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.Yolanda Pividal and Christy Duarte
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.

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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.

Lara explained in an interview with Fusion that "A Suitcase of Dreams" can be therapeutic not only for the students, but also potential viewers, helping them understand how immigrants lose control of their lives when they are undocumented, and how they can empower themselves again by knowing and telling their stories. "When you are too busy living your life," he said, "you have no time to reflect on it… develop a perspective on who you are and what you are doing." But when you share your story, Lara emphasized, you laugh and cry with others, it is like holding up a mirror, not only to reflect your own life, but the lives of other immigrants, your new home in America, and your origin.

The experience of being undocumented can be overwhelming. And the stories of different immigrant communities that came before us are often lost in less than a generation. Children and grandchildren of immigrants looking back on their family history may recognize photos of their relatives, but have no connection with the social centers, neighborhood stores and churches that their mother, grandfather or uncle once relied on to bring and establish their families in the United States. And both the soap opera and Neighbors Link, the immigrant community center that hosts the project, underline the urgency of reconnecting immigrant and American-born families with their origin stories and culture.

Neighbors Link, known affectionately as La Casa by its members, fills over 6,000 day jobs per year, and offers immigrants from Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and other countries, English and computer classes, as well as job workshops that focus on protecting the environment and approaching work with dignity and respect. This immigrant center is reminiscent of older immigrant social clubs that once attended to the needs of earlier immigrant waves throughout the United States. Protected by its tan and orange walls, Neighbors Link promotes a sense of kinship that has been lost in larger towns and cities, where Latinos, like the immigrants who preceded them, know that their personal wellbeing is dependent on the general wellbeing of their community.

Living without documents—between countries, languages and cultures—can condemn many immigrants to be misunderstood or forgotten in both America and their homelands. "Many people at home think that life is easy here, that we have a lot of cash in our pockets," said Wilber, one of the immigrant scriptwriters of "A Suitcase of Dreams," whom asked to be referred by his first name only. "And here, [Americans] don't know how hard we work…"

While the Northern Westchester scriptwriters will shop their pilot to different Latino and Latin American television channels, they want to remind soap opera fans, and Americans in general, that immigrant stories are the patrimony of everyone. The intertwined storylines of "A Suitcase of Dreams" are part of a much larger global immigrant movement that has shaped the history of America, and continues to drive its destiny forward.