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Students' Films on Latino Lives Get Shown May 1 and 2

Fredda Sacharow | Rutgers Today


Brayan Zambrano is examining the effects of growing up in a culture that emphasizes machismo. Melanie Plasencia is filming her grandmother’s attempts to become savvy with social media. And Gissella Ramirez is chronicling a longtime friend’s journey to assume a new gender identity.

The common denominator: All the filmmakers, students at Rutgers, are taking anthropologist Ulla D. Berg’s first-time video-production class, "Documenting Latino Lives," and all are training their cameras on the experiences of immigrants or first- and second-generation Latinos making their way in American society.

“We do a lot of thinking about what it means to represent a people on film and video, and what problems it poses for a historically under-represented population,” says Berg, an assistant professor in the departments of Anthropology and Latino, Hispanic, and Caribbean Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.

“The students did a lot of self-reflection before they started their work. Making a film is a very different process from writing a term paper. The stakes are higher because the films will be seen by their peers.”

Each of the nine students in the seminar is producing a five- to 12-minute documentary based on a social or cultural issue specific to the Latino community. The participants – predominantly but not exclusively Latinos – gather at the Sharon Fordham Multimedia Lab at the library on the Douglass Residential Campus every Thursday afternoon to critique each other’s work, learn new shooting and editing skills, and fine tune their own projects.

“A lot of them chose generational issues; some took on issues of assimilation into a new culture,” says Berg, who has led courses on Latino ethnographology and was eager to integrate film-making techniques into her teaching. “Others are focusing on gender and sexuality, issues about identifying with both the Latino and the LGBT communities.”

The films’ final screening in May are open to the wider Rutgers community.  document Read synopses of the movies here .

Final Screening: “Documenting Latino Lives”
May 1, 2012 @7-10pm, Murray Hall, Room 210, CAC.  The May 1 screening is followed by a reception.
May 2, 2012 @ 2-4pm, Lucy Stone Hall, A256, Livingston.  The May 2 screening is followed by the LHCS Graduation event in the Livingston Student Center (Coffee House). For more information, please contact Ulla Berg at

Identifying a topic wasn’t a tough call for Melanie Plasencia, a senior majoring in Latino, Hispanic, and Caribbean studies in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences.

For her senior research thesis, the Union City resident explored aging and ethnicity, specifically how Latino senior citizens cultivate a sense of belonging in the United States. She also worked last summer with the Puerto Rican Association for Human Development in Perth Amboy, a community center serving a Latino population, and has served as an intern at Ellis Island, transcribing oral histories.

“My documentary will be an extension of that: how my grandmother, an immigrant from Puerto Rico, adapts to technology and social media,” such as Facebook, Plasencia says.

Her grandmother, Esther Diaz, who raised Plasencia and with whom the Rutgers student lives, came to the United States 40 years ago and is comfortable enough with texting and making copies on a printer. But now Plasencia has armed her with a laptop and is following her around to capture on film Diaz’s early attempts to make sense of the new gadget.

The phenomenon of machismo – which he defines as a “mindset stressing hyper-masculinity, with elements of misogyny and homophobia” – is at the core of Brayan Zambrano’s film: both what the concept means and how it comes into conflict with modern American values.

A senior from Elizabeth with dual majors in communications and psychology at SAS and Rutgers’ School of Communication and Information, Zambrano is enlisting couples of Hispanic background to “star” in the documentary; he plans to follow them on dates and in other social situations to determine what influence machismo has on their interactions.

“Growing up, I knew there were things expected of me as a male, such as opening doors for women and paying when you’re out on a date,” says the son of Honduran immigrants who came to New Jersey 25 years ago. “I’m interested in finding out how machismo gets watered down as it becomes exposed to other cultures.”

For Gissella Ramirez of Jersey City, Berg’s class offered an opportunity to tell the story of her hometown friend Dahlia Hazelwood, a Rutgers student of Caribbean heritage who is in the process of transitioning from male to female. Ramierez says she hopes to reach a broad audience with her film.


“It will show the hardships of living a transgendered life in an urban environment – predominantly Hispanic and African-American – and the expectations of masculinity that it carries,” the senior says.

A cultural anthropology major at SAS, Ramirez notes that the film will weave aspects of Dahlia’s life at home – where she refrains from wearing make-up or women’s clothes out of deference to her family – with her experiences on campus.

“She’s happy here at Rutgers because she has a community that accepts her,” says Ramirez, whose film will include interviews with friends who knew Dahlia both before and during the transitional period.

“A lot of times, films don’t focus on how the process affects people in the transgendered person’s life,” she says, noting that friends and loved ones can be stymied by the simple – and profound – question of which pronoun to use when referring to the newer identity.

The class has allowed Berg to combine two loves: film making and anthropology.  Now in her third year at Rutgers, the Danish native focuses on transnational migration and on the social, political, and intimate lives of migrants across borders.

She received a grant from the Office of the Executive Dean of SAS to offer the pioneering class.



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