when they’re asked to leave.
The Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center is home to 100 Mexican-American families whose careers are dedicated to tending California’s economic engine: agriculture. Yet, due to an antiquated set of policies, families must uproot their lives every December, move out of their apartments, remove their children from school, and travel 2,000 miles back to Mexico for at least three months. Despite U.S. citizenship and decades of contributions, this annual forced migration obstructs families’ ability to participate fully as citizens.
Como Vivimos is, on hand, a sociological analysis of state power and of the construction of second-class citizenship through bureaucratic machinery. But more centrally, the film’s point-of-view is grounded in the experiences of resident families. Through a year in the life of Artesi II, we’ll observe as families cultivate an alternative sense of belonging through ritual and community.
Georgia State University Summer Research Grant (2020, 2021)
This is a film about belonging and citizenship. It asks what it means to belong, who belonging is permitted to, and how people negotiate the systems and situations that draw boundaries around their sense of belonging. Where are their resiliencies and resistances?
First constructed in 1965 on the heels of the Bracero program, California’s Migrant Family Housing Centers were designed to serve those who traveled yearly from Mexico to the United States for agricultural work. Today, 24 such Centers are scattered across the 450 miles of Central Valley land on which are grown 2/3 of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. Operated by the Office of Migrant Services (OMS), a program of the State’s Department of Housing and Community Development, each Center is a gated apartment complex of two- three- and four-bedroom apartments that provides temporary, subsidized housing to families who work this land every year.
But in order to be able to access this affordable housing option, families must remain migratory. When the harvest season ends in late fall or early winter, the centers close for residence. At that point, families are required by state regulations to vacate their apartments and live “outside a 50-mile radius of the centers for at least 3 months” during the off-season in order to be eligible to move back into the centers the following year.
In the Artesi II housing center where Como Vivimos takes place, the centers are open for residence for nine months each year, from March 15 through December 15. This means that by December 15, families must pack up all their belongings and move to a location at least 50 miles away for a period of at least three months. A short-term lease in a nearby town on a farmworking salary is a difficult find in California’s housing shortage. Most families choose a more feasible though no more convenient alternative; they retire their belongings to storage, park their cars in a friend’s lot, pull their children out of school, and return to Mexico for the off-season. The 100 families living in the Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center in French Camp hail largely from Michoacán and return there each year. Though the Centers were originally intended to house migratory families only temporarily, may of the families living in Artesi II have been repeating this same cycle for years, if not generations.
Thanks to generous support from the iMEdD International Incubator, we’ve been able to grow the post-production team for Cómo Vivimos. In addition to the ongoing tremendous efforts of editor Alexis McCrimmon, the team will also include:
In the summer of his junior year, Luis Miguel was struggling to stay in high school. He and his family of four – who work various agricultural jobs from picking blueberries and cherries to pruning grapes and canning tomatoes – live in one of California’s 24 migrant family housing centers.
Tucked in the shadows of county jails and water treatment plants, these centers provide tile-floored apartments at subsidized rents to migratory farmworkers and their families during peak harvest season. The centers house as many as 1,890 farmworking families, mostly from Mexico.
Given California’s affordable housing shortage, these housing centers are a coveted option for farmworking families. Outside the housing centers, migrant farmworkers might reside in less-favorable conditions – sleeping in cars, garages, old motels or under tarps in the fields.
But while the centers resolve the affordable housing problem, they create another: second-class citizenship.
State-mandated annual move
A 2016 survey of the housing centers noted that more than half the families residing in centers across the state – 1,037 families to be exact – have school-aged children, many of whom, like Luis Miguel’s sister, are natural-born U.S. citizens.
In late fall or early winter when harvest season ends, families must vacate their apartments and move at least 50 miles away for three to six months. The rationale behind this rule is to ensure that the housing serves families who are truly migratory.
Most families cannot afford unsubsidized housing in California and thus spend the off-season months in their Mexican hometowns. While in Mexico, the youth either miss school or attend inconsistently. “It all depends where the students live,” Migrant Education Program counselor Laura Aguayo says. “Some students don’t have a chance because they live too far away from a school. Others can’t go because the schools don’t take them in.” This is because they will only be enrolled for a couple of months before they return to the U.S., she says.
