Immigrant Life as a Novela

PHOTO: Behind the scenes at a soap opera written by Latino immigrants in New York hosted by the organization Neighbors Link.

Enrique, Juana María and their 8-year-old son wait in a car at a Bronx parking lot. A van stops a few yards in front of them. Juana María grabs her purse and gets out of the car. She climbs into the back of the van and sees worn out men and women, dirty, shaking in the cold with nothing more than the sparse clothing on their backs.

Juana María scans the ragged group—an elderly woman, a younger woman with a baby, and a sickly man—until she finds her 19-year-old niece Maica. She covers her niece with a blanket, pays off the driver of the van, and leaves the parking lot with the rest of her family.

Later, at a diner, Maica describes her long difficult journey across the U.S.-Mexico border. "They kept us many hours like animals in a hole," she says referring to the coyotes, or smugglers, who took severe measures to avoid the border patrol. "You couldn't breathe. There was a woman with a baby suffering from heat exhaustion and we didn't have water…" She then gorges her chicken soup with the primal hunger of someone who is desperately trying to regain her humanity. But she will not have time to settle in. Maica, like other undocumented immigrants, has to start working immediately to pay off her debt. She owes $15,000, plus interest, for her trip from Guatemala to the United States.

These are the opening scenes for the pilot episode of "A Suitcase of Dreams," a soap opera written by Latino immigrants from North Westchester, New York. On the surface, the story focuses on Maica, her determination to find a better life for herself and her family in the United States, and the difficulties that she encounters while pursuing her immigrant dream. But beyond the plot of the script, "A Suitcase of Dreams," is part of a community program that teaches undocumented immigrants how to speak up and share their hardships and successes through scriptwriting classes.

SEE ALSO: Immigrants tell their own stories on stage

The soap opera is a composite of this group's real-life immigration experiences, and as they learn how their stories are intertwined with other immigrant families, friends and neighbors, they discover that they are not alone. "Soap operas are like fabrics," says screenwriter and sociologist Ángel Luis Lara to his students in a trailer that presents the telenovela project. "And fabrics are made of threads. So the plots are the threads that will be weaving our story."

The script for the pilot episode of "A Suitcase of Dreams" was woven together over the span of 14 weekend workshops that began on March 2012. Lara and Yolanda Pividal, an Emmy-winning documentarian, organized and directed the program with the idea of encouraging immigrants to make their own soap operas. The scriptwriting workshop has reached as many as 35 students per class, ranging from 12 to over 60 years old, and now, the North Westchester group is completing the treatment for the first season of the soap opera. A second workshop is expected to start in the fall, where students will learn how to act in, film, and produce the pilot.

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