Project Spotlight: 'Manos Obreras', One Filmmaker's Love Of Her Heritage and Father

Jennifer Albarracin is a recent graduate of William and Mary where she obtained a bachelor’s in Film & Media Studies and a minor in Latin American Studies. Her studies have led her to explore her Latinx identity through multiple mediums including photography, film, graphic designs, and writing. In “Manos Obreras” she documents her father’s story because as she says it best, “we don't get to hear the perspective of that generation first hand as much in media because they don't have the tools, money, time, or skills.” The challenges of immigrants exist with or without having legal status and Jennifer is a product of just how hard first generation children work to not allow those struggles to be in vain. Her film is an emotional and beautiful reminder of how deep the roots of sacrifice and love are in immigrant families.

How did you discover film?
I used to think I wasn’t interested in film. My family didn’t go to the movie theatre often growing up, though I still got exposed to film through TV. Sunday afternoons were spent with my family lounging on our living room floor, sandwiched in multiple layers of blankets between mi mami y papi with my younger brother beside me. These lazy days weren’t just for relaxing but exposed me to some great films. It was on one of these Sundays that I saw the film Selena directed by Gregory Nava for the first time. I remember being captivated by the film. Not only because I loved Selena, but it was the first time that I saw someone like me as the main character. Selena had brown skin, evidence of her indigenous background, but also had imperfect Spanish like I did when I was younger. She lived in the in-between, balancing multiple worlds. As I got more exposed to film I noticed the ones that stuck with me the most centered around the Latinx community. Seeing films that represented worlds like mine made me want to be a part of film. I now realize, I never disliked film but rather never found myself represented which left me uninterested before.

Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
Taking Latin American Studies and Hispanic Studies classes in college exposed me to Latinxs artists, writers, poets, and films. Seeing myself represented in these classes helped me feel whole. Compared with my film classes, I felt a big hole. In them I watched films made by White males. It bothered me I seldomly saw POC in the films I studied. It wasn’t until I finished Manos Obreras it catapulted me into thinking about my future in film. That same semester I was taking a Latinx film class. Watching so many films by Latinxs made me feel film was a possibility. Despite my love for the class, I noticed there is a lack of Latinx female directors coming from a U.S. perspective. It was disheartening when I realized there are few of them. So, I looked elsewhere. I took a course my last semester in college on Spike Lee. I quickly learned he explores similar themes like I do in his films. He tries to share the Black experience the good, the bad, and the ugly which inevitably brings in racism. There are so many similarities between Black and Latinx culture, there is a shared experience of struggle. Lee was the closest I could get to what I was looking for. This led me look up to other POC directors not just Latinx because they give me stepping stones to follow. However, this doesn’t change the fact there is a lack of voices like mine. Throughout my time at college I’ve concluded if I feel like I’m not being represented then why not change it? I don’t want to be stuck waiting for someone to create my story. No one knows my story better than I do. I also know my experience isn’t isolated, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are millions of people out there feeling the same way. So, in sharing my story, I share others.

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How did you pool together what you've learned in school to create this piece?
With my Latinx identity in the forefront of my mind and the lectures from my Latin American Studies classes it was only natural I made work about it. When I took my first and only film production class (we focus more on the analyzing and writing rather than production) I was deathly afraid even though I had some previous experience. There were students who were and still are way better than me. I never felt at ease in that class, but it helped me become the filmmaker I am today. I barely finished the film Manos Obreras the day it was due for screening. I didn't have time to digest what I had created. I thought it was good but nothing amazing. It wasn’t until the moment it played in a room full of friends and classmates and heard sniffles, it hit me that I had struck a chord with people. It was then I witnessed the magic of film. Seeing people’s emotional reaction happen before my eyes was such a beautiful experience. Through our class critiques I realized I had the gift of making a compelling story that touches people’s hearts. The students who once intimidated me didn’t seem so big. I realized they were good with the technicality of film, but I had a compelling story to tell. I may not have mastered all the techniques in film, but I do have a voice and passion for sharing the stories of my community.

Can you talk about the struggles of immigrants in the US?
Sharing my dad’s story is also a way for me to add to the narrative of Latinx immigrants which is something important I learned in my classes. Right now, we are at a current state in which the stories of undocumented Latinx immigrants saturate the news. People are constantly seeing them fight for their basic right to live in the U.S. They are fighting for the bare minimum. Often news outlets distort the reality of the Latinx immigrant, making it seem that once they obtain legality everything is going to be okay. But things are not okay, they are far from it. Even when one finally is legal, a permanent resident in my dad’s case, there are still so many obstacles one faces. When we stop to think not only how our government is failing those who are undocumented but those who are also documented, people will fully realize how broken this system is and how it’s in dire need for change now.

What were the challenges of this short film? 
It wasn’t difficult for me to want to create this film and share it. I knew I had to do it. But pitching it to my class was difficult. I couldn’t talk about it without choking on my words. I couldn’t stop tearing up that day and I felt embarrassed because I probably seemed unprofessional. But my professor came up to me to give me a hug in the middle of my presentation until I could finally collect myself. The process itself was not as easy as I imagined it would be. I interviewed my dad first because I wanted his words to be the focus of the film, not mine. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out as well as I planned. He was so stiff and frankly boring to listen to. So, I scraped the hour-long footage and instead decided to only use footage of my dad working. That semester I was taking a poetry class in Spanish and decided to create a poem about my dad but through my eyes. It’s about him but also how his absence affected me. It’s a story about the consequences of being a working-class immigrant. Creating the poem wasn’t difficult. It came to me naturally. Once I knew I wanted to add the poem, everything fell into place.

What was it like to show this piece to your peers and to your families?
I finally shared the video with my whole family on Christmas eve. When my dad saw it, his whole-body reacted not just his eyes. He was shaking, and tears were streaming down his cheeks. I’ve never seen my dad cry like that. He’s a tough man, he doesn’t show his emotions often. So, seeing him react like that, it shocked me. By the end of the film, my whole family was crying. We just cried together as we hugged each other because we know the reality. My film was just a mirror, in its reflection is a reminder what my dad and mom sacrifice for our family each day. My dad also told me to continue writing that day. It was the first time he had complimented my work. My parents don’t necessarily approve my artistic career, but I know it will take time to earn their respect for my craft. His approval was just a step into that direction.