Theorizing Practice Writing

Community and Self-Care in Documentary Work

Originally published

January 17, 2017

Around 4am on the morning of December 12, 2016, nearly 30 men, women and children were swaddling themselves in their warmest winter shawls, preparing hot beans and hot cocoa, and scooping up candles, toddlers, and guitars to step out into the Central Valley pre-dawn frost to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A few miles north, at a hotel in the center of Stockton, two filmmakers had traveled a distance to line up their batteries and SD cards, slip on their coats, and map their way in the dark to the Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center to record this ritual. For me.

And I, 3,000 miles away, was marking my own procession, pacing in the jaundiced glow of a hospital hallway, thinking about my brother, my mother holding her vigil, Our Mother who art in heaven, and how the whole damn world was starting to feel like a terrible ward for the ailing. The kind of place that could really use a virgin spirit.

Three days before this, I had been mindlessly chewing on almonds in the penultimate meeting of the BAVC Mediamaker Fellowship when I received a text telling me that after sustaining severe injuries in a car accident, my brother’s blood pressure had dropped and he was being moved back to ICU.  I could think only two thoughts: “I have to go home,” and “What does this mean for the film?”

In 2013, while working on a project to record oral histories with former Bracero farmworkers, my filmmaking partner and I were led by Luis Magaña, immigrant rights advocate and director of Proyecto Voz to a gated community of small homes nestled between the San Joaquin County Juvenile Detention Center and the County Jail. 

We were there to interview former Bracero, Sr. Jesus Ochoa, but once the interview was over, I found myself moving across the manicured grass with my camera, stunned by the symmetries, peering into the tended gardens, mystified by the colliding sounds of children giggling and shots firing from the shooting range next door.

The Artesi II Migrant Family Housing Center is one of 24 residential complexes in California. Operated by the Office of Migrant Services (OMS), these complexes offer agricultural families subsidized housing during the harvest season. In order to be eligible to live in these Centers, families must demonstrate that they are migratory, which OMS defines as having lived “at least 50 miles away from the Center for at least 3 months each year.” This means that every year, families move into the Centers, build a life, and then move out of the Centers for three months in order to comply by this “50 Mile Rule.”

From the moment Artesi found me those years ago, I became creatively obsessed with articulating this space in all its richness and rhythms. I wanted to create something hypnotic, a crystalline window into a world that is not only sensually captivating, but that reflects something of our values, that poses questions about the distance between being and belonging, that interrogates how (or whether) our society creates space for those who dedicate their careers to ensuring our sustenance. In the words of Mediamaker coordinator Carrie Lozano, it was intended to be “an artful treatment” designed for public television audiences. The freneticism of 45365 aspiring to the elegance of El Velador as told through the journeyman’s arc of Sweetgrass about experiences like those in East of Salinas. And I gave myself to this work with abandon.

Documentary is no linear journey. Like the human body, its strengths and sensitivities are case-specific. It responds well to some treatments and not to others. It aspires to precision and control, but in the end, it confronts just how beholden it is to chance.

My winter was such a confrontation with chance. I intended for it to be my last winter shooting in Artesi. I had plans to move into post-production in the summer of 2017. I had tickets to travel with families from Artesi to their hometowns in Mexico. So when I got the call to go home, it felt quite literally that I had lost my footing.

And by chance, I was in a meeting with the Mediamaker fellows when this erupted. A room full of brilliant people who have committed their lives to pursuing those stories that urgently call on them to be realized. When I looked teary-eyed around the room and asked, “What do I do?” these fellow seekers and storytellers immediately sprang into action. Rob Rooy, a filmmaker based in Maryland, remarkably offered to reschedule his flight back to the east coast in order to help shoot two significant, time-sensitive events for me. Jethro Patalinghug, a full-time, professional videographer deeply mired in his own film’s production, offered to shoot alongside Rob. Nicole and Erika offered equipment, Kevin contacts, Bridgette, Carrie and Alcee perspective and deep reserves of love, reminding me that this is the ongoing work of fitting the story into the mess of our lives. It was not unexpected that after a year of fostering community, we would behave as a community. But this degree of kindness, compassion, and extension felt nothing short of family.

The ever-incisive Marj Safinian, Board Chair of the Int’l Documentary Association, writes in the summer 2016 issue of Documentary magazine that documentary is an act of empathy. And empathy, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, offers itself “at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate.”  Empathy goes where it is called.

It was empathy, I believe, that drove two filmmakers out onto unfamiliar Central Valley roads that night, empathy that held their freezing hands tight to borrowed gear, and empathy that invited two relative strangers into a sacred sunrise circle so that while my brother struggled to breathe and my family stoked the embers of life thousands of miles away, a hymn could ring out across the valley and find its way to me. And one day, find its way to you.

