Fifty percent of the residents of Zapotitlan Palmas, a town in Oaxaca, Mexico, leave for the United States each year. Mexican journalist and former Nation intern Chantal Flores and Haitian-American filmmaker Stefani Saintonge have teamed up to produce a documentary film, La Tierra de los Adioses (The Land of Goodbyes) about why residents keep leaving and what it means for the people – especially youth – they leave behind. They produced “La Bolsa” (“The Bag”), the short below, being made public here for the first time, from the footage they’ve shot so far. I interviewed Flores and Saintonge in New York, where they’ll be showing “La Bolsa” and raising money ahead of their November 6 deadline to win Kickstarter funding to finish the film. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Why did you choose to explore the bags? Saintonge: It’s an intricate, traditional craft, and it’s beautiful–but at the same time women feel trapped, having to make these bags because they don’t have any jobs in the town. So it’s either that or migrate. They depend on their husbands who are in the US, but when that doesn’t cut it, they have to make these bags. There’s no employment, and they’re stuck laboring over these crafts, which are really beautiful, but they have to do it. It’s not just an art. And they work so hard, doing two a day.
How did you come to the topic of emigration? What does it mean for this town? Flores: When I came back to Mexico, almost all the people I talked to were immigrants, had been in the US, or had relatives in the US. I ended up in Zapatilan Palmas, teaching a writing workshop, and heard from these kids who are in constant contact with immigration. We wanted to make this video that would focus on kids in a town whose whole lifestyle is defined by the US – people leave for the US, success is related to the US. There are people there who have never been to Mexico City, but have been to LA, New York, Chicago, and they know everything about the US.
Even though these kids haven’t left yet, they will eventually leave. We won’t prevent them from coming to the US, but we want to give them more opportunities. Emigration shouldn’t be the next step, it should be an option. And in this town, and in many Mexican towns, emigration is your responsibility if you want to do something with your life. And that is very sad. People tell you that they want to come to the US to become someone. It’s sad, because they are already human beings.
How does it affect the town’s culture? Flores: When I interviewed Mexican kids about America, I expected them to say, “Oh, it’s awesome I want to go there.” But they said “It sucks. You just work long hours, and you just go from your house to your workplace, and that’s it.” Hearing those answers changed my perspective on the kids. I used to just see them as people who were dreaming of coming to the US. But they don’t really want to come to the US. They want to stay in their town. They want to help their town to progress, they want to be with their families. Yet because of the economic situation and the lack of opportunities, they are forced into thinking that they need to come to the US, and that’s the best thing that could happen to them.
Kids feel abandoned by parents that emigrate to America. They don’t see them for years. Many of my students were teenagers who couldn’t remember what their father looked like. Or their father was coming back after 10 years, and then the whole family dynamic was changing–the kids were suddenly with someone who has power over them, and they didn’t know how to deal with that.