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From Mexican to American: Louis Hock's Decades of Documenting Immigrant Life

Thirty years ago, in the apartment complex of Los Analos, located a block from the beach in the Northern county of San Diego, children could be heard screaming and playing the Migra game. The game, a sort of Cowboys & Indians meets Cops & Robbers border hybrid, consisted of two roles: la migra or Border Patrol agent, and the undocumented Mexican immigrant. And often, it became a reenactment of events the children witnessed at Los Analos: friends, family and neighbors being arrested by INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) for being undocumented.

The migra game was one of the many things artist and filmmaker Louis Hock witnessed and documented in his four-part film project "The Mexican Tapes: A Chronicle of Life Outside the Law." Hock, a native of the border Southwest, moved to Los Analos in 1978. Wanting to experiment with videotape production and in the process document the experiences of his neighbors -- undocumented Mexican working class immigrant families, whose voice was absent or grossly misrepresented in the political discourse on the border and immigration at the time -- Hock began filming the day-today lives of four families: Cande and Pancha and their daughter Maria Luisa, Cachuchas and Marisela and their daughter Veronica, Ramon and Rufina and their daughters Lupe, Rocio and Sonia, and Ruben and Maria and their son Carlos. The result was an amazing personal record of the history, labor, and aspirations of immigrants in the United States.

Cande. Still from "The American Tapes"
Cande. Still from "The American Tapes"

Serendipitously, the year the documentary was completed, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act granted undocumented immigrants like Hock's neighbors and their children amnesty, which practically guaranteed, as Hock describes that this next generation would not be playing the migra game for real.

But what had this transformation, from undocumented immigrant living outside the law, to lawful resident or citizen, represented for these families?

This is a question Hock takes up in "The American Tapes: A Tale of Immigrations," the sequel to the "Mexican Tapes," that documents the current lives of the four families from Los Analos. Hock explains that this new film is not simply a "What had they done since the last time I saw them", an update 30 years after their first interviews. Rather Hock "tried to make each of the people and their families tell a story", a story that allows you as the viewer understand who they are, where they are, and how they they got there.

And, "The American Tapes" is incredibly timely, considering the current debate on National immigration reform, and the conjuring of the 1986 so-called Amnesty law as a benchmark. With this in mind, I sat down with Louis Hock to speak about his relationship with the families of Los Analos, his unique approach to documentary film, his ties to the border, and the importance of being social neighbors to political discussion about immigration.

Misael Diaz:
How did your interest in filming your neighbors at Los Analos begin?

Louis Hock:
I moved in [to The Analos Apartments], and at a certain point they were going to tear it down, they said in the paper, that in 6 months they were going to turn it into a Best Western motel. And I was a filmmaker...so I started filming, and they didn't tear it down, and then I kept filming, and then I kept filming, and it was very unlike the work I was producing at the time. So it started off as a very small modest project, it started off as an experiment.

And, there was a series of independent films around the border that were occurring in the early 80s, and I thought this [tape] is going to contribute, and there's going to be a lot of films because immigration is a big deal, so I'll just make an hour film to contribute.

Of course, then I realized people had entrusted to me a lot of information, and that information was not coming out in other films. So then I felt responsibility that everything they talked about, that nobody else was talking about, be incorporated into the "[Mexican] Tapes," and then the tape gets swollen into the long length that it is, because [other] people weren't talking about going across the border, they weren't talking about kids in school, they weren't talking about all the things that people in the "Tapes" are talking about. So I felt an obligation to include it.

So the tape took on this character by trying to fill the void of what was unknown. Because you know you read the news, and its always the voice of the police, the voice of the border patrol, it's the voice of everybody, but you don't usually have the voice of the immigrant.

In the tape I made a point of not having any information in the tape that didn't come out of the neighborhood...anything that was not in that neighborhood I didn't use, because as soon as you start using like police or senators, they become the authority, they become the power.

Cande. Still from "The Mexican Tapes"
Cande. Still from "The Mexican Tapes"

MD: I wonder if that void that you were speaking to arrives at a different conception of the border, and a different narrative about the border and about citizenship and about nation through these very personal stories. Do you feel these stories give a different perspective on the border? A different portrait of the border?