Reporting Writing

In a City Where 15 Percent of Voters Elected the Mayor, Downtown Is Claiming Power

Originally published

NOVEMBER 6, 2017


POWER Northeast organizers get out the vote in a still from an upcoming documentary about the group’s work in Allentown. (Photo by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz)

In 1984, Sydney ‘Trek’ Mckenzie’s middle school class assembled to listen to Geraldine Ferraro, a vice presidential candidate, speak to a crowd in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This simple class trip, organized by Mckenzie’s teacher, was a moment that changed his life. It was the moment that he realized the power in politics.

Mckenzie still lives in the same Allentown neighborhood he grew up in and refers to himself as a political enthusiast who is heavily interested in local politics. But the first time he ever found himself casting a ballot at a voting booth was in 2008 when he voted for Obama. “I was registered to vote since high school,” says Mckenzie, “and it was such an easy process to register that I almost didn’t think it would work when I went to vote for Obama. I thought there was no way I was still able to vote, that it could be so easy.”Confusion, Potential Delays as Florida Prepares to Restore Voting Rights to Felons

Registering voters has long been a tactic of organizations seeking to improve voter turnouts, especially in local elections. In downtown Allentown, the League of Women Voters sets up voter registration tables at the art museum, the community college and at the homeless shelter. According to Timothy Benyo, Lehigh County Elections Deputy Chief Clerk, it may be easier to register to vote in the city compared to the suburbs due to targeted registration drives downtown and alternate language requirements that provide materials in Spanish and access to translators.

But while putting voters on the rolls may be easy, getting them to show up at the polls is an entirely different matter. POWER Northeast (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower & Rebuild), a grassroots community organization that aims to disrupt racial inequities in the Lehigh Valley, also focuses on voter registration and voter engagement efforts — during the recent presidential election, they hired people, most of them formerly incarcerated, to knock on doors across Allentown registering people to vote. They knocked on close to 15,000 doors and ended up registering over 1,000 people. However, the organization acknowledges that voter registration is just one small part of the process. For POWER Northeast, the difference between a registered voter and someone who votes is whether that person feels connected to their individual power and their community. On Nov. 7, Mckenzie and his fellow Allentown citizens will either re-elect a mayor — Ed Pawlowski — who is currently under indictment for 54 counts of fraud, bribery and extortion, or put into office one of 4 other candidates hoping to capitalize on the controversy. And if history is any indication, the election will likely be decided by less than 15 percent of Allentown’s 72,000 registered voters. In fact, Pawlowski was able to secure his position as the Democratic candidate for mayor of Allentown with only 1,682 votes last May. Some precincts in the 50 percent low-income and 50 percent low-income city saw fewer than 100 voters well into the primary day.

With support from Solutions Journalism Network, the Reentry Coalition has supported the development of a documentary film about Power Northeast. 


Hamilton Street is the main drag that brings you from the more suburban west side of Allentown into the heart of the city, Pennsylvania’s third largest. The wide commercial boulevard once served as a shopping district for white middle-class residents of Allentown who flocked to center city to shop at Hess’s upscale department store, attend concerts at the beaux arts symphony hall or view paintings at the city art museum. But when shopping malls started to spring up in the outskirts of the city in the 1970s, white shoppers were lured away from downtown Allentown and Hamilton Street’s storefronts slowly emptied. The last few decades have been a tale of two cities. As white residents and their spending power fled the city, Puerto Rican and Dominican families, some of whom were priced out of New York, began to fill vacancies in the downtown district but remained economically segregated as the wealth of the white middle-class was diverted to other parts of town.

Latinx immigrants have reanimated the residential sections of downtown Allentown. (Photo by Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz)

But 2014 saw a renewed interest in Hamilton Street when a massive new tax-subsidized hockey arena opened, followed by an attendant orbit of bars and restaurants targeting those game-day crowds. Today, white middle-class families now park their cars on Hamilton street and wander around the fledgling city center, exploring the fountains at PP&L Plaza or peeking at the giant vats of beer in the windows of Fegley’s Brew Works. But travel a little further down Hamilton Street, past the new Starbucks and the Moravian bookstore, and you eventually reach the Lehigh County courthouse, the county jail, the social security office and beyond that, the homeless shelter. Visitors to the newly aestheticized downtown don’t tend to venture to the neighborhoods that exist just beyond its boundaries.

The city is a microcosm of the raw identity politics exposed by the Trump presidency. There is a large Latinx population that lives downtown in majority-minority rowhome neighborhoods that once housed working-class white people, many of whom worked in manufacturing industries like the now defunct Bethlehem Steel (and the inspiration for Billy Joel’s famous song that pays homage to that time period). White homeowners tend to live on the city’s 86 percent-white west side. The city’s racial and economic divide neatly predicts voting patterns — the closer one lives to the heart of the city, the less likely one is to vote.

POWER Northeast dates back to 1998 when it operated as CUNA (Congregations United for Neighborhood Action). In 2015, then-newly hired Executive Director Jude-Laure Denis, moved POWER Northeast into an office within the city center, where communities most affected by Allentown’s economic depression reside. Here, the organization noticed another geographic pattern: The closer you were to downtown, the more likely you were to meet people who had been in jail. “Within those particular zip codes,” explains Denis, “it is rarer to meet someone who hasn’t been touched in some way by the system.” And there is a distinct connection between mass incarceration and voter disengagement. “You are talking about people who are so busy meeting their basic needs that they’re not thriving,” says Denis. “You are talking about people who experience educational failures. You are talking about people who feed the school to prison pipeline. Pretty much that describes Allentown.”

