AFS Mexico — Steve James visits Nuevo Laredo and Piedras Negras
On Wednesday, August 22nd, AFS filmmaker Steve James (Hoops Dreams, The Interrupters) and School of Cinematic Arts Director of Programming, Alex Ago, arrived in the bustling, populous border town of Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, where they met up with Mariana Barberena from the U.S. Consulate. More than most cities in Mexico, Nuevo Laredo has experienced a chilling display of public violence that has terrorized its citizens in recent years. The paramilitary cartel known as Los Zetas (formerly the armed wing of the Gulf Carter) control the narco-trafficking in the region, and have been engaged in a bloody conflict with the rival Sinaloa Cartel. Public squares, bridges and monuments are frequent dumping grounds for mutilated bodies tagged with gang signs, meant to send messages to their enemies and to ensure that the citizens of Nuevo Laredo live in a constant state of fear.
In this context, The Interrupters was screened for recovering alcoholics, drug addicts and former gang members at the Comunidad Cristiana en Nuevo Laredo, a safe haven for an NGO called Barrios para Cristo, which helps people reconstruct their lives through community and faith. The film plays to an emotional, mostly male crowd in their 30s & 40s, with a few supportive women sitting quietly to the side in solidarity. The discussion that followed proved to be an exceptionally passionate one – to an extent, the participants asking questions also used the opportunity to offer testimonials about their own lives, sharing with James and the group intimate details about their struggles. One participant showed James the documentation from his recent release from prison and gave him a book that tells an inspirational story about getting sober and returning to Christ. The identification with the film is strong – some see it as a guide for how to avoid returning to the streets, some see how even the most hardened criminals can turn a corner and help others. The work being done by Barrios para Cristo has been spreading – from Mexico to Peru, Argentina, Spain, etc. After an emotional goodbye, James and Ago return to Laredo, Texas for the night.
Back in Nuevo Laredo on Thursday, August 23rd, James and Ago bring the film to an elegant library and gallery space called Estación Palabra. The audience is a full house of about 105 neatly uniformed students, girls on the left/boys on the right, from the local Conalep Preparatoria 1 junior high school. The viewing, which repeats that afternoon for a second class of students from the same school, is organized by the local NGO Comité Municipal de Participación Ciudadana de Nuevo Laredo, which seeks to present at-risk students with alternatives to the ever-present threat of gang induction. The questions from the students start out slowly, mostly out of shyness – who wants to break the ice in front of a hundred of their peers? To get the ball rolling, James turns the Q&A on them and asks if anyone has experienced violence in their own lives. A few brave students start to open up and ask James if he would make a film like The Interrupters in Nuevo Laredo, to which James counters that the story of Nuevo Laredo is better handled by strong-willed citizens from their hometown. Most are surprised to learn that such levels of violence can happen in the United States, and to some extent take comfort in knowing that their problems are universal and not unique to Mexico.
In between sessions with the Conalep students, James engaged in a roundtable discussion with about 25 older participants, comprising local NGO representatives from Tamaulipas, who help rebuild communities and work with kids who have suffered from violence, as well as communications & marketing students, cultural promoters, journalists, multimedia editors and teachers at the Asociación de Agentes Aduanales. To open the discussion, James shared the story behind why he made The Interrupters – two of the characters from an earlier film of his, Hoops Dreams, had since been murdered on the streets of Chicago. The impact that this had on their families stuck with him, particularly as he would read about the escalating violence in his hometown. When he read about CeaseFire, it seemed like an opportunity to put urban violence back into the forefront of the conversation and inspire policymakers to take a look at non-traditional approaches to violence prevention and mediation. As a result of the film’s impact, the public conversation and debate have been resurrected by politicians and the media, both of which had long-ignored active solutions to crime in the inner city. This also helped change the perception of the Chicago police force, which had publicly and derisively referred to CeaseFire’s methods as “Hug-a-Thug”. After viewing the film, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to commit $1,000,000 in public funding to the organization, the first time the government has supported its initiatives. James highlighted the successful exportation of the CeaseFire model and approach to countries such as Jamaica and Iraq, and that Mexico could be a place where these ideas can translate.
