An immigration raid at a slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa in 2008 launched a Guatemalan-American filmmaker’s career in an entirely new direction.
When Luis Argueta heard about the raid in Postville, he went to investigate.
“What I thought would be a four day trip has turned into eight years,” Argueta told KGOU’s World Views.
His experience in Postville transformed during that time into three documentaries that tell the story of the small farm town and the immigrants that call it home.
“Something that struck me very much was how this little town in the Midwest was a microcosm of diversity,” Argueta said. He says immigrants from all over the world, including Guatemala, Mexico, Somalia, Ukraine and Russia all call Postville home.
Argueta later travelled to Guatemala, the country where he grew up, to visit the communities these migrants were coming from. He wanted to learn why people chose to leave their homeland.
“People don’t leave their homes because they want to go to Disneyland. They really leave because there’s no other choice,” Argueta said.
Argueta first came to the United States to study industrial engineering. He completed his engineering degree, and began to experiment with film. As a young student filmmaker, Argueta found that he could express himself in ways that he never could before.
“Growing up in Guatemala at a very repressive time, in a very strict family, where we were told not to question the status quo, where we were told to be quiet because we never knew who was listening,” he said. “It was very very hard to imagine that I had anything to say. But in film I found that I could express myself and I could explore creatively things that I had never imagined before.”
His 1994 film The Silence of Neto was the first Guatemalan film to be submitted in the “Best Foreign Language Film” category of the Academy Awards. It was also an Official Selection of the Sundance Film Festival.
Argueta’s recent work includes his trio of films about the Postville raid - AbUSed, Abrazos and The U Turn.
He says his mission is to humanize immigrants.
“I think that we really must think about those children who are part of the future of this country when we think about immigrants because they live in constant fear that their parents might be deported,” Argueta said.
“And I don’t think that any child should live with that fear.”
Luis Argueta Weighing the Risks of Child Immigration
People know the risks of sending their kids. But when the families live lives that are full of risks every day, when the risk of a child becoming a member of a gang, or maybe not reaching age 15 because he or she is killed, they're ... sending them north at least has some hope. And they also see the results of others that have succeeded in this trip. It's a terrible situation on the issues that immigrants have to make a daily basis and that's something that I wish on anybody. And they don't do it lightly. You know people don't leave their homes because they want to go to Disneyland. They really leave because there's no other choice.
Luis Argueta on how he educated himself as an immigrant
Being an immigrant myself, I am ashamed to say I didn't know much about immigration but I had discovered many Guatemalan immigrants in the New York Tri-State area and I would go to areas where they lived and do short interviews with them. These became portraits of immigrants and I posted them online. And then in 2008, I heard about an immigration raid in Postville, Iowa. I decided to go see for myself and what I thought would be a four day trip has turned into eight years of listening to immigrants stories and telling relaying those stories in the form of documentaries to others.
Suzette Grillot: Luis Argueta, welcome to World Views.
Luis Argueta: It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Grillot: You bet. Well Luis, it's always so fun to meet filmmakers because I'm always intrigued by film. I love film. But you began that your life really as an industrial engineer and then also studied literature and became a filmmaker. So how did this happen?
Argueta: It was very logical. I came to this country to complete my engineering studies. I was very fortunate to receive the four year scholarship to the University of Michigan. And while I had always loved film and watched many films in Guatemala, I never ask how the magic of film happened. However, at the University of Michigan I met people who were doing films. There was also of the most famous independent film festival in the country and around the world is 52 years old now. And there, I saw films of many types of length and experimental and narrative. And so I began dabbling in film. I took a course in the university that was in Ann Arbor at the same time as regular university, and did a short that to the festival, went on tour, and I was able to make my money back. And I thought that I was great.
Argueta: It was also the first time I felt like I would express myself. Growing up in Guatemala at a very repressive time in a very strict family where we were told not to question the status quo, where we were told to be quiet because we never knew who was listening. It was very very hard to imagine that I had anything to say. But in film I found that I could express myself and I could explore creatively things that I had never imagined before.
I did change after I finished industrial engineering degree I went on to study literature. I had one year left of my scholarship and it was a very hard time to go back to Guatemala, so I decided to stay for that year. Went on to get a masters degree in literature which was my other passion and did a one hour film for my masters thesis based on the works of Fernando Arrabal Spanish playwright who lives in Paris. And when he saw the film he invited me to work on a feature film in Italy with him. And after that experience there was no going back. So I moved to New York and started a career in advertising. It was short films that I was making first for other people and then I opened my own shop in 1989 and for many years I did commercials for blue chip companies first in English and then Spanish. And after 9/11 I decided that I wanted to find something that will fill me in a different way.
Argueta: It was not economically viable as commercial making but I started doing short interviews of immigrants. Being an immigrant myself I am ashamed to say I didn't know much about immigration but I had discovered many Guatemalan immigrants in the New York Tri-State area and I would go to areas where they lived and do short interviews with them. These became portraits of immigrants and I posted them online. And then in 2008 I heard about an immigration raid in Postville, Iowa. I decided to go see for myself and what I thought would be a four day trip has turned into eight years of listening to immigrants stories and telling relaying those stories in the form of documentaries to others.
Grillot: Well you have three films that you've done over the past eight years as part of a trilogy. So tell us a little bit about each of these films and also about some of the immigrants that you've worked with. I mean you, as you mentioned, are an immigrant from Guatemala. But I assume that you've talked to and have featured immigrants from all over the world.