The ways in which mass incarceration disassociates people from their communities are deeply embedded in larger systemic issues of racism. Spending time in the prison system creates a feedback loop that your life doesn’t matter, that you aren’t important. Hasshan Batts, a healthcare and community development consultant in Allentown who along with Denis, co-founded POWER Northeast’s efforts to engage the formerly incarcerated, described his own experience in the prison system as demoralizing. “As a prison survivor,” says Batts, “I can tell you that prison is a traumatic experience, but the difference between prison and other forms of trauma is that it’s perceived in our society as earned trauma.”

For Allentown, the prison system and mass incarceration are imbedded in the racialized history of the commonwealth. “The prison system started in Pennsylvania, and the world watches us in many ways,” explained Batts. “Pennsylvania recently passed a law for predictive sentencing by zip code and it’s the only place in the country that does this. It’s an actuarial tool.” That means you might earn additional time during sentencing not because of your crime, but because of where you live. Such criminal risk assessments that factor variables that are beyond an individual’s control, such as age, gender and zip code are rife with problems, according to a recent report by the Marshall Project and FiveThirtyEight. Writers Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Ben Casselman and Dana Goldstein warn that Pennsylvania’s algorithm will “in some cases, penalize residents of urban areas, who are far more likely to be black.” And an analysis by ProPublica of algorithmic forecasting for violent crime in Florida found that algorithms were “particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants.”

Compounding the difficulties in returning home after incarceration is feeling unwelcomed by communities that don’t acknowledge the impact of that trauma. “The current power structure relies on the cycle of disenfranchisement, hopelessness and isolation of communities with historically low voter turnout” explains Pastor Greg Edwards. Edwards was board chair of POWER Northeast during the 2016 re-entry campaign. Inspired by witnessing these efforts, Edwards in September announced his candidacy to replace Charlie Dent’s soon to be vacant seat in Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District, which includes Allentown. “The Democratic party continues to ignore” the populations that need most to be reached, Edwards says. POWER Northeast’s 2016 campaign offered Edwards a glimpse of an organizing model that could reach and galvanize communities who might vote “if there were a candidate worthy of their vote.” His campaign aims to build from this tradition to bring reluctant citizens to the polls and shift the “existing political paradigm on its head.”


POWER Northeast’s political mobilization did not stop at the presidential election; the national election was a means for POWER Northeast to engage people in the larger, more pressing fight in local politics. “You want to impact mass incarceration?” Denis says. “Talk about the local district attorney.” On Nov. 8, 2016, as POWER Northeast canvassers were knocking on doors to remind residents across downtown Allentown to vote, they were also leaving pamphlets inviting residents to a series of three town halls to interact with the candidates being considered for the superintendent position at the school district.

In these town halls, canvassers who only a week prior had been knocking on doors throughout the city, were now posing questions to the superintendent candidates about racial equity, jobs training, and culturally sensitive education. POWER Northeast paid canvassers a fair minimum wage of $15 per hour to attend the forums and pose questions. For the roughly two dozen formerly incarcerated individuals who were hired by POWER Northeast during the recent election, this work is more than just a $15 an hour job; it’s a lifeline to a community that they may not have realized had a space for them. “It sends that message to those that are incarcerated that you do have a place. That we will fight for you to create a space in Allentown,” says Batts.

On Sept. 6, Mckenzie and a group from POWER Northeast decided to occupy Congressman Dent’s office to protest DACA. The next day, Dent announced he wasn’t going to seek reelection. A few days later, Edwards announced his run for the seat. When Senator Toomey spent the summer avoiding his constituents who were concerned about his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, POWER Northeast was part of a coalition that held “Town Hall without Toomey,” a direct action that brought the community together to express their concerns, with a suit on a hanger as a stand-in for the senator. A video of the stunt made it onto garnering national attention. In fact, you can see Mckenzie in the video, manning his own camera as he documents the town hall for his youtube channel. “POWER Northeast helps cut through all that crap so you know who the players are,” explains Mckenzie. “It put me on ground zero meeting politicians and seeing how they act. POWER Northeast says we got to keep calling politicians to hold them accountable. If I stop calling, who’s gonna make that phone call?” Mckenzie’s political engagement has grown exponentially since the initial fire was lit at that Ferraro rally in 1984. Since finding his community at POWER Northeast, Mckenzie’s passion for politics has found expression in ways that have brought him closer to seats of power than ever before.

Sydney ‘Trek’ Mckenzie (Photo by Emmia Newman)

So how do you start to forge meaningful connection in communities where the trust is broken? “You keep showing up,” says Denis. “You are a member of the community, and they keep seeing you as a credible partner, and you continue to bring issues of justice to the front and you continue to be honest about where you have power and where you don’t.” Over time, people buy in, she says.


