Imagine being told that you can’t go back to your homeland, where your loved ones are, and your soul belongs. That’s what happened to the Ciudad-Juárez-born and San Francisco Bay Area-based singer-songwriter Diana Gameros, 38, featured in the new documentary Dear Homeland by the filmmaker Claudia Escobar.
While this travel restriction to return to Mexico wasn’t forever, ultimately, this purgatory-like sentence lingered on for close to two decades until the glorious day Gameros received the call to finally pick up her green card.
In most cases, until that day comes, most undocumented people feel like they should live unfulfilled lives in the shadows.
Unless you or someone you know has lived in the United States without papers, it is hard to truly grasp this sort of mental incarceration while living in the supposed land of the free. A land that you have sacrificed your entire life to come to study and work in, but with a catch-22 of not being able to leave it until the paperwork is approved or not.
Gameros decided to take that soul-crushing feeling of nostalgia and longing and make some of the most ethereal and heartfelt music this journalist has heard in quite some time. Long-haired and lanky, and with an old school folk-rocker air to her, Gameros’s musical talent, along with her inner and outer beauty, makes her a subject delightful to watch, feel for, and dream with.
The documentary begins three years before Gameros actually gets the celebratory call and the last moments of the film capture Gameros’s long-awaited road trip back to her homeland. Viewers witness a homecoming that feels like a mariachi-serenade rebirth, poetically captured by Escobar´s stylish lens and a knack for filming life´s magical moments.
“Immigration stories are usually about the hardships of arriving,” says Escobar from her home in California. “I wanted to reverse the narrative and diversify it by showing what it is actually like for immigrants to finally go back home.”
This documentary, which made its digital premiere in June, was produced by the San Francisco public media outlet KQED in a partnership with The Center for Cultural Power, follows Gameros as she totes around her guitar case on her back in her new adopted land.
She asserts herself not only as a musician but as a citizenship-seeking immigrant. She winds up being an advocate for immigrant rights in the tradition of other Latina musician activists like the great Joan Baez.
At one point in the documentary, Gamero opens up a song at a rally with a Baez quote about how sometimes it’s necessary to get into some good trouble during hard times. Gameros seems well aware that the tradition of protest music, from folk to rock, has always been a safe way of voicing dissatisfaction for the oppressed.
A new twist to your typical immigration story
Unlike Gameros and her sunny bravado, the woman behind the making of this film — who worked as its director, producer, cinematographer, and editor — experienced a kind of greyer timidity as an undocumented person. Born Medellín, Claudia Escobar, 41, had studied architecture and worked in theater in Colombia before she moved to the States in 2004 with a desire to work in the movie industry.
“I came with my tourist visa and wound up overstaying. I attended San Francisco’s City College and took a bunch of film classes, even though, as an undocumented person, I couldn’t get a degree. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to learn about filmmaking. I was very shy when I was undocumented and didn’t want to make any noise. I wanted to be in the shadows.”
Having come from this place on her personal journey, Escobar set her goals on creating a vivid counter-narrative to the typically heavy and dehumanizing portrayals about immigrants we see. Dear Homeland is instead a poetically upbeat yet deep reflection on the meaning of home, immigrant solidarity, and the power of arts in the United States.
“Diana is very inspiring, and as an artist, I admire her deeply. Through her music, she’s shared her immigration story in the most beautiful way. She touched my life in many ways. Following her, seeing her emotions, resilience, and waiting process helped me process my own feelings about immigration.”
At the same time, this documentary is also a discovery of an unknown talent such as Gameros and a behind-the-scenes story about the friendship of two female artists, both undocumented for some time, that kept working on their art despite their status.
Gameros attended music classes and performed in countless concerts. Escobar worked as an experimental photographer and in the film world until she began working at KQED as a video producer, making short web videos for the art team.
Another factor that drew Escobar to Gameros’s story was how the new generation of immigrants is so brave at advocating their existence as undocumented people. In fact, Gameros’s immigration experience is an integral part of her performances, as she tells her audience about her applying for a green card and missing Mexico. It’s a topic that many in the audience can identify with, given San Francisco is such a sanctuary city for immigrants.
When Gameros first moved to the Bay City from cold and conservative Michigan, it felt like she had landed on another planet.
“When you are in a place that is more welcoming, being undocumented is easier,” adds Escobar. She wanted the film to show the close-knit immigrant community that this part of the country has and inspire the undocumented in other parts of the country to speak up, talk about their journeys and fears in hopes that they receive support from others along the way.
To finance a documentary about immigration is not an easy feat, especially when KQED had stopped producing films for quite some time. But when Escobar approached the person who was her boss at the time to back their one-hour road trip documentary starring Gameros, he said yes and then pushed hard to get the film the money it needed.
Dear Homeland received funding to be a documentary about a Mexican homecoming. Still, when Trump got elected, everyone involved worried if the film could actually be made if Gameros´s green card never arrived. “You are in the hands of the government, and that isn’t something that people are used to,” says Escobar “What if she just doesn’t get it, we asked ourselves?”
Then on an ordinary day, she got the call, and they packed their bags to take that road trip to Mexico they spent years dreaming about. Once again, the world had open borders, and Gameros would be reunited with her people.
When I ask Escobar what it must have felt like for Gameros to cross that border back home finally, she says, “When you spend so much time not having freedom, and then you have that freedom again, it all becomes more magnified. You have more confidence. You are more yourself. You are born again.”
The documentary will be shown at the 2020 virtual San Diego Latino Film Festival on September 24th and 27th https://sdlff2020.eventive.org/films/5f337dc14023fd0093dfa742. Further information about upcoming screenings of “Dear Homeland” is available here. https://dearhomelandfilm.com/upcoming-screeningsj