The issue of Latinos immigrating to the United States, especially in this election year, is one you’ve undoubtedly read and heard a lot about, but perhaps haven’t truly seen.
Documentarian Roxanne Frias’ latest endeavor, “Latino: The Changing Face of America,” aims to show audiences a visual, statistical overview of Latinos in the United States, their labors and the persistent hardships they face in trying to become fully recognized members of American society.
“I’ve been carrying this story with me ever since I was a little girl, ever since I knew about my dad’s story, being born near the El Paso border,” recounts Frias, a Stanford film school graduate, who has spent the last 25 years teaching the documentary-making process to film students in France. “His story, in a way, is the history of Latino immigration. He was born 85 years ago on the border, right around when Latino immigration to the United States began.”
But as Frias began writing and interviewing people for the film in 2014, when Latinos officially surpassed whites as the largest ethnic demographic in Los Angeles, Frias became inspired to shift her focus from her father’s story to the story of Latino immigrants at large.
“When you see that Latinos have become the majority in Los Angeles, those are facts,” explains Frias. “People can’t say, ‘Oh, that’s just a romantic story about her parents.’ It’s demographic facts. And so I based my story on that. And I realized, as I started interviewing people, that their story is just as strong, and so I wanted them to be the story. Because they were telling the demographic story. I think that’s the reason I can show the film: it’s not about me. I’m merely the vessel.”
Frias’ desire to be that vehicle through which Latinos could share their story took her to some of the places you might expect, like the El Paso border, where we see the infamous border fence, which a local politician Frias interviews describes as “the worst human misunderstanding in human history.”
Or to Bell Gardens High School in Montebello, where the Latino student population has skyrocketed from 7 percent to a whopping 97 percent in just 50 years. At the high school we’re introduced to two fascinating students: a young man whose immigrant parents both work seven days a week to enable him and his younger sister to pursue their educations, and a young woman who, as a child, walked over 1,000 miles from Honduras to reunite with her immigrant mother.
But the film — which Frias recently presented in a special screening at her alma mater, St. Louis of France School in La Puente — also takes audiences to surprising places, such as to Univision’s New York headquarters, where Frias interviews world-famous political correspondent Jorge Ramos, who claims that the lack of a clear pathway to citizenship for undocumented Latino immigrants residing in the U.S. is the “biggest challenge for immigration in the 21st century.”
And, in perhaps the film’s most powerful and telling segment, to the small city of Ottumwa, Iowa, which Latinos have begun to populate in the last few years at a staggering rate, thanks in large part to its accommodating, immigrant-friendly community. “I wanted to show how they (Latino immigrants) are not just on the border, but transforming middle America as well.”
And in order to help audiences see that transformation, the documentary spends some time at an Ottumwa Catholic church interviewing the parish’s pastor, a white man who feels that immigration laws in the United States are long overdue for a drastic shakeup.
“You really see America changing through the Church,” explains Frias. “The Church represents a social network. If you want to know how immigrants impact a town not just demographically, but also economically and socially, you can see it visually at a church. Many churches in the United States are progressive in how they work hard to address immigrant issues. Church is where you see immigrants and how they want to be a part of America.”
It was also a sequence from the film’s visit to Ottumwa that elicited the biggest reaction from the audience, comprised of mostly Latinos, who were gathered at St. Louis of France’s Mulcahy Parish Center. Frias films an Ottumwa Latino morning radio program taking calls from listeners the day after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s comments claiming that “Mexico’s not sending us their best” in regard to immigration. A caller firmly stating that she thinks “Donald Trump is a stupid man” incited the crowd at the screening to laugh and break out in raucous applause, a microcosmic sign that the Latino demographic is ultra-aware of the enormous stakes regarding the coming presidential election.
“Our country is so divisive,” laments Frias. “When the economy declines, people get scared and want to place blame. And oftentimes immigrants take the brunt of that blame, especially post 9/11. I think everything is at stake in this election because Donald Trump is instilling fear. Moral values are at stake, not just in terms of immigration, but also in terms of education and wanting to give and share. It’s the whole principle of what makes a country strong and what makes a country democratic.”
Though the issue of Latino immigration is specific to American politics, Frias has found, in screening the film in other countries, that the film’s call for acceptance and understanding has struck a chord with people around the world.
“A director once said to me, ‘When I made a film, I didn’t make just one film; I made as many films as there are people in the room,’” says Frias. “Every audience member will identify with [a film] based on their own unique experience. People will take away what I hope is important to them. I want people to see this and think, ‘You don’t have to be afraid of others, of someone who is different from you.’ The world is big enough that we can all be here together and work together.”
And while the film’s publicity tour has taken, and will continue to take, Frias all over the world, she claims that the most significant stop so far has been at St. Louis of France, her former school. Frias was greeted with a sign created by current St. Louis of France students that read, “Welcome home, Roxanne!”
She was all smiles as she posed for pictures with several former classmates. As the daughter of an immigrant, Frias understands the importance of being embraced by a new community and having a place to call home. She hopes that her new documentary can serve as a stepping stone toward helping others do the same.