Perhaps the ultimate proof of the power of a single vote is in the very restrictions that the government attempts to use to deter voting. “Voting scares the hell out of people,” says Batts. Consider the Trump administration’s newly formed Election Integrity Commission which seems positioned specifically to restrict access to the ballot among people of color. In an interview last spring with NPR, author Ari Berman explained how the history of voter suppression is rooted in “white segregationists who were not going to give up power or not going to do anything on civil rights as long as so many black voters were disenfranchised.” But Allentown’s voter disengagements can also be a secret weapon for those looking to get their foot in the door. A race that may be decided by a few hundred people means every vote does count. And the key to getting people engaged may be as simple as showing up.

When Mckenzie registered to vote in high school, it was so easy he barely realized that anything significant had occurred. “There’s a huge difference between getting people to register to vote and getting them to vote,” says Batts. “There’s a lot of voter intimidation. We have to pick people up and give them rides, to deal with systemic barriers, police harassing our workers.” For example, Pennsylvania is one of only three states that has over 1,000 municipal governments. “The voter ID rule is confusing and we have legislative districts that are gerrymandered and oddly shaped and so many municipalities,” says Jan Little, president of the League of Women Voters of Lehigh County. “People who move around don’t necessarily know where to go to vote.” In fact, POWER Northeast found that using phone banks to reach people in Allentown was a practice in futility — the transitory nature of the population meant that phone numbers were dead ends in trying to reach those living downtown. Engaging the community meant resorting to the old standards, a door knock and a face-to-face conversation.

For Faiz Shakir, national political director of the ACLU, it boils down to one fundamental question: Do you think we should make it easier to vote? “The long lines, the cumbersome restrictions, the lack of knowledge about the process are just ridiculous in a democracy like ours,” he says. “So hearts and minds need to evolve to understand that the big problem with voting rights in America is not that fraud is too easy but rather that voting is too hard. We need a nationwide grassroots movement to expand voting rights.” In Pennsylvania, the ACLU is working with Keystone Votes to make voting more convenient by advocating for same-day voter registration, optional voting by mail and in-person early voting, ideas that have been successfully implemented in other states.

POWER Northeast combats the misinformation and confusion around voting with a strategy of nurturing what it calls “credible messengers.” When Batts asks people living downtown to identify the role of a school board member, city council or county commissioner, he tends to get blank stares. “It’s a secret society in their mind. White middle-class families understand what the school board does.” Credible messengers, according to Denis, are people whose lives are directly impacted by the issues and who “feel brave enough to actually engage with the issues, from a real place, and in talking to each other, come up with a stronger way forward than anyone of us could have done separately.” It’s a seemingly simple idea — help the disaffected feel the power of their voice and they will exercise their power to vote and to advocate. They also aim to foster a sense of agency among staffers, with a program they refer to as “power analysis.” Power analysis teaches staffers how government works at both the local and national level to “help people identify and recognize the structural issues that exist in their lives,” according to Batts.

Informed by these power analyses, it was not uncommon for POWER Northeast canvassers to cite the numbers of people who had voted in the last mayoral race, or to debate the candidates in the active superintendent search taking place in Allentown. On the Monday before the 2016 presidential election. Michelle Collazo, a POWER Northeast canvasser, spent half a day in the parking lot of C-Town, a grocery store serving a Spanish-speaking population in downtown Allentown, speaking to reluctant interlocutors who each had their own reasons for not voting. At one point, an elderly woman puffing on a cigarette while holding a POWER flyer proclaimed that she had no intention to vote. She seemed, as did many others, skeptical, presuming that POWER Northeast was merely a vehicle for a particular political candidate or party. Michelle spent several minutes explaining in Spanish that POWER Northeast is nonpartisan: “It’s not important who you vote for, just that you vote.” Michelle also explained that she was formerly incarcerated and that POWER Northeast not only hired her when other places wouldn’t, but taught her how she can be part of the solution to community issues. Regardless of whether or not she convinced the woman to vote, Michelle found the conversation energizing.

“Candidates have not done a good job of explaining why politics matters to people, nor have they connected the dots between everyday pain and politics,” explains Edwards “When communities are empowered to vote for someone who is close to their struggle, someone who can see their full humanity, and someone who will truly represent them, we will see a shift in our current political paradigm. Once that happens, and people who have been made invisible realize the power in their vote, civic engagement, and being heard, we will see stronger and more connected communities.”

For Batts, surrounding himself with people that believed in him gave him the push he needed to realize his power within his community to affect change and advocate. Batts voted for the first time in 2008 after meeting Denis, who helped him realize that his incarceration and parole didn’t prevent him from exercising his power at the ballot. “After speaking with our staff in the aftermath of the work they did during the election, I can see that they are really aware of how much it mattered,” says Denis. “And a lot of them registered for the first time only because they were working for us.” POWER Northeast, which is part of the PICO National Network, aims to build on their 2016 initiative and develop a year-long paid community organizing fellowship to nurture formerly incarcerated and re-entering community members as “credible messengers,” the “go-to people who can point their community toward information and resources,” says Denis.