LH: When I began the "Mexican Tapes," one morning it struck me, I am reading the newspaper, I am reading about a description from the border patrol, a description from the congressmen, and I am seeing a picture of a guy being loaded up to the back of a van. And I am looking at this, and I am saying, you know, my neighbors are what they are talking about, but they are not talking about my neighbors in a way that makes sense.

The people that were being described are not my neighbors, [my neighbors] are not these heinous lawbreakers. They happen to not have legal status citizenship, but they are no different than anybody else. And the only thing that separates them is this piece of paper.

And of course, in the second "[American] Tapes," they get the piece of paper, and they just continue being who they are, except they have more opportunities and they have the security of not being busted.

When people start talking in congress, [it's] this idea, these criminals invading our country. It's racist, but its also a horrible misrepresentation of the people that I know. And I think making the "Mexican Tapes" was about representing them as I knew them, which is not the way they are represented in the media. And then in the "[American Tapes]," it's more about what happens when these people flip and they go from being undocumented to mostly all citizens.

Maricela. Still from "The American Tapes"
Maricela. Still from "The American Tapes"

MD: And I think with that it becomes more human. It becomes about humanizing individuals.

LH: The media makes them phantoms, and it makes them into bad phantoms, and it makes them into boogie men. You can look at someone like Pete Wilson who was able to vilify them enough to pass [Proposition] 187, because they are "responsible for all the economic woes", which is complete bullshit. Because where would our county be without them?

You're always profaning the phantom, profaning the foreigner, its xenophobia, its racism, but its an unfair portrayal of people who like in the recent Montalvo [Arts] Center, become us, they are supermarket managers, they manage the Carl Jr's, they become accountants. It is unimaginable that you would be calling these people illegal.

MD: Personally for me, I saw my family reflected in those stories. It really hit home. Not just because its in San Diego and I grew up along the border but because a lot of those stories are the stories of a lot of immigrants and children growing up with immigrant parents.

LH: Immigrants in general. A few years back, I showed the video at the Montalvo [Arts] Center, which had a lot of immigrants in the nearby town, so a number of the people that came where from immigrants families. But they weren't necessarily from Mexico, they were Guatemalan, Africans and the like, so they saw it, and an Afghan [immigrant] said 'It's my father!" you know, "Cande is my father".

So in a lot of ways it is an experience about immigration, which is true for a lot of different nationalities...The impossibility of going back home, but the desire to go back home. And I think those kinds of feeling with first generation immigrants are common.

MD: I [too] became really emotionally invested in all these people that I had just met, and I can only imagine what it is for you, who has such a long history with them.

LH: The value of those tapes is that you as an audience member get the feeling that you are listening in on a conversation... the audience member has the privilege of witnessing something...something that is genuine, because you are listening to a conversation between two people that seem pretty straightforward.

I felt lucky to have that happen because it makes the audience feel like they are directly connecting with someone, not having to navigate a façade that is presented, they actually see the person as they presented themselves, but not necessarily how they presented themselves to media, but how they presented themselves to me.

MD: I really picked up on that, just in the way that they speak, they are not speaking about their conditions to the world out there, but to you, and it's always that direct connection. It almost becomes more about the relationship between you and them, than just this voyeuristic view of them.

LH: I always had the camera, one time I showed up without a camera and they said, "Louis? Is there something the matter? Is your camera sick? Are you sick?" And so there is that expectation of being video taped, but a lot of the pleasure was seeing each other. I mean they would call, "It's Cande's birthday, we are having pozole, you want to come?", you know or "There is a Baby Shower", or "There's a quinceañera, you want to come?". So I always came and shot, whether I was going to use the stuff or not.

MD: I was really interested in asking about the position of the filmmaker or the documentarian as an objective observer. I think what's for me so amazing about the tapes is that that line is completely eliminated.

LH: I am a subjective observer.

MD: And a participant!

LH: Yes!