This means that each year, school-aged children living with their families in California’s migrant family housing centers, many of whom are U.S. citizens, miss between three to six months of schooling.
‘Moving makes things complicated’
Migrant education counselors, administrators and teachers try to help migrant students make up whatever academic credits they’re missing. But “moving makes things complicated,” says Luis Miguel. “We lose a lot of time, and it’s hard to concentrate.”
The summer of his junior year, Luis Miguel got so discouraged by the routine of moves and having to make up credits that he lost motivation and began to veer off the path to graduation. To help students like Luis Miguel make up credits, California has developed an online program called Cyber High.
But Cyber High has its own issues. “There are a lot of internet problems,” Aguayo explains. “All the schools in California are using Cyber High so the system slows down. Students can be taking a test and it kicks them out.”
Impact of annual migration on student achievement
The move also makes it hard for students to succeed in the kinds of extracurricular activities that can make students more attractive to colleges.
While in high school, Luis Miguel had joined cross-country to work with the coach, Rick Cuevas, who is himself Mexican-born and the child of a farmworker. Coach Cuevas understands the students better than almost anyone, calls them “mihija” or “mihijo,” Spanish terms for “my daughter” or “my son,” respectively.
“Running changed my life,” Luis Miguel says. “Before running, I never thought about my future. And now that I run, I take things more seriously.” But he ruminates on losing his conditioning. “I wanted to be the best, but moving makes it complicated because I can’t go to all the practices,” Luis Miguel adds.
It’s not hard to see how missing a few months of school each year disadvantages students. The Modesto Bee reports 74% of migrant students “were not meeting English language standards and 80% were not up to par in math” in the 2016-17 academic year.
Parent interviews across migrant family housing centers also speak to the impact of the moves. For instance, in a 2014 survey of migrant farmworkers conducted at Buena Vista, Ochoa, Parlier and Williams migrant housing centers by the advocacy group Human Agenda, 91.4% of farmworkers answered “yes” to “Does the 50-mile rule affect your children’s education?”
“What gets farmworkers out of bed in the morning, six days a week at 5 a.m. to work in the fields for 10 hours a day is the dream that their children will have a better life,” Ann López of the Center for Farmworker Families says. “But the 50-mile regulation impedes that possibility.”
López is a leading member of Apoyo Campesino, a collective within Human Agenda comprised of researchers, lawyers and organizers who have for years advocated to end the 50-mile regulation.
This group’s efforts got the ear of the California legislature, and in June 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a provision in the state budget exempting up to 50% of the farmworking families living in each center from the 50-mile regulation.
Under this new provision, families must still vacate their apartments each year and search for short-term affordable housing. But “immediate family members of the migratory agricultural worker” are exempted from the 50-mile rule. This means that Luis Miguel and his family will continue to be required to move out of the housing center annually, but he and his sister can stay within their school districts with one parent, while the other parent must live at least 50 miles away for three months.
Crafting a sense of belonging
In May 2018, driving Luis Miguel to graduation rehearsal, I asked him how he got out of that junior year funk. Without hesitation, he smiled and said, “Coach Cuevas.”
Luis Miguel now studies at Modesto Community College, though he’s had to stop running so he can focus on his studies. He continues to live at one of the housing centers with his family during the harvest season. This year, thanks to the new regulations, he and his sister are spending the off-season in an RV in the backyard of an extended family member.
Luis Miguel’s story demonstrates that despite their many challenges, some students living in these housing centers are graduating from high schools and even colleges.
Such successes can be made easier when housing authorities foster partnerships with local schools. The high school that Luis Miguel attended, East Union in Manteca Unified School District, for example, accommodates the migration schedules of students by offering an earlier final exam in December. According to the school, in the 2016-17 academic year, 100 percent of migrant students graduated. While such institutional supports have a positive impact, East Union President Raul Mora, who himself is Chicano, worries they might also send an unhealthy message to students that “they don’t quite fit the mold.”
For Mora, nurturing achievement among migrant students requires fostering a sense of belonging. Since starting as principal at East Union in 2015, Mora has placed at least one Spanish-speaking administrator in each of the school’s three main offices. “It’s about creating a belief system and a culture,” Mora says. “It’s making sure that when the students come back and see our registrar, that she welcomes them in their language.”