“We’re really trying to build a village. And we don’t build it overnight, we don’t have huge machines; it’s like manual labor. One brick at a time. And ultimately that’s what it will take: one relationship at a time.”

Additional reporting by Emmia Newman and Sydney “Trek” Mckenzie. POWER Northeast’s work will be featured in an upcoming documentary film produced with support by the Solutions Journalism Network’s Reentry Project, a collaborative news initiative about solutions to the challenges facing people returning from prison. This piece was also made possible with support from The Reentry Project.

Grant Writing Writing

Sample Grant Proposal: Abuelito Fue Bracero Documentary


California produces two-thirds of this country’s fruits and nuts, one-third of its vegetables, and almost 90% of the state’s agricultural labor force is Mexican-born. Luis Magaña was one such farmworker himself, born in Jaripo and moved to the US to work alongside his Bracero father in the Central Valley fields. Now, as an organizer, leader and sole employee of La Organización de Trabajadores Agricolas Migrantes de California (The Organization of Migratory Farmworkers of California, OTAC) in Stockton, California, Luis travels from fields to front lawns daily to dialogue with the immigrant farmworking community so that he may assess and advocate for their needs. 

In these interactions and in Luis’s work, we see exposed the machinery of our labor, racial, and immigration systems.  


West on Matthews Road in French Camp, down the first right after the farmworker center and the “Save the Delta” sign, stands an apt symbol for this story. The director of OTAC, Luis Magaña, took my production team and I there on a particularly chilly morning in 2015. We’d risen at dawn to film with asparagus workers, the mix of warm and cool hues contouring the land, pocket radios dopplering norteño music as men fought the morning chill to move nimbly through the crop rows.

Leaving this site, Luis took an unexpected turn at some unremarkable spot and slid into the shoulder, his wheels stirring up billows of dust and dirt. Around us stretched miles of barren two-lane roads. I thought maybe he needed to make an important call but rather than pick up his phone, Luis stepped out of the car and into the warming Central Valley air. He pointed to a tree beneath which branches stood a corkboard structure in the shape of a small house, an altar devoted to La Virgen de Guadalupe. 

“It’s made by farmworkers,” he explained, and then he moved aside, inviting us to take it all in: the novenas holding vigil inside the altar; the amulets and prayers left by those who had stopped here before us; the blanket of sky and birdsong; and the asparagus field, adjacent. This is the essence of Luis’ work: to make visible what’s otherwise invisible, to draw out the sacred and the humane from conditions that may inherently not be so.

Videographer Andrew Batman and I first began our documentary storytelling engagement with Luis Magaña in 2013. At that time, I was living in San Francisco and obsessed with understanding the erasure of an astounding mural that honored the lives of immigrants lost to the brutalities of border-crossing and racism in the US. My research into the provenance of the mural led me to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the youth advocacy group, 67 Sueños (67 Dreams). Together we wanted to preserve the spirit of the mural if not the mural itself, to publicly honor a history of emigration from Central America and Mexico to the US and some of the struggled contained therein. We partnered with Luis Magaña in 2013 on a California Humanities “Community Stories” grant to record video oral histories with Bracero farmworkers living in and near Stockton, California, a port city about 70 miles east of Oakland and deep in the fertile lands of the Central Valley.

Stockton, the hub of the Central Valley, is a majority-minority city. One-third of Stockton’s population is federally identified as Hispanic, proportionally nearly equivalent to the population of white residents. The city faces great poverty (1 in 4 live below the poverty line), educational inequities, and violence. The city declared bankruptcy in 2012 but is this year experimenting with universal basic income, sending $500 checks monthly to over 100 residents in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. That is all to say: this is a city that reflects pressing issues faced by countless cities in the United States, its statistics demonstrating the compounding effects of our national immigration policies, our grave wealth disparities; our underfunded schools; the dwindling of blue-collar labor options; the lack of affordable housing options; and the challenges that industries (like agriculture) face in maintaining competitiveness in globalized markets. Following Luis’s work brings us into the heart of a community that is daily, materially affected by a combination of all these factors.  

Our oral history project resulted in several outcomes. Firstly, the Bracero oral histories were so successfully executed that Luis screens these short films in classroom and community events as a way of advancing his mission. Secondly, the youth activist-participants of 67 Sueños received training in media production as they served as production apprentices. The youth also took what they were learning from the oral histories and partnered with a muralist to create a traveling mural that visually documents Bracero histories and contributions. This mural, “Abuelito Fue Bracero,” is the project from which this film takes its name. What began as a Bracero oral history project in 2013 transitioned by 2015 into a deep study of Luis as an organizer and consequently, of the experiences of present-day agricultural laborers in the area. And this represents the third outcome of the original project: our ongoing documentary engagement with Luis.

