Migration and Cultural Identities

Irene Garcia
Cinema Studies Ph. D. candidate
New York University

"Immigrant Stories, New Media Technologies and the
Last Border(less) Land"

This text deals with emergent films and videos by three NY-based Latino artists: Ecuadorian born Wilson Burbano, Mexican born Felipe Galindo (Feggo), and American with Peruvian descent Alex Rivera. Although they work in a transnational, global and informative era, when media seems to deepen the gap between north and south, rich and poor, empowered and disenfranchised peoples, these Latino media artists use technology to work against this trend. They significantly challenge the power of the commercial filmmaking establishment with its customary financial support, using media to raise issues regarding immigrant's civil and labor rights. Coming from Latino diaspora communities, they are conscious of their activities as vehicles for rescuing traditions, reconstructing cultural identities and asserting political rights. The authors of this "new media"-who use a mix of old and new TV and film footage, digital video, animation, Internet, virtual reality and so on-are engaged in representing Latino cultures in the US that have been marginalized, stereotyped and represented by others, or by Latinos themselves only driven by profiting. I suggest that Latino filmmakers use such new technologies to intervene in the public sphere, helping to re-considerate the place that media has in Latino lives in the US.

Introduction (and theoretical background)
Because the process of immigration changes identities, and one is no longer what used to be, struggle for self-definition becomes a political act of resistance and negotiation. The work of the Latino artists commented here is deeply marked by immigration experiences and enact this processes of resistance and negotiation, as well as assimilation and transformation of the host culture. Throughout their work, these Latino artists re-define the Latino identity in the US, a self definition which is strongly bound up with the emergence of new technology such as digital video, non-linear editing and the WWW. Perhaps the complex Latino identities co-existing in a highly hybridized cultural environment necessitated the use of new resources and new generic ways to express themselves, but not in the former self pitying manner. Rather, their consideration has an ironical and powerful tone. I suggest that in their work, these artists discuss collective Latino experiences of social and cultural marginality to actively use media as a public sphere (or counter public sphere as in Nancy's Fraser concept) to sway public opinion in favor of Latino civil rights, advocating an amnesty for immigrant workers, and observing human rights at the Mexican-US border. Although they are based in New York, they are constantly traveling-physically and virtually-inside and outside the country to strengthen what they envisage as new networks of communication to discuss immigration issues and write stories that account for representing the underrepresented culture of the Latino Diaspora.
Before proceeding to introduce these filmmakers, it is necessary to define what is understood by the label of Latino and the concept of new media. A provisional definition of a Latino identity is important because, as Suzanne Oboler has suggested, the current discussion about the terminologies Hispanic versus Latino to designate peoples with Spanish-speaking background in the US embodies a political and symbolic struggle. In the first place, Latinos have chosen to call themselves with this term as an act of self definition against a definition created by others. A second reason to embrace the term Latino is a matter of historical specificity versus confusing lack of contextualization. While the racial term Hispanic homogenizes a multicultural population of different ethnicities, class, languages, national origins, genders and religions, the geopolitical term Latino specifies peoples with Latin American descent that share as unifying factor the relation with the US.(5)
The controversy can be understood paying attention to the realms where the terms have been deployed. The term Hispanic has been used in at least four sites: the governmental instances that dictate educative, social and cultural policies; the US Immigration and Naturalization Service that dictate immigrant laws; the political system which address Hispanics as citizens only when looking for potential voters; and the advertising, media and business strategies pursuing the segmentation of strategic markets that construct Hispanics both as consumers and as a commodity. On the contrary, according to Oboler, the term Latino has been used in order to structure Latino access to improved socioeconomic and educational resources and enhance political power. It has been used to identify and distinct peoples with Spanish-speaking background that, however, have multicultural experiences.
The controversy around Latino self definition is strongly bound up with the emergence of a new media in the US. Perhaps these complex Latino identities living together in a highly hybridized cultural environment had to result on the use of new resources to express themselves. As Patricia Zimmermann has noted, the new media phenomena is caught within the folds of intense political and aesthetic contradictions: the changing transnationalized economic sphere of commercial media on the one hand and the emergence of new technologies, new subjectivities, new discourses, new wars ambushes on the other. (xv) I assume Latino artists represent one of these new subjects, elaborating new discourses through new technologies.
The concepts of new technology and new media are not meant "new" because they did not exist before, but because their new use. Following Zimmermann, in this text I understand new technology as the mixture of new high technologies-digital video, non-linear editing, virtual reality, internet and so on-with old low-tech artifacts-radio, film, TV, satellite, cable et al. Similarly, I understand new media by its use of this new technology-in the aforementioned sense-but also by its use of it in relocated contexts, as Zimmermann suggests.
A second characteristic to define new media is, again, a mixture of traditional and alternative distribution systems that infiltrates dominant mass media. It moves in the new global transnational economy and communication, but also in the form of pirate copies distributed hand by hand in restricted venues. As a result of the mixture of new technologies and distribution systems, new media allows to blur the division of producer and consumer. Authors become consumers in the moment they appropriate and recontextualize other's cultural artifacts. Audiences become authors in the moment they use these, already recycled, cultural artifacts to produce not only new hybridized cultural items, but social actions. The result is a new production of performative meanings, social uses and material products.
Zimmermann names these new media artists, media pirates, who are "poachers of textual meanings". She recuperates and decriminalizes the term piracy by differentiating it from commercial plagiarism. Piracy does not take the entire of the text, but decontextualize it in order to recontextualize it. Piracy does not rend the copying process invisible, on the contrary, underlines that the process of snatching is a disruptive act and intervention. If commercial plagiarism, she continues, make copies for profit, media pirate copies for pleasure of profaning the dominant commercial media discourse and turning against itself. The commercial plagiarist operates in the realm of exchange value, whereas the media pirate functions outside and between exchange relations. Finally, the commercial plagiarist produces an object while the media pirate produces new subjects (155). Although piracy is one of the characteristics that new media artists frequently display, there are other issues that should be stressed, especially those regarded to engage cultural backgrounds to represent a culture by its own.
Since new media was born in the post-cold war, with the popularization of video and the informational revolution, it belongs to young and popular cultures. That is why new media recuperates both aesthetics.
Similarly, new media simultaneously differentiates and nourishes from American and Latin American film traditions. It recuperates their aesthetics, but add them a political dimension. The same is in regard to commercial TV. New media embraces its aesthetics-genres, footage, characters, heroes-and elaborates it, but in non-linear narratives. While new media hybridizes TV genres, it creates new meanings and new aesthetics. Consequently, new media is not documentary, but fake documentary; it is not promotional film, but mock promotional film.
New media, contrarily to other media usage, is transnational not national. It destabilizes fixed national identities and pluralizes them, underlining its hybrid nature. Additionally, new media embraces deterritorialization, but also the local spheres, like personal and family stories. Indeed, it moves simultaneously between the personal (biography, autobiography, self portrait), the local (the neighborhood, school, community), the regional (cities, ethnicities), the national (Mexico, US), and the global (economy).
New media also draws in ancestral folkloric traditions and grassroots organizations coming from the national histories: the barrio, el vato, la virgen. In this sense is not only cultural, but multicultural. Likewise, it is spoken in English or in Spanish, but frequently is Spanglished. The language of new Latino media nourishes from the well-known Latino satire tradition, as well.