Argueta: This project started as a four day trip but the stories were so powerful and also the response of the community first in Iowa and then in other places was so impressive how after the Postville raid, the communities around this little town in the northwest part of Iowa gathered to support the immigrants that had been left behind after the raid and to support the relatives of these immigrants that were in jail. Was remarkable. And this impressed me so much that I said, the story needs to be told and it's not going to happen in four days so I stayed two weeks went back many more times. Twenty nine totally. And began learning about the push factors that make people come to this country and decided I'd better go to Guatemala to see the communities from where they came in.
Argueta: In Iowa, I came across Guatemalan immigrants also Mexican immigrants are Somali refugees. Ukrainian and Russian immigrants had come before. Something that struck me very much was how this little town in the Midwest was a microcosm of diversity. You in addition to the Ukrainians the Russians the warm all the Mexicans the Somalis you had Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn and you had the old immigrants from Germany. So it was also very eye opening to see how these little towns were coming back to life after the young people had left the Midwest farm towns. These immigrants were reviving these towns. So it was quite an education for me.
Argueta: I went to the border several times. I am very fortunate that U.S. citizens, I could cross without any problems. But even in the desert I would find immigrants who were coming unauthorized and risking everything. So it has been absolutely an educational experience that I still can't get away from.
Grillot: One of the things that we've explored here on this show and we've been facing you know on the southern border of the United States are minors, children coming particularly from Central America where you're from. Have you covered any of this? Have you encountered not unaccompanied minors as you've been on these journeys?
Argueta: Well yes and I'll backtrack a little bit. I met a family in Minnesota where the second film in my trilogy is placed and that's when I understood one of the reasons why this phenomena is taking place. There was a man who used to go every year or every two years back to his village in Guatemala to visit his daughter who he and his wife had left when she was seven months old. However, now he stopped going because it was too expensive, too risky. And I always say maybe tomorrow I'll find out that he has sent for his daughter to come here because that is what's happening. The trip became too expensive, too dangerous and people are not leaving. The circular migration that just took place because of the stringent laws have prevented that.
Argueta: I also just came back from Guatemala from working on an advertising campaign for an agency in Washington that is aimed at not stopping this phenomena. This phenomenon is not going to stop until we change the structural conditions in descending communities. But this campaign is aimed to make people at least think about sending their kids twice. And so I have seen the phenomenon. It's mind boggling. However, we really must understand that until we address in a very strong fashion what is pushing people away as well it was pulling them. We're going to continue to have this phenomenon.
Argueta: People know the risks of sending their kids but, when the families live lives that are full of risks every day, when the risk of a child becoming a member of a gang, or maybe not reaching age 15 because he or she is killed, they're ... sending them north at least has some hope no. And they also see the results of others that have succeeded in this trip. It's a terrible situation on the issues that immigrants have to make a daily basis and that's something that I wish on anybody. And they don't do it lightly. You know people don't leave their homes because they want to go to Disneyland. They really leave because there's no other choice.
Grillot: Issues like deportation and building of walls and you know increasing enhancing law enforcement on these issues. I mean how are some of the people that you've been working with, how is this going to affect the work that you do, first of all, and do you have any projects planned and what is the response and reaction to some of the immigrants that you're working with?
Argueta: Well you know one of the reasons I've been doing this for eight years is because I realize that often in the national conversation about immigration we get lost in the numbers we talk about eleven million quote unquote illegals and then on the comment and we forget the human face of immigrants and that is what my work aims to do, to bring out that human face, to make us realize that in every immigrant we do have another human being that is just like us. You know there for the grace of God go I mean that is something that I have really come to to feel very strongly. I had the privilege of going to meet Pope Francis two years ago and gave him a copy of my first two films and what I said to him you if you think about it a long time you said these are the stories of the immigrants have touched my heart and changed my life. And that's what I hope to do with these films and with this conversation because I go to universities, faith based communities, conferences, and engage into one to one or small group conversations with the hope that we will be able to recognize ourselves in the immigrants. At the same time I think it is extremely important that we understand the root causes of of the situation. This is not something new. This is not something that only happens in the U.S. It's happening globally. So we must all really roll our sleeves.
Argueta: Also on the other hand realize that there are laws in this country that cannot change from one day to the next. There are things that the president can do with the stroke of a pen but also there's a lot of other things that that he alone cannot do and will need to change. You know the support of Congress. So hopefully our humanity will prevail on our common sense will prevail. This country needs immigrants. We cannot say we're not going to stop. We're not going to let people send remittances to Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador because those economies would collapse and it will backfire.
Grillot: Yeah it's not a simple issue. There are a lot of things that are connected obviously to immigration that I think is perhaps going to come to light and like you said it's not a new issue either. This is something that we've been dealing with for a long time. Just very very quickly though as we finish we are almost out of time. There is a migrant crisis going on in Europe too. So I mean have you been working at all on that? Is that someplace where we really need to ... ?
Argueta: No, but I think that the European situation is very important for us to realize. You know some people say all immigrants from Central America are not refugees they're economic immigrants. And that is not true. That is not true. People are fleeing violence they're running away because they're afraid for their lives. And so we can learn from them from Europe how to deal with with with refugees.
Argueta: And I'd just like to mention the second film called "Abrazos," "Hugs." And this is a story of 14 U.S. citizen children who travel from Minnesota to Guatemala to meet their grandparents for the first time. And even though here we're just talking about 14 children, they are a microcosm of the almost five million U.S. citizen children who live in mixed status families. And I think that we really must think about those children who are part of the future of this country when we think about immigrants because they live in constant fear that their parents might be deported. And I don't think that any child should should live with that fear.
Grillot: The mixed status families I think is a very important subject that we can explore further later. But thank you so much Luis for being here today and sharing your work with us.
Argueta: Suzette, my pleasure. Thank you very much.
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