New Video Story Archive Gives Human Face to Deportation

Irwin with Gerardo Sánchez

Gerardo Sánchez, who was deported, and Robert Irwin, co-director of project

Oct. 12, 2017 -  During two intensive months this summer, professors and students from UC Davis and El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico, met with dozens of people who had spent much of their lives in the United States but after being deported are trying — often with great difficulty — to make a new life in Mexico. The result is “Humanizing Deportation/Humanizando la Deportación: A Digital Storytelling Project” of 40 videos that tell their stories.

“This project will make visible a range of humanitarian issues that mass human displacement has generated on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Robert Irwin, professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and co-director of the project with Guillermo Alonso Meneses, professor of cultural studies at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte. “Policy debate on deportation tends to be driven by statistics, with little attention to human experience.”

The project grew out of the Mellon Initiative in Comparative Border Studies overseen by the UC Davis Humanities Institute.  Eight UC Davis students from the College of Letters and Science were part of the 15-member research team. They spent a month in Tijuana interviewing people who had been deported and another month creating the three- to five-minute videos.

art by

Painting by Emma Sánchez de Paulsen

Human Rights Series

The University of California, Davis, Human Rights Lecture Series takes off with a talk about “Star Trek,” featuring new UC Davis Chancellor Gary S. May. “Star Trek/Human Rights: To Boldly Go to Human Rights for All” on Dec. 4 starts the three-event series with Chancellor May and Human Rights Studies director Keith David Watenpaugh.

It will explore how the ideas and topics raised by the “Star Trek” television series and movies can be a teaching tool for human rights topics and barometer of where we stand on human rights. The 7 p.m. talk will be held at the Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento. This is the first time one of the talks has been held in Sacramento. Admission is free.

“Linking human rights issues to a familiar and beloved popular culture phenomenon creates a starting point for conversations about a difficult topic,” Watenpaugh said.

Watenpaugh will deliver the primary program topic, then he and he and the chancellor will discuss and exchange ideas.

Both scholars are long-time fans of “Star Trek.” May has said comic books, science fiction and especially “Star Trek” led to his early interest in science and technology. He earned his doctorate in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley in 1999, then started his career at the Georgia Institute of Technology where he last served as dean of the College of Engineering. Watenpaugh has used the issues raised in “Star Trek” in several of his classes.

The series continues at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis:

  • Jan. 25, 7 p.m. “Confederate Monuments, Civil Rights Memorials and Civic Values” 
  • March 8, 7 p.m. “The Trial Nobdy Expected: Torture, Music and Human Rights in the Americas” 

A Human Rights Films Festival takes place Oct. 19 - 22. 

Public launch Nov. 14

The project will officially launch at an event Nov. 14 from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at UC Davis. Featured speakers will include Darinka Carballo, founder and director of Fundación Gaia, a Tijuana community service organization focused on the deportation crisis, and Tina Shull, a Soros Justice Fellow from CIVIC: End Isolation, a group that monitors detention facilities, runs a hotline for detained immigrants, and gathers information to combat injustice. The event, free and open to the public, is co-sponsored by UC Davis Human Rights Studies  and the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center

Those interviewed include a 73-year-old man who came to the U.S. when he was in elementary school, several men who served in the U.S. armed forces, and women who had to leave their children behind. Some were deported for committing crimes, but others were deported after workplace raids, passing through a checkpoint, or being detained for re-entering the U.S. after previous deportations. Many have found the transition to life in Mexico difficult, but some have started jobs and businesses.

tattoo by deported artist

Tattoo art by woman inteviewed

Telling stories in their own voices

Participants were given a great deal of control over how their stories were told. In some cases, the stories are a more direct narrative featuring images and footage of the storyteller, but in others the subject never appears at all. Often family and archival images are used. One young man read his own four-minute long poem. A mother read the book she had written and illustrated for her two daughters whom she has not seen in four years. There is a homemade quality to the videos that is the product of the quick turnaround, photos and artwork from the people deported, archival video and photos, and aesthetic decisions by the participants in collaboration with research team members.

“We are helping them realize their vision of how they want to tell their story,” Irwin said. “We want them to feel like this is their production.” Sarah Ashford Hart, a doctoral student in performance studies, was on the research team.

One of the people she collaborated with was “Ismael,” a young musician who had strong ideas about what he wanted to say and how to say it. He wrote a script, picked all the music, and performed music for the video.

“He was very excited about it, and I was too,” Hart said. “He was the kind of person who could have been one of my students here.”

She also collaborated with Esther Morales Guzman, who started a successful tamale business in Mexico, and a female tattoo artist who tells her story in a voice- over of images of her ink creations.

All of the deportees had very definite ideas about how they wanted their stories to be told, said Hart, who has extensive experience working with community groups in creating theatre pieces.

“It’s very meaningful for people to hear and see themselves — it is a way of valuing their experiences,” she said. “The most important part of this for me was giving a window into their experience.”

Resource for research and teaching

The project will serve a number of groups and purposes.

  • Activists can use the videos to show the human face of deportation.
  • Researchers and scholars can tap the archive for first-person stories.
  • The videos can be a new and engaging way for teaching about deportation.

“Neither media coverage nor political discourse adequately accounts for the degree of human suffering that deportations have generated,” Irwin said. “Our project aims to communicate its human consequences in all their complexity.”

To make a gift to support this project visit https://give.ucdavis.edu/CLAS/324059

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The College of Letters and Science provides the foundation of a liberal arts education at UC Davis, teaching virtually all 28,000 undergraduate students to think and learn broadly and deeply. The largest of the schools and colleges at UC Davis, we teach and conduct multidisciplinary research in over 50 fields of study in the humanities, arts, cultural studies, social sciences, and math and physical sciences. We are home to nearly half of all undergraduate students at UC Davis, and our faculty mentor more than 1,500 graduate students. The college is consistently recognized for its excellence in research, teaching, and public service — the hallmarks of a leading land-grant university.

- Jeffrey Day, content strategist, College of Letters and Science. jaaday@ucdavis.edu