Our aim is that the documentary film, “Abuelito,” will extend the same work and values that bolster the mural: preserving farmworker histories both as a means of honoring the contributions of people whose sacrifices have contributed to the standard of living in this country; while also opening space for dialogue about ways these histories inform, influence and help us make sense of our current moment with regards to immigration, nationalism, and labor policies. In 2016, for example, NPR reported that farmworkers who are contracted to live and work in the United States temporarily, live in some of the same squalid conditions as their forebears in the Bracero program. This kind of historical context can help to dispel the myth of meritocracy, framing current economic struggles within the broader landscape of US-Mexico relations.


From 2013 – 2017, I visited Luis regularly, even after I moved from California to Pennsylvania. Each day, Luis would drive us into the pulsing community centers: fields, churches, dinner tables, all while providing historical, cultural and sociological lenses through which to view each stop. A day’s drive with Luis could include an early morning field visit to ensure that farmworkers are being provided shade, water, lunch, and adequate wages. He may stop along the way to adjust the crosses positioned precariously alongside roadway memorials to farmworkers killed in the line of work. He might be gathering volunteers to go with him to a Board of Supervisors meeting or to the offices of a district legislator.

This film, “Abuelito Fue Bracero,” (expected running time 20min) embeds with Luis in and across these daily, relentless efforts, veritably inviting viewers into the passenger seat as he guides us through town. Together on the drive, we’ll stop as he does at sites of personal, cultural or economic activity for the community. We will for example twist and turn through the stalls of the local flea market or make a 4am stop at Dos Hermanos restaurant where people gather to buy their lunches before heading into a long day in the fields.

Each of these particular stops will serve as scenes or vignettes in which are illustrated Luis’s organizing and base-building tactics. These vignettes are shot with the immediacy and energy of observational documentary. The scenes will be connected by tone-setting, quiet images accompanied at times by voiceover of Luis in which he offers historical and sociological frameworks for contextualizing contemporary circumstances, while also explaining his own connection to these spaces, ideas, and issues. 

Along the way, we will not only see the public-facing advocate and man-about-town but also his more private moments. Taking a sensory ethnography approach, we will aim wherever possible to accentuate the embodied experience of this work: the gestures of labor; the subtleties of breath and eyes and waiting; the quiet space of his office and his strategizing; the sensations of movement. An example of ways we try and recreate these more poetic and sensory elements can be seen in this short video we shot and cut in honor of a tragic death of five indigenous young men in Stockton: 

The narrative of the film will not follow one specific organizing effort in part because Luis’s days and work are filled with a slate of organizing efforts. These days, for example, he invests energy in ensuring that Stockton police hold up their commitment to being a sanctuary city; he focuses attention on the experiences of indigenous laborers; he tracks the growth of the guest worker program and what this means for pay and working conditions; and he aims to equip farmworkers to use their cell phones to securely record, share and/or report stories of workplace abuse.

So, rather than follow one organizing effort, we are following one organizer, one nexus through whom we can learn about the sacrifices and strains of the people who bring food to our tables. We encounter in Luis’s work and in the community he serves the intersections of class, race, labor, law and nationality particularly within the agricultural industry; and the effort and strategies necessary in building a solid sustainable base of people to fight collectively for recognition and rights.

After attending the funeral of a migrant farmworker killed as a bystander to a vineyard robbery, Luis Magaña wrote on his Facebook page: “This system continues to benefit from our labor while refusing to recognize our contributions or even our full humanity.” This is not only the story of Mexican American immigrants, Luis often reminds us. This is a story of an agricultural industry that has at various points in the 20th century helped shape legislation to exploit immigrant labor to serve its economic interests. It is a story about how to foster a collective consciousness that unites working people across racial or national lines. And it is a story that aims to correct the historical record and the public imagination around these issues.


As noted previously, we’ve been gathering material of Luis since 2013. I’ve so far shot several of these scenes myself, largely working alone as camera operator and sound recordist. On some shoots, field producer Maya Gonzales or videographer Andrew Bateman have been able to join. But for the past four years, much of the material gathered for this project, I’ve gathered alone. If we were to be funded in this effort, we’d hire a Director of Photography to shoot the remaining few shoots as to gather some more precise, cultivated images to supplement our observational material. And we’d be able to support the work of invaluable producer Lucia Palmarini. 

Luis himself has also been recording video material throughout this time and has a massive archive predating 2013. We’d like to experiment with ways of aesthetically integrating his footage into the film. Making use of my in-kind editorial support through the Wexner Center for the Arts, we plan to complete a rough cut by June, get feedback on that rough cut, and spend one week in summer and one in the fall to shoot additional material to help cohere and finalize the film. These trips will also give us a chance to explore Luis’s archive for any additional material to include.  


I am not singularly the one person to tell this story–in fact, in 2018, Stockton-based filmmaker Aria Zapata released a documentary short following the struggles of the farmworking community and featuring Luis called With or Without Papers, a beautiful portrait of farmworkers’ sacrifices. 

So while not singular, I am equipped to shine one important perspective informed by five (and ongoing) years of collaboration with Luis Magaña and by my own experiences as a working-class immigrant to the United States. 

