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Documenting the Undocumented

By all outward appearances, Mauricio and Roberto are typical teenagers. Mauricio, a junior at Poughkeepsie High School, recently joined the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Roberto, a senior, plays the guitar and is a member of the swim team.

But while their friends are making plans to go to college, Mauricio and Roberto can only wonder about their futures. They’re undocumented Mexican immigrants. They can’t obtain a driver’s license, can’t work legally, and they’re not eligible for student loans.

Through the lens of Vassar film major Elena Gaby’s camera, they’re speaking out about their plight.

Undocumented high school students Roberto and Mauricio during a taping session with Elena Gaby '13
Undocumented high school students Roberto and Mauricio during a taping session with Elena Gaby '13

“I think we’re part of the next civil rights movement in this country, those of us who are undocumented,” 16-year-old Mauricio said during a recent editing session with Gaby on the Vassar campus. “We want to show we’re just like everybody else—we’re Americans in every way except the paperwork.”

Mauricio, Roberto, and two other teens have the starring roles in Gaby’s senior project—a 20-minute documentary entitled Paper State: Undocumented, Unafraid, Undeterred.

She says gaining the teens’ trust was just as important as the filming and editing. “I was apprehensive about putting their faces on camera, but the kids were enthusiastic, and their parents were extremely supportive. They saw it as an opportunity to be proactive about the plight of the undocumented.”

Gaby also filmed interviews with two other teens—a high school student from nearby Saugerties named Maria, whose father has since returned to Mexico, and Gabriella, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who faced difficulties obtaining financial aid while attending a local community college. She expects to graduate next spring.

In the film, Gaby weaves the teens’ stories with interviews with experts in immigration law to tell the story of the 2.1 million immigrants under the age of 18 who are in this country illegally.

She became familiar with the subject when she met an undocumented Costa Rican teen who later became her boyfriend, and he urged her to use her talents as a filmmaker to publicize the issue. She met Mauricio through a recent Vassar grad, Katia Chapman ’12, who had done her senior project on undocumented immigrants in Poughkeepsie. Mauricio had helped Chapman write a guide for undocumented students on how to find ways to go to college here.

“Katia introduced me to Mauricio, and Mauricio introduced me to his brother, and word spread about what I wanted to do,” Gaby says. “It got to the point where students were calling me, asking if they could be in the film.”

Gaby’s advisor, film professor Kenneth Robinson, says that as he screened the “dailies” of Gaby’s film during the fall semester, it became increasingly clear she had gained the young immigrants’ trust.

“As they got to know each other, you could see the interviews getting more powerful,” Robinson says. “Elena has offered us a privileged view of an extremely timely topic, and she never exploited these kids. She worked with them to let them tell their story.”

Gaby, who lives in Westchester County, New York, and whose father emigrated here from Brazil, has been making films since she was in middle school. She spent part of her junior year at Vassar in Prague, working with a filmmaker, and she began preliminary work on her film after returning to the campus last spring. Other members of Gaby’s crew are senior film majors Kelly Nguyen, Martin Couch, Faith Alvarez, and Ashlei Hardenburg.

Gaby says she was “blown away” by the courage of the young people who agreed to be a part of her film. She says all of them had told her the experience had been liberating and empowering.

“They can’t vote. They can’t be part of the political process here. So, storytelling is their only means of raising awareness,” she says. “I’m in awe of them.”

Gaby says she plans to continue to tell the stories of undocumented young people after she graduates. She will enter the film in several festivals later this year and ultimately hopes to expand it into a full-length documentary.

Vassar Film Screening Supervisor Geri Cosenza says she’s confident Gaby’s film will be shown at several festivals, both because it’s well done and because the issue is being debated in Congress and across the country.

“I last saw it in December before it was completed, but what I saw was gripping and powerful, and the topic is spot-on timely,” Cosenza says.

Both Mauricio and Roberto say they hoped the film would gain widespread acclaim.

“I feel lucky to have been a part of it,” Roberto says. “Now that the presidential election is over, and immigration is such a big issue, maybe it will make a difference.”

Mauricio says he realized he and Roberto were putting themselves in potential danger by allowing themselves to be filmed. But he says it was worth the risk.

“I’m doing it for my own children I’ll have someday, to see they have a better life,” he says.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, March 13, 2013