SHORT PROJECT SUMMARY
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.
PROJECT STRUCTURE AND STYLE
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: https://vimeo.com/314187592
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.
WHY ARE YOU THE ONE TO TELL THIS STORY?
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: https://thetilt.org/how-to-tell-a-true-immigrant-story-265f299cad49