These years of collaboration with Luis have brought me into contact with a wide range of experiences and stakeholders, equipping me with a richly textured, multi-faceted and historical understanding of base-building through which to contribute to public understanding of this complex work. I have gained in this time equally layered perspective of Luis as a leader, organizer, and community storyteller, a perspective which can inform, infuse, and add dimension to the story and to Luis as a character.

My advanced and multidisciplinary study in multicultural literature, documentary ethics, feminism, and liberation pedagogy guide me toward documentary practices that reflect my values of co-creation, co-liberation, transparency, dialogue, and respect. For more on my values please see this article: 

Co-Creative Theorizing Practice Writing

The Making of “How to Tell A True Immigrant Story”

Originally published

Oct 12, 2018

“There is no them. There is only us.” 

— Luis Alberto Urrera

Saratoga Springs, according to long-time busker and city dweller Thomas Nosal, is a magical, mysterious, bubbling spring of activity. People travel from miles away to luxuriate in a Saratoga summer with its lush greens and its mineral springs and its thoroughbred, racing horses.

“Yeah, it’s good here,” says Cristina (name changed). “But it’s also dangerous.” Cristina works a farm on the outskirts of town. She’s been there about 17 years, happily. But in the last two years, she’s felt afraid to leave her house. “We can’t just pick up and go to the cinema, to the beach, to the store,” she says. “Because of the immigration authorities. You never know where they’re gonna be.”

These are the voices of two very different Saratogas — one that twirls in red-and-white gingham, and another more labyrinthine, a series of walls obscuring safe passage.

Saratoga Springs and surrounding communities are predominately white and affluent while its workforce is mostly communities of color who are not originally from the U.S. These two constituencies are geographically sequestered — those who emigrate annually on H2B visas to work the horses, for example, live at the stables where the horses themselves are housed — as well as segregated by an unabashed racial hierarchy. Over the last year, Saratoga County has been a hotbed of ICE activity. The town is so racially homogenous that from restaurants to parked cars and ice cream shops, anyone who is not of the white, upper-middle class elite is an obvious target for profiling, for questioning and paper-checking.

In the summer of 2016, while an artist-in-residence at the Skidmore College MDOCS Storytellers Institute, I began an ongoing, co-creative documentary engagement with a community of artists and organizers who like myself, are immigrants to the United States.

Contemplative walk and pop-up install as part of our 2016 collaboration

This year, responding to increased ICE activity, racial profiling, and xenophobia across Saratoga County after the 2016 election, our collaborative partnered with the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council and the Skidmore MDOCS Documentary Studies Collaborative to participate in Brookline Interactive Group (BIG’s) first-ever national cohort, “Immigration in Full Frame.” This project brings together filmmakers, activists, and media arts organizations from around the country to produce a collection of 360-degree shorts that document an array of experiences pertaining to immigration in the United States.

We believed that 360 as a medium might uniquely create space for authentic encounters between two communities who are entwined, but who know each other only from a distance. We also believed that such contact is essential for fostering critical, compassionate dialogue about the issues urgently facing immigrant communities in Saratoga and beyond.

To begin, we held listening sessions with Saratoga County residents who work in agriculture and horseracing and who are labeled, if only implicitly, as “immigrant other.” We asked the routine documentary questions: How long have you been here? Why did you come? What do you do for work?

I myself have been asked these questions in countless immigration interviews, sitting next to my tireless mother as she fought for nearly two decades to secure our permission to live and work here in the United States. I know the feeling of coming from somewhere else and being reminded of it, made to answer for it. How then were our questions offering something different from the immigration interview space if central to both is: “Who are you and why are you here?”

Certainly the context of the documentary interview intends to be more generous than the boundary-erecting immigration interview. But as Trinh T. Minh-ha writes, the knowledge-making face of documentary works to “make accessible” those who are seen as alien. “Without their [documentary] benefactors,” Minh-ha writes, such communities are “bound to remain non-admitted, non-incorporated.” Here, the language of documentary is adjacent to customs control, both seeking admissions, incorporation; both reducing a full personhood to the sum of its borders crossed.

With its panopticon eye, 360 video can, if unchecked, reinforce some of documentary’s most damaging inclinations, its tendency toward what Godmilow describes as the “titillation of difference.” At the same time, with every shot pre-visualized, pre-planned, and directed, 360 is dressed in its own constructedness, calling our attention to the act of looking. The viewer is both invited and implicated. As such, it can be a space for deconstructing discourse, for interrogating realism, as well as for privileging experience over exposition.

Inspired by artist Nicky Tavares’ experiments with collage in the VR space, we shifted our 360 project away from the expository documentary toward a performative tapestry of felt experience sewn together in critical analysis.Through a combination of emotion, abstraction, and texture, we hoped to quiet the categorizing mind and leverage the sensory dislocations of 360 video to impel viewers’ bodies upon the gears of incorporation. The poetic as radical.

To begin, we returned to our interview recordings and wrote a script adapting or borrowing lines directly from community members. But in this script, rather than seek to convey “immigrant” data, we sought shared visions, collective voice, poetry.

first page of script with name of non-actor redacted

We fashioned the piece as a metanarrative that could implicate documentary’s unintentional slippages toward the dehumanizing and instead illuminate the lives of complex, multi-dimensional, and creative people who have traversed rivers and skyways and the rugged hills of being.