Despite these efforts at cultural sensitivity and holistic education, students in migratory conditions are still called “camp kids” or terms even more derogatory by their peers – potentially fueling the belief that they don’t belong.
But inside a two-bedroom apartment at the migrant family housing center, Luis Miguel and two friends craft their own sense of belonging. Together, they formed a hip-hop trio, 95231 Productions.
The group reflects on their experiences growing up as the children of farmworking parents, their struggles against racism, and their work to craft an identity that reflects their heritage. In a page in his lyrics notebook, the front cover adorned with a colorful calavera, Luis Miguel writes: “Soy de piel moreno. Orgulloso Mexicano, y brown pride de corazon, y en el corazon llevo al inmigrante trabajador” – “I am Brown, proud Mexicano, brown pride of the heart, and in my heart I carry the immigrant laborer.”
The award-winning, documentary series POV has selected Oscar Molina’s feature-length documentary, La Casa de Mamá Icha, as part of its slate for its 34th season.
With films airing beginning in July 2021, POV “reaffirms public media’s vital role as a platform for the people and in sparking national dialogue. America’s longest-running documentary series’ newest season follows artists, activists, elders, comedians, frontline workers and politicians across the globe as they navigate their personal stories and the larger histories under which they take shape.”
My feature-length documentary, currently in post-production, Como Vivimos, has been unanimously selected as one of ten projects to participate in the third cycle of the iMEdD International Incubator for Media Education and Development. Funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the iMEdD incubator hosts organizations and individuals from around the world who are pursuing innovative, ethical, and high quality independent journalistic projects which “earn broad trust” and “have the potential to inform society and empower individuals to create change.” The incubator affords financial and strategic support to awardees for a period of nine months to make significant advances on our films / projects under the guidance of professional journalists.
This award allows the film and I to work with a very dedicated team of professionals who recognize the value of the film and who have the resources and know-how to help take the film forward a few steps. As part of this year’s cohort, I’ll connect with filmmakers and media professionals, many of whom are also pursuing urgent stories pertaining to migration, citizenship, and state power. iMEdD is also generously supporting post-production services for the film.
As documentary filmmakers, the concept of power is essential to how we think about shaping and telling stories.
We consider ourselves digital radicals because we both proceed from a commitment to critical reflexivity as a means of leveraging documentary forms, techniques, and processes toward exposing and challenging power. We recently expanded our documentary practices to include 360-degree Virtual Reality (VR) documentary filmmaking.
In How to Tell a True Immigrant Story (2019), Aggie and her collaborators in the United States use experimental, aesthetic approaches to invoke self-reflective practices in members of dominant culture with regard to discourses of immigration and how those inscribe or reinforce power. In SwampScapes (2018), Liz and her collaborators in the United States and Canada are rethinking pedagogical uses of VR within an environmental justice framework and supporting a movement towards narrative sovereignty[i].
Our projects are quite different in form and theme but resonate with each other in their emphasis on collaboration and a desire to use the work for social change. We proceed from questions like: Who has access to 360 VR? What are the histories of VR and the values or aspirations that have accompanied each technological advance? What are the ethical frameworks in VR? How might immersive storytelling subvert rather than re-inscribe power inequities? What are the environmental considerations of the tools we are using, and how can we foster awareness about the infrastructures they come from and the waste they produce? What new forms and visual tropes might we discover through collaborative endeavors? What can VR do to liberate documented peoples (conventionally called “documentary subjects”) from the form’s “tradition of the victim” while addressing our most intractable social problems? Our process and our questions are ongoing.
Here in these reflections, we (Liz and Aggie) each describe our various production processes, collaborations, and theoretical foundations for documentary projects we produced in 360-degree VR. We describe our processes separately but within the shared space of this article. Separately, we demonstrate how techniques in documentary VR must be responsive to each project’s specific sociopolitical contexts and the nature of the social problems each project confronts (e.g. visibility and immersion mean different things in different contexts). And together, our overlapping approaches illustrate our conviction that, through community-informed projects that apply decolonizing models and critical scholarship to documentary work in 360 VR, we and our project partners might avoid a hyper-realized ethnographic gaze within documentary VR and instead optimize the radical potential of this immersive tool.