New Latino Media
If new media is a vehicle for marginalized sub cultural groups to open up spaces within the dominant media texts to raise their cultural concerns, to appropriate those media texts in a fashion that serves their own interests, then a decisive struggle is being performed by new media Latino artists in the US. It is here, indeed, where Latino artists are actively using media as a public sphere. Although they are based on the three most important cities of the country-Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York-they are constantly traveling-physical and virtually-outside and inside the country to strength what it seems a new public sphere.
In the following, I want to address some insights about what would define the new Latino media in the US by mentioning the work of three NY-based artists: Ecuadorian born Wilson Burbano, Mexican born Felipe Galindo (Feggo), and Peruvian descent Alex Rivera.
Iramuda, by Wilson Burbano is an eleven-minute film that addresses the culture shock experienced by an immigrant persona coming to NYC. In the first place, Burbano racializes and destabilizes images of immigrants in the US as poor illegal Latin Americans by portraying an immigrant who does not look like Latino, but like an Anglo Saxon or European. He embodies the condition without referring any ethnic or national background. The immigrant does not get to Manhattan crossing the border, but swimming the river and climbing the bridges. He comes to the city much more like someone who is shipwrecked, whose biography is still to discover because it cannot be read in the color of his skin.
The urban landscape seems to overwhelm him, but not because its impressiveness, but for its indifference. He is hungry and nude in the middle of the NY's winter, but still he does not look frightened or weak, instead he seems to interrogate the city's icon (the Liberty statue) from his own hungry and nudity. It is a great paradoxical moment in the movie: hungry, nudity and liberty seem not combining very well. The character appropriates the city as he discovers it, but not really amazed by it, rather dizzied by it. The movie ends up with his encounter with the "other": an extremely sophisticated female New Yorker who seems to have trespassed unthinkable limits. Even though her sophistication, she spits out of him to express her scorn. He can not resist and spits out her in response. Surprisingly, she gets sexually aroused. In a subversive sequence of mutual spits outs, she gets an orgasm without touching him. The immigrant had eaten something from the garbage so he was already sick-from the city, the spoil food, the woman. He was involuntary vomiting out her until he is so sick that cannot stand up. Satisfied, the woman leaves without caring of him. The storyline stresses the contradictions and paradoxes of Westerners: they have become so sophisticated that only the most perverse situations satisfy them. They are unnaturally dissatisfied that even a so natural, although disgusting, act is surprisingly enough to comfort their injured soul.
Burbano's composition within the frame reveals him as a careful film artisan. There is no single shot that does not express multiple visual meanings, while following the coherent storyline. This is amazing because Burbano does not use dialogue at all, since his images and the efficient editing are enough to narrate. The last sequences have an original stylistic touch: Burbano uses simple masking-tape all over the places his character walks in the city.
This is the first urban movie by Burbano. He spent years studying film in Moscow, where he had to learn "composition of the emptiness", as he explained. "In Ecuador it was easy because wherever you look at, there is beauty, color, natural perfection. When I arrived to Russia, there is nothing except the winter, and you have to be creative with it". He filmed Angelous and Weddings, both full of his personal imaginary combined with his unique style.
Burbano is a new media filmmaker without using new or any other media, except film. His novelty relies in his theme-the non-racial immigrant-his composition, and political commentary where immigrants are represented with dignity, in spite of their hungry and poverty. Burbano was inspired by his personal experiences as an immigrant to NYC to write the storyline for Iramuda. It was his way of appropriating the city that it is still adverse to him. However, it was not in a self condescending approach, but taking over the power of representing other's weakness.
The struggle for self representation, validating cultural heritage is also present in Manhatitlan Chronicles by Felipe Galindo, Feggo. He is a talented illustrator from Mexico City, a place where his pure sense of humor was an obstacle for his professional development in a market in which black humor predominates due to the everyday economic and political disasters.
Besides his productive calendar, Feggo started drawing Mexican iconography merged with that of Manhattan. Coming from an already hybridized culture which happily incorporates foreign cultural artifacts, it was natural to Feggo to come up with this mixture of symbols. Once he started to experiment with animation, he developed the Manhatitlan Chronicles. The title announces his inclination towards a cultural mestizaje, instead of dominating, resisting or simple incorporating other's culture, by combining the pre-Colombian name for Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) and the main New York City´s island. Here is the setting for his appropriation of the Mexican colonial chronicles-a genre developed by the evangelists to relate to the Spanish the "strange" events in distant lands. In a sense, Feggo is the storyteller of the surprising events happened in a "strange" land call Manhattan.
