Salvador Contreras and Carlos Bazua Morales were classmates in cultural anthropology at UC Berkeley, but after college they found themselves working in other areas - Contreras as a mariachi musician and Bazua Morales in the Mexican consulate on health promotion campaigns. Both noticed many undocumented immigrants around them, especially Yucatec Mayans in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Bazua Morales, who had worked on film documentary projects during his undergraduate career, became interested in documenting health issues on both sides of the border and called on Contreras for help. They worked with faculty at UC Santa Cruz and The Center for Investigations and Superior Studies on Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Yucatan to obtain a UC MEXUS grant for a film documentary to delve into the problem.
They focused on the city of Oxkutzcab in Yucatán. From its population of about 27,000, approximately 15,000 have migrated to the United States, most to San Francisco. The filmmakers conducted 40 to 45 interviews on each side of the border.
“Because we come from immigrant backgrounds, we got intimate testimonies,” Contreras said. “We spoke with teachers, officials, working-class youth, single moms, and residents of apartments where ten people share two rooms.”
While they documented health challenges for immigrants - AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, loneliness, drugs and alcohol - they also found questions: What is it like for immigrants to live in two countries? How does immigration affect the identity of the people of Oxkutzcab?
The two enrolled as graduate students at UC Merced last fall, aiming to finish their documentary as part of their studies. UC Merced’s promise of individualized graduate studies allowed them to work on their idea within the World Cultures and History program.
They finished editing the documentary and showed it for the first time at UC Merced on May 1. They plan showings in Oxkutzcab this summer and will distribute DVDs there and in the Mission District.
“This film can help orient potential migrants before they leave and validate the experiences of those who have already migrated,” Contreras explained.
In addition, they hope to show the film at universities while they dig into questions raised about expression, agency, language, symbols, policy, processes of migration and means to overcome immigrants challenges.
“We could build entire careers from this experience,” Contreras said. “For now, we just hope to address issues and promote discussion.”