Saratoga Springs, New York is a white and affluent town of 28,000 whose tourist economies are maintained by the labor of people who migrate to the US annually. “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story” is a poetic and participatory metanarrative that weaves together experiences of members of the Latinx immigrant community in Saratoga Springs as they respond to increased ICE activity and anti-immigrant sentiment after the 2016 presidential election. The film aims to expand understanding of experiences otherwise reduced to politically expedient constructs while marshaling the surveillance logic of 360 video to interrogate ways that documentary itself has potential to operate, like a border protection interview, to “make accessible” (Trinh T. Minh-ha) those who are otherwise marked other.
In the summer of 2016, while an artist-in-residence at the Skidmore College MDOCS Storytellers Institute, I began an ongoing, collaborative documentary engagement with a community of artists and organizers who work and/or reside at the Saratoga Race Course.
The Saratoga Race Course is one of the most lucrative thoroughbred racetracks in the U.S. In 2015, a study found that this city of 28,000 annually earns $237 million dollars through horseracing tourism alone.
The labor that supports this multi-million dollar industry is led by people who migrate every year on H2B visas from their home communities in Mexico and Central America to Saratoga Springs.
For six to eight months every year, this community works and lives in an area closed to the public called the “backstretch.” Though Saratoga Springs’ high-end economy immeasurably relies on immigrant communities, there remains a chasm of understanding maintained in part by the geographic segregation of residing at the backstretch (and by an unabashed racial hierarchy).
In 2016, I began working with Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, oral historian and Deputy Director of the Saratoga County Equal Opportunity Council, and with a community of artists who work and reside at the Saratoga Race Course, most of whom are originally from Mexico.
Our collaboration holds that the work of creative community can be a vehicle for raising consciousness, imagining new possibilities for social relations, and exploring one’s own ever-evolving identity. All members of our collaboration, including Krystle and myself, are all immigrants or first-generation ourselves. As such, stories of cultural crossing are of both personal and political interest.
Our first project was a performance ethnography that occupied an elite art gallery in downtown Saratoga Springs and filled the space with the sounds, textures, and gestures of hot walking.
Of the jobs available to the migrant labor pool at the track, hot walking is one of the lowest paid and referred to as requiring less skill (though one would argue that anyone who can manage a horse for any amount of time is entirely skilled in a sensitive craft). The job of a hot walker is to cool down the horses after workouts and races. For thirty minutes after every exertion, the hot walkers walk the horses in circles, lead them to water, lead them to baths. From the outside, this labor appears both meditative and constraining. Tranquil and challenging.
Knowing our audience and the stories we wanted to tell, we created an installation and performance that would bring together two rather segregated audiences but in a way that does not reify patterns of “knowing” but asks the audience to use the participatory walking exercise as an invitation to embody knowledge. We also wanted to create a space in which the rules of the space were not entirely clear, in which audiences would need to sit with the sensation of not knowing or not understanding, an experience that we felt mirrors the process of entering communities and cultures not one’s own. To create this sense, we did not alert the audience in any of our promotional materials to what they would experience within the gallery space, and we even kept the door closed to the gallery until the walk began.
Here you see the program for the event. This is all the information people had before entering. No complete definitions, no direct translations, and really expecting the audience to do the work of decoding, which is work that immigrants have to do daily if not moment by moment.
Nearly 100 people filled the Spring Street Gallery for this one-time pop-up event, and the work we produced together led to two more years of collaborations, including the 360º film, “How to Tell a True Immigrant Story.”
Ten years ago, Ele Martinez crossed the border from his hometown of La Sabana in Oaxaca, Mexico, into Texas and made his way up to upstate New York where his uncle lived among a small but thriving community of indigenous Triqui people. Since the 2016 elections, the Triqui community in Saratoga has declined significantly.
In this short film (07:00) produced and exhibited in 360º video, Ele reflects upon the disruptions of literal and figurative border-crossings and the ways in which his roots continue to inform the new life he is successfully building for himself in the U.S.
Reflecting Ele’s experiences of holding multiple histories, locations and communities across locations at once, the film includes “flat” HD video shot and shared by Jake DeNicola and Bernardo Rios while filming with Ele in Oaxaca.