The chronicles are meant in the short animated film like gangs. Most of them deal with the increasing Mexican culture presence in NYC. In one of them we see a trajinera-a traditional Mexican boat- navigating in what it seems to be the Xochimilco lake, in Mexico city, where families use to hang out while having food and listening to the Mariachis. A slow zoom-out reveals that the setting is not the Xochimilco Lake, but the Hudson River. In another gang-or chronicle-we see the Voladores de Papantla, an indigenous ancestral dance where the dancers hang up side down, pending from a high shaft, wearing traditional clothes. The same performative strategy is used, but the camera reveals that they are actually pending from the Empire State building. There are reminiscent of how a Mexican non western imaginary is capable of incorporating other cultures. In one of the animations we see a pre Colombian Mexican performing a ritual dance in front of the Liberty statue. Through a caption we know that the crown of the statue resembles him to the Virgin of Guadalupe, which has its religious origin in the Mexica goddess Tonantzin. Feggo recuperates the historical process of mestizaje in Mexico to account for the current mestizaje that NYC is experiencing due to the arrival of Mexicans. His animated cartoon is intended to explain Mexican culture to others, but also to represent Mexican culture in a dignified way. At the end of the short film, the Manhattan landscape is represented by Feggo as full of Mexican icons with careful detail, expressing love for both cultures. His style is not confrontational, but it is meant as a respectful dialogue among equals. Feggo is a Latino new media artist because he mixes cartoon, animation, and film, but especially because he recuperates his own cultural background to insert it in a new context.
Alex Rivera does the same in his first video Papapapá (1995, 25 min). It is a compound word that mixes the two meanings given to the Spanish word papa: potato (papa) and father (papá). In this sense, the documentary tells the story of two Peruvian immigrants: the potato and his father. By doing so, Rivera makes the potato a metaphor for (his father´s) immigration. In a mix of fake documentary and auto ethnography, the piece explains how Peruvian potato has been taken from its place of origin and exported to the US where it is commercialized and transformed into potato chips to be consumed by "couch potatoes". The next argumentative step in the documentary is to identify that Latino identity is also transformed during the migration process and also commercialized by the Spanish television. In a way, Latino identity has to be assimilated to the new culture but also one part of it remains faithful to the original place. In this moment the piece moves towards a more intimate tone, recuperating the author's Latino background. He interviews his father in regard to his migrating story, and how he still lives divided between his homeland memories and his assimilation to the US culture. As a result, he spends hours in front the Spanish channels trying to join his memories and his actual life in the USA. Accordingly, Rivera uses the metaphor of Virtual Lima as a imaginary space where his dad can reunite his experiences. Using the discourse of cyberspace Rivera meditates how people is reevaluating distance and culture since a transnational perspective. However, the piece interrogates contradictions about the Latino culture in the US. On the one hand they are discriminated social and technologically--since few people have access to Internet, for example, but at the same time they are addressed as potential consumers by television.
Making amusing references to Hollywood movies that Rivera used to consume as a child, Papapapá is reflexive about its own media background, proposing both a recuperation and a critique of it. The piece shows Rivera´s preference for sci-fi Hollywood movies like Closer Encounters and Stars Wars, but this does not prevent him to use his sense of humor in a more questioning way.
His humor, though, is much more satirical in another fake documentary titled Why Cybraceros? It is based in an old propagandistic documentary that the US government used to advocate the Bracero Program. It was intended to convince American people of having the farm work done by migrant Mexican workers, who were not officially involved in the American economy. Rivera not only uses de old footage, but takes the tone, the discourse arguments and animated images to propose, in a satirical way, that nowadays is better to have the job done by cybraceros: robotic farm workers who are remotely controlled by Mexicans to picking, pruning and cutting in the American farms. As a result, only the labor of Mexicans will cross the border, but Mexican workers will remain outside the country so that they do not provoke social problems running away to live illegally in the US. "Using high speed internet connections, the mock propagandistic documentary argues, these workers will be able to remotely control Cybraceros from their villages in Mexico. We think this program will satisfy all the demands of the American farmer, worker, grocer and average citizen alike. In Spanish Cybracero means a worker who poses no threat of becoming a citizen. And that means quality products at low financial and social costs to you, the American consumer". It is amusing when we heard this discourse together with images of a Mexican worker manipulating an animated cybracero with a simple joystick and an old computer.
In this piece, Rivera uses low-tech (recycled footage) and high-tech (digital animation) tools to comment on immigration issues and contradictory government's policies. Besides the archival footage, the piece uses news clips of Mexican workers being beaten by the LA police. By juxtaposing these two kinds of footage and giving them a new meaning, parodying the discourse, and adding digital animation, Alex Rivera creates a new space of resistance. His filmmaking represents a cultural practice that is speaking for his underrepresented community, breaking traditional discourses.
He does the same with Hollywood's promo for Independence Day. Rivera "steals" footage and add to it a new parodic sound track and simple digital animation to subvert the original meaning and turns it against the mainstream ideology that created the original footage. Digitalized sombreros invade the White House in a subversive offensive that alludes revenge for the historical oppression.

