I am fascinated by the ways that freedom and immigration intersect. I grew up in Venezuela but immigrated to Dayton, Ohio when I was 16. In my new home, I experienced how liberating yet constricting the immigrant experience can be. I had no past in Dayton, no history. I was able to choose what I loved best about myself and craft a new story. And yet, I was limited by my lack of knowledge about the nuances of American culture and the intricate hurdles of expressing myself in a tongue that wasn’t my own. I had a blank canvas upon which to invent myself but only a few colours available to me. As the years went by, however, I acquired more and more shades and hues as the American culture became an integral part of who I am.
When I was trying to decide what to make my first feature documentary about, the immigrant experience made the most sense because it had shaped who I am and because immigrants are an often maligned and misunderstood population. I wanted to tell a story that would humanize immigrants for viewers. The resulting film, Vanishing Borders, explores the immigrant experiences of four women—Teboho Moja, Melainie Rogers, Daphnie Sicre, and Yatna Vakharia—who came from various places around the world to settle in New York City. The more I got to know these women and their spectacular stories, the more clear it became to me that they are bringing richness and complexity to those who interact with them in their new home.
The idea of freedom pervades the film and the women’s stories. Even before coming the New York City, they were battling for various kinds of liberation. Teboho, who was born in South Africa, spent much of her youth as a member of the anti-apartheid movement, while Daphnie had to escape her mother, who had mistreated her since childhood. They brought the knowledge and experience of national and personal struggles with them to the United States and have enriched their communities through that knowledge during their time here.
Once they arrived in New York, the women made freedom part of their life’s work. Melainie, who founded and runs a private practice for patients with eating disorders, has spent her professional life fighting for the health of her clients by treating not only the clinical but the emotional aspects of their conditions. She cares for her clients and also for her staff, hiring primarily women and creating a work environment where their contributions are valued. Yatna in her native India dropped out of college after her marriage and when she moved to the U.S. assiduously worked to support her children’s education. However, she decided to return to college once her children were older. Women—and mothers in particular—often spend much of their time caring for others, so the ability of women like Yatna to go after their own dreams constitutes an act of liberation.
When I made this film, I had the abstract notion that I would be able to humanize immigration for viewers through these stories, but it wasn’t until I started doing screenings at universities, public libraries, and classrooms that I understood what that actually meant. For non-immigrants, the film invites them to ask questions about immigration that they had been afraid to ask or hadn’t thought about before. For immigrants of both genders—but for women in particular—the film lets them know that their stories matter, that their journeys are compelling and worthy of being heard. Every time we screen the film, immigrant women in the audience tell their stories afterwards. Vanishing Borders humanizes immigration by reminding viewers that their stories are valuable and that sharing them can help others find their own way.
Hearing the stories that immigrants have to tell us is particularly vital in today’s political climate. Donald Trump calls Mexicans coming to America criminals and rapists and then goes on to become the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. His success will certainly (hopefully?) be short-lived, but how can such comments not land him in last place? And it isn’t only Republicans who dehumanize immigrants. The Obama administration has made some welcome strides toward legalizing certain illegal immigrants, but at the same time has deported over 7,000 unaccompanied children who entered the country illegally and done so without providing legal representation to them.
Just like my own immigration more than two decades ago was a complicated, intricate experience, immigration in general is something that needs a lot of complex thinking and compassion as we make sense of what the right decisions to make as a country are. Taking personal stories like the ones told in Vanishing Borders into account should help us make better informed, more humane decisions about how to treat those who want to make America their new home.