“The Interrogation Room,” one site of dialogue within the film

The structure of the piece became an interrogation room in which the nature of the interrogation is left intentionally ambiguous. It could be either a customs interview or a documentary one. In this room, a (non-actor) member of the community is met with questions drawn from the greatest hits of doc interviews. And while each question begins as something information-gathering, it launches the scene into a more meditative contemplation.

In the Freirian tradition of “carrying out transformation with the people affected by oppressive systems, rather than for them,” we worked with community members throughout the process.

Most of the participants were students in this year’s Estamos Aquí (We’re Here) photography workshop — a space for Saratoga Springs’ Latinx immigrants to document and share their experiences of living and working in the area. Given the overlaps in people and goals between Estamos Aquí and the 360 video, conversations about the 360 video project would organically surface in the workshop. In these conversations, we could offer context, answer questions, schedule interviews, hear ideas and leads, and foster a climate of participation and collective visioning. In this workshop and outside of it, community members helped rewrite lines, performed in the film, helped produce particular scenes, and offered their spaces and stories to enrich the immersive potential of the piece.

The narration for the film, like the film and the process of its making, aims to be a tapestry of voices and experiences. The voice-over narration, for example, is interwoven with verse written by Roga ’74, a poet, artist, organizer, and dear friend of this collaboration. And every conversation with community members was something that might inform or infuse the script. Speaking casually with the son of a photography workshop participant, he told us that his Spanish name meets with a plethora of reinterpretations in the U.S. “People call me by different names,” he told us. Arresting in its intersections with identity, power, and incorporation, this statement became one of the foundational lines of the film’s contemplative narration. The line is narrated, in fact, by the same young man who first spoke it to us.

Upon completion — a finishing process which will include design collaborations with artists Nile Livingston and Adam Tinkle — we have plans to share the film widely. Our first audience (among the many audiences with whom we wish to share this piece) are the community members themselves who courageously shared their stories with us, even if anonymously. Not only do we want to make sure that the community members approve of our choices (given the risks of exposure), we also believe that the project is first and foremost for them. The project existed as a deeply meaningful process before it was ever product, and film is in this way an archive, an illustration of what transpired among us. Watching it together can be an opportunity to reflect on our process, discover new “revolutionary wisdom,” and dream next steps, including ways to share the film and possibilities for future collaborations.

But the film is also an intentionally structured, reflective statement meant to intervene in local, regional, and even national discourse. 360 video also offers opportunity to experience one’s self and one’s space anew, a perceptual reshuffling which can expand how Saratoga Springs sees itself while also asking all of us to think about ways our own practices might reinforce othering. We plan to work with our partners in Saratoga to plan exhibitions that bring together diverse (and even distanced) constituencies to experience the piece, discuss its implications, and plant seeds for a more inclusive sense of collective identity and shared outcomes. We will work in a similar fashion with our national partners and collaborators including BIG, New Media Advocacy Project, and Groundswell to share the film and its process widely.

I don’t mean in this reflection to enshrine a series of “best practices” for 360 video. Every project calls for different approaches, different formal concerns. What I do hope can resonate here is the notion that our methods matter. If our methods towards justice reify the exact social relations that uphold the structures we wish to change, we are no step closer to liberation. This film, I hope, is less about “immigrants” and more about the ways we are all implicated in constructing “the immigrant,” about what could come to light beyond the shadow of this construct which is at once ever-expanding and constricting.

I’d like to thank our invaluable project collaborators, including but not limited to: media artist Emily Rizzo; multimedia artist Nicky Tavares; storyteller Ele Martinez; poet Roga ’74; Ana Cruz; EOC staff Krystle Nowhitney Hernandez, Joan Odess, Irma Rivera, and Ana Zaragoza; actor Matt Bagley; and the entire staff and community of the Skidmore MDOCS Storytellers Institute including Jordana Dym, Jesse O’Connell, Adam Tinkle, and Sarah Friedland.Many thanks also to the Brookline Interactive Group, New Media Advocacy Project & NMAP editor Michael Braithwaite.

Reporting Writing

Children of Farmworkers in California’s Central Valley Face Annual Academic Disruptions

Originally published 

April 26, 2019

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.

As a documentary filmmaker, I have been studying these housing centers and the rhythms of life for families who reside in them since I first arrived in a center in 2014 during fieldwork for an oral history project with former bracero farmworkers.

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.

A housing center or migrant farmworker families in Merced County, California. Housing Authoirty, County of Merced

‘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.

Luis Miguel takes a break during a cross-country practice. Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, CC BY

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.”

Coach Rich Cuevas often drives students home to the migrant family housing centers after practice on days their parents work long hours in the fields.Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, CC BY

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.

Luis Miguel and 95231 Productions record in a room in a migrant family housing center apartment. Aggie Ebrahimi Bazaz, CC BY

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.”