To conclude this provisional revision of an emergent work by Latino artists working with new media discourses and technology, I would like to stress the fact that their work is arising public opinion in favor of Latino civil rights, advocating an amnesty for immigrant workers, and watching human rights in the Mexican-US Border. In this sense, these artists are creating public spheres to discuss immigration issues and making both history and stories that account for representing the underrepresented culture of the Latino Diaspora. They are creating more democratic spaces, but not in a fixed way but shifting strategies, technologies, and textual interventions.

References and other important sources for this work

Fraser, Nancy, "Rethinking the Public Sphere. A Contribution of the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy", in Bruce Robbins (ed.), The Phantom Public Sphere, Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Ginsburg, Faye (1994), Culture and Media: A (Mild) Polemic", Anthropology Today, vol. 10, no. 2.
(2001) "Screen Memories: Resignifying the Traditional in Indigenous Media", in The Social Practice of Media, (forthcoming).
Naficy, Hamid (ed.)Home, Exile, Homeland. Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, , NY-London, Routledge, 1999.
Oboler, Suzanne, "Hispanis? That's What They Call Us", in Ethnic labels, Latino Lives, Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Zimmermann Patricia, States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies, Minneapolis/London, University of Minnesota Press, 2000.
----- and John Hess, "Transnational Documentaries: a Manifesto", Afterimage.