MD: Which is what I was trying to get at. You know, there is this dilemma, the documentarian's dilemma: when do you intervene, or do you intervene because then you affect the objectivity of your record or of your document? And I think what's so nice about these "Tapes" is that it seems that when you can, then you just do, because it is more about the personal, social connections.

LH: Yes. Like helping Pancha and Cande get a house [being a co-signer on their mortgage application] seemed like a natural thing, it was not a big deal for me, I could do that. And other kind of situations... I just can't tape them and leave...and say, "Oh! I am sorry, we're finished with the tape!" (Laughs)

There is a boundary of the film that gets very blurred with the boundary of my personal relationship with them. And its okay, because it becomes a mutual autobiography.

Here at the university you have to go through this whole rigmarole of human subjects, every kind of sociological study, scientific study, you have to get permission to show that you are not abusing the people, because I think the university has been sued a number of times. So they're very careful. You fill out the forms and they say, "Will the identity of the subject be revealed?", and I have to write down, "If I don't reveal the identity of the subject, they'll be very angry because their names won't appear in the credits. [Laughs]

And I do think the people in the tape feel a degree of ownership for it... not just being subjects but also being partly producers of it.

MD: I think the other thing I wanted to talk about is this notion of the neighbor. In a way, that's how this whole thing began, as a relationship between neighbors. Is that why it's a reoccurring theme?

LH: I only realized it later, that when I moved into Analos, it was a replication of my childhood. I lived in Nogales, I had some neighbors, some people who were part of the family that were Mexican and some parts of the family were not, some lived and had business interests in Nogales, Sonora, other had Nogales, Arizona. It was a very fluid border, and people moved back and forth very easily and families were spread across both, it was very intimate.

So my pleasure in the Analos, was that instead of having this line where one side was Mexico and one side was the United States...instead of having this border, the neighborhood itself was Mexico, and it was surrounded by U.S. culture. It was a replication of the same thing because I could step outside and go to the university or go see my friends and I'd be in the United States, but when I would go home it was like living in Mexico. It was comfortable for me.

Later I realized it was a replication of my childhood, that permeability between two cultures.

MD: I ask the question about the neighbor because of that, because even myself growing up in Tijuana and then coming to San Diego to go to school for example, you develop this sense of the border as this very permeable thing, with such interconnected communities. You know, this notion of a more tight-knit, engaged [binational] community, knowing your neighbors in a way. And now thinking of the current political climate, this has completely changed.

LH: Oh yeah. It's the whole walled off thing. I mean it is really hard to imagine someone, except a politician, calling someone a neighbor, because they have made it impossible to be a neighbor, you can't see them. It's like imagining the Palestinians and the Jews as neighbors -- they are not really neighbors because they have this massive wall between them. When you make something like that you break down the possibility of being neighbors.

MD: At least for me, it was really captivating to see how that breakdown in social interaction can occur in smaller fragments, like in the communities where some of the protagonists are living in northern San Diego, so then you start thinking about the fragmentation of engagement within small communities as perhaps being linked to the fragmentation between nations. It's those connections between the micro-community and the nation.

LH: I think that's quite true.

Rufina. Still from "The American Tapes"
Rufina. Still from "The American Tapes"

MD: And I think that's something I really responded to with the "American Tapes," in thinking about the very divisive political rhetoric in recent talks about immigration reform, there is a disconnect between the political rhetoric and these very basic, personal interactions between people at all levels.

LH: Well, it's very badly mis-characterized in the United States. If people thought about, when they went to that restaurant, and they put that fork into that salad, and they put the tomato into their mouth, and they thought that probably that tomato had been picked by someone, and that probably the dish they are eating off was washed by someone who is Mexican. There is an intimate relationship, they just don't recognize it, or there in denial about how close the Mexican community actually is to them.

In the "American Tapes," Louis Hock and his former neighbors make a compelling case for learning to not only recognize this proximity, but learning to value interconnectedness to confront and even transcend social, economic and even political barriers.

You can watch the complete American Tapes during the West Coast premiere screening at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, on May 11th. For more information please visit: http://www.mcasd.org/events/american-tapes

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Top Image: Carlos and Maria. Still from "The American Tapes."

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