Filmmaker Ebony Bailey discusses her short film on African-Mexican society, Life Between Borders, which is streamed here, and the conditions faced by Haitian migrants in Mexico.
In her film Life Between Borders: Black Migrants in Mexico, Ebony Bailey meets Haitians who find themselves in Mexico hoping to reach the USA. She also speaks to Mexicans of African heritage, a group often overlooked in discussions around national identity. Over one million Mexicans have African ancestry.
In this Q&A, Ebony, who describes herself as ‘Blaxican’, a self-identifying term used by people of African and Mexican descent, talks about the issues raised in the film, which you can stream above.
Why did you decide to make this film?
This film was actually a final project for a certificate programme I did last year – we could do a short film or video on anything we wanted. I got the motivation after looking at photos in the newspaper of migrants at the border, and noticed they were all Black. I thought, wow, more Black people in Mexico! We share the same experience of being Black bodies in a country where we seemingly don’t exist, but very different experiences on how we got here. That really intrigued me, so I decided to go further. It was a very personal project for me.
I also thought it was important to make a film like this because, if we’re being honest, Black erasure in Latin America (especially Mexico) is real. Blackness is the backbone of many parts of LatAm culture, and the pioneering efforts of many Afro-Latinxs have been made invisible. So, in my view, representation can be very empowering. I see films like these to be part of the greater mobilisation for our communities.
The film addresses the conditions experienced by Haitian migrants in Mexico. What brought them to the country and what are the main challenges they face?
Many of them arrived in Mexico while trying to get to the United States, making the trek by land from Brazil. After the 2010 earthquake, thousands of Haitians fled to Brazil for humanitarian visas. Then, as Brazil’s economy started to slip, many of the Haitians started making their way up north in hope of reaching the US. But after Obama suspended the humanitarian visa for Haitians, the path to the US became much more difficult and many Haitians found themselves stranded in Mexico. Now a lot of them are trying to make their lives here instead of crossing.
For conciseness, I use ‘migration’ and ‘migrants’ a lot in relation to my film, but from my point of view I see it more as forced displacement. The global system of imperialism and white supremacy leave oppressed people with no other choice but to leave their homes in search of a better life. We can say that the earthquake was the tipping point for many Haitians to leave. But Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, and also the Blackest, and that’s not a coincidence. I’m reminded of a quote I once read from one of my favourite authors, Junot Díaz, about the earthquake: ‘We must refuse the old stories that tell us to interpret social disasters as natural disasters’. Haiti was not prepared for the disaster that hit it in 2010, and it was never meant to be.
As a woman of African-Mexican descent, born and raised in the USA, how do you perceive attitudes towards people of colour to differ between the two countries?
Interesting question. In the US being Black is ‘normal’. That’s not to say that discrimination doesn’t exist or that Black people aren’t treated differently. On the contrary, oppression against Black people (and people of colour in general) in the US happens on every institutional level. But it’s not ‘abnormal’ to see a Black person walking on the street in the US.
In Mexico, it’s a bit different. Blackness is not very ‘visible’ here so as a result, I get a lot of stares, weird questions and can feel pretty exoticised for the most part. I think, in general, there is a lack of racial consciousness here in Mexico that I’m not used to, being from the US. At home, we are very aware of racism and segregation, but here in Mexico people will chalk it up to classism without even mentioning race. For me, it is very apparent that upper-class neighbourhoods here are whiter and lower-class neighbourhoods are browner, but no-one really talks about that. At the same time though, many people here in Mexico still look toward the ‘white gaze’. There is even a phrase, mejorar la raza (improving the race), which implies that you should marry someone whiter so that you can have better-looking children.
Also, indigeneity is such a foundation of the culture here, but it is always thrown into the mestizaje box. For me, it seems that Mexico can’t fully embrace its indigenous roots without having them be associated with Europe in some way. As a result, indigenous communities here are heavily discriminated against. Part of me thinks the lack of racial consciousness I mentioned earlier is really just erasure of brownness and indigeneity.
You interviewed several people throughout the film. In these conversations, what most surprised or impressed you?
One man who comes out in the film in the hoodie, Godniel, really impressed me. He told me he studied medicine and was a doctor in Venezuela. In fact, many of the Haitians in Tijuana had advanced degrees. I guess I was taken a bit by surprise. Hearing these stories definitely breaks your conceptions of Black migrants. But that also doesn’t mean they are more ‘deserving’ of a better life than those who were not educated at an institutional level.
Another person whose story touched me is this Haitian woman I met who didn’t come out in the documentary. Long story short, a few months after I had met her in Tijuana, she called me from a detention centre in Washington saying she might be deported. She tried to apply for asylum, but was deported about a month or two ago. Now she’s back in the country she hadn’t even seen for 6 or 7 years. It’s the unfortunate ending for many, many people who embarked on this long journey.
What were the main challenges involved in making the film? Was it easy to encourage people to speak about their experiences as a minority group?
I would say one of the main challenges was doing everything myself, haha!. It was a lot of fun learning about the different aspects of making a film, but the next time I make one I would definitely like to do it in a team.
As far as getting people to speak with me, I honestly don’t think I had much trouble in that aspect. I was only in Tijuana for four days, and initially I was worried that it wouldn’t be a lot of time to establish rapport with folks. But I think being Black helped me a lot – I think folks were easily able to open up to me because they had a sense of shared solidarity. Everyone was so welcoming and hospitable. It was beautiful seeing that.
What other projects are you currently involved in and do you have any more documentaries planned?
I just enrolled in a Master’s program in documentary film here in Mexico so I’m working on my thesis project, which will be a documentary. I would like to expand on the issue of Blackness in Mexico and make an anthology film of sorts, featuring different aspects of Black culture here. I’m still in the very, very early planning stages, so more of that to come!
Ebony Bailey is a photographer and filmmaker based in Mexico City. Twitter: @ebonybaileyb