In drawing comparisons between the episodes captured by the film and the situation in Mexico, James referred to a similar lack of opportunities, perception of fewer choices, and poverty. The most dramatic difference lies in the organization of the gangs – whereas street violence in Chicago is now primarily about personal disputes or spontaneous conflicts between clicks, the situation in Nuevo Laredo is far more tied to organized crime and calculated terror. In Chicago, 90% of the violence happens in 10% of the city – in Nuevo Laredo, the violence affects the whole city and can’t be hidden from view. Agreeing with James, one respondent points to the media for accentuating the negative: showing mutilated bodies (such as those found in San Fernando), but not reporting on the good work that’s being done in the community, such as local spaces for children to express themselves creatively through art, music and dance, and helping kids to socialize as a counterpoint to violence. There’s a consensus in the room that affiliation with gangs is often not a choice and that most people would choose not to participate if given the opportunity to avoid them – what drives a lot of the work done by the group is teaching young people what their alternatives are, how to build a life outside of gang culture, and how to escape the often fatal trajectory of working for the cartels. To this end, Ameena Matthews and Cobe Williams, two characters from the The Interrupters, offer a powerful model for how to turn your life around. They don’t judge the behavior of the active gang members they counsel, because they understand the lifestyle – the money, the parties, and the power. Their goal is to help individuals to think “beyond the moment” and consider the consequences.
While discussing the documentary, the issue of trust resurfaced: how to get access, how to ease into a comfort level with the community. For James, the answer was straightforward: he built the relationship with CeaseFire first, which granted him access and credibility in South Chicago. Although there are significant differences between cultures and the violence in Chicago and Nuevo Laredo, James took a moment to reflect on solutions to violent issues that he gleaned from his time working on the film. He suggested three levels of engagement: interceding into family situations to help repair some of the damage there by absent or abusive parents, and giving people a foundation that they can come back to; have organizations for at-risk youth and children that can help fill their lives with other things (sports, arts, community, etc.); make it happen on a political level, since most groups work with very scarce resources. Oftentimes in the U.S., people aren’t aware of about what goes on in poor neighborhoods until they begin to feel it themselves, whereas in Mexico, it seems like these problems are omnipresent. Everyone feels threatened by violence in Nuevo Laredo – it seems like the right time for a change at the political level. James concludes with a challenge: “If not now, when?”
On Friday, August 24th, the final day in Mexico takes James and Ago to Piedras Negras, another border town settled across from Eagle Pass, Texas. Piedras Negras is home of the International Nacho Festival and stands apart as the Birthplace of the ‘Nacho’, which has a popular fan base in the U.S. but rarely appears on a menu in Mexico. Despite it’s legendary origins, Ago is shocked to learn that the restaurant responsible for the very first plate of nachos recently closed – another victim of the drug war, as tourism and business have plummeted. Piedras Negras however takes great pride in another landmark: it proudly hosts the largest flag & flag-pole in the Americas. Towering over the entrance to the city, the giant flag of Mexico is so large that it can only be raised on days with mild wind. The final screenings of The Interrupters take place in the nearby Auditorio José Vasconcelos to a huge crowd of teenagers from CBTIS, Tecnica No. 5, and Secundaria Benito Juarez high schools. 200 – 250 students pour out of yellow school buses for their first field trip of the year and completely pack the large auditorium. Unfortunately, technical issues cause the film to skip, jumping over large segments that heavily feature Latino ‘Interrupter’ Eddie Bocanegra, the character that most audiences have identified with. Despite a fragmented viewing, the morning students are rowdy and full of energy as they egg each other on to ask questions, take pictures with James and gather autographs. A popular question from the students is asking which celebrities James has worked with (despite Ago’s suggestion to lie and tell them Salma Hayek, James fails to impress the kids with such lesser known actors as Hollywood legend Paul Newman). The afternoon viewing is a smoother experience, but the anticipation of getting dismissed from school curtails a more interactive Q&A.
Returning to Laredo for a final night on the road, James and Ago conclude the AFS tour of Mexico, having participated in a wide array of interactions, both intimate and large. Unfortunately, and to his great dismay, Ago never found his nachos.