Last year I wrote an article called “Deconstructing Marianismo” which was inspired by an article I read about a film called Marianismo by young filmmaker Erica Fletcher which focuses on Latinas living with HIV. The main purpose of my article was to deconstruct how we are discussing Marianismo and it’s connections to Latinas and sexuality, especially by questioning the “cultural values” that are applied to us, often by outsiders.
Earlier this year I got an email from Erica Fletcher. I was very happy to hear from her as it is rare when folks whose media and art we use to spark conversation and education reach out to us. Erica shared with me that her initial response to my article was one of disappointment by she then realized that much of what I had shared, about being trained in a particular way to do a certain type of research on Latin@s, was something that happened to her as well. We have been communicating for most of this year and I had suggested we do an interview with one another to feature her work, but also talk about how we as young(er) people of Color working in the field of sexuality are working together.
Erica is a 20 year-old Taiwanese-Brazilian American and currently a PhD student in Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Her undergraduate work was in Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology at the University of Houston. She received Glamour Magazine’s Top 10 College Women award, a Phi Kappa Phi Majorie Schoch Fellowship, and a Presidential Scholarship from the University of Texas Medical Branch for her work. Erica’s last completed film, Pack & Deliver, is about sex trafficking and is continuing to receive media attention. It is featured in November 2011’s Latina Magazine issue.
I sent Erica a few questions about her work and her goals for her films.
How did you come to film/media making?
A couple years ago, I became really interested in applying what I was learning in my social science classes in a way that would be more easily accessible to general audiences. For me, that medium was film. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I began making my first film, Marianismo, which is about the disproportionate spread of HIV/AIDS among Latinas. I loved the process of filmmaking, especially participating in talkbacks where I could share my research with others. After learning about the field of visual anthropology and finding great mentors at the University of Houston, I started on my second film Pack and Deliver about sex trafficking in Houston.
What sort of support have you received for entering the film/media making field? Any specific challenges?
Having no technical training in filmmaking, I had to learn by trial-and-error with a basic camcorder for my first film. Even after using more professional equipment with my second film, I still have much training to do when it comes to shooting and editing! Still, I am lucky to be born in a time when digital media makes it relatively affordable to do the kind of ethnographic research that I want to do. Aside from the technical aspects, learning more about theories in visual anthropology and interviewing techniques has been an eye-opening experience. There are so many ways that media reporters and ethnographers can manipulate footage, and finding a way to portray my “truth” is definitely an on-going process.
How did you come to do the film Marianismo? What were some of the messages you thought important to include?
As a dual citizen of Brazil and the United States, I have always been interested in Latino cultures, and I wanted to explore a facet of my identity through academic research in Houston. In addition, as an 18-year-old college student who had been home-schooled for most of my life, I had an avid curiosity for understanding the power dynamics between men and women. During high school, I had three of my friends who shared with me that they had been raped or molested, and they had blamed themselves for these horrific events. While I had never experienced anything as traumatizing, I also felt a sort of shame and guilt for a couple uncomfortable situations I had with fellow male students in college.
As I learned more about domestic violence and the threat of STIs, I wanted to do something to show commonalities in larger sociological forces that make power imbalances in romantic relationships a normal occurrence in many women’s lives. I found an anthropology professor doing research on condom use and the spread of HIV/AIDS among women in the African-American community, and she agreed to supervise my film project related to HIV/AIDS among Latinos.
I think the most important message of the film is that economic factors play a large role in health outcomes, and secondly that we should not be quick to make judgments about people’s lives because of their illness. I hope Marianismo illuminates the harmful impact that stigma against HIV/AIDS still has on the lives of the women I interviewed.
Below is the trailer for Marianismo
What questions were asked during screenings?
The question I get most often is what I can do to help this situation? I love this question because it shows that there are many people who really want to improve the world around them, but I know that the answer to that question will be different for everyone based on their talents and interests. If anything, I hope that my films will remind people of our interconnectedness as a species and how we can all make small contributions to improve the whole of society. Houston’s Catholic Charities Cabrini Center and BoatPeople SOS do a lot of good work in immigration locally.
How did you make a connection and come into contact with Latinas living positive?
While working on a certification program for nonprofit management, I met Timeka Walker a social worker from the nonprofit AIDS Foundation Houston. Its mission is to improve the lives of HIV-positive individuals. We stayed in touch, and with her help I was able to meet and interview three Latinas who were HIV positive.
Were all of the participants documented? Did any address topics of immigration, access to resources (i.e. healthcare, job opportunities, etc.)?
I did not ask about their immigration status. However, the participants I interviewed all had the Gold Card (which in Houston provides free HIV/AIDS treatment), so they were able to access the healthcare system when necessary. One was in a transitional housing program, and the other two were in stable living situations. More than anything else, I saw first-hand the great impact of the social services that Texas does provide. Still, my state provides very limited resources for healthcare and education, and it saddens me how many people go without necessary care.
What were some positive messages the participants shared about living positive?
The most positive message I learned from them was that their lives continued after a HIV-positive diagnosis. Now the disease is a chronic condition, and with proper management, life expectancy has improved drastically. The women I interviewed are all involved in leading STI-prevention workshops and providing support and guidance to others who are HIV positive. Their determination to share their story and help educate others about HIV/AIDS is truly incredible.
What connections to religion and spiritual belief and value systems were discussed?
Contrary to some of the public health articles and anthropological literature I read, the women I interviewed did not think that their religion (two were Catholic, one was Protestant) played a role in how they became infected with HIV or affected how they choose to protect their husbands or boyfriends from the disease. More generally, though, they talked about growing up in homes where sexual health was not discussed.
From my first introduction into research in social science, I learned that individual experiences can vary significantly from what past research indicates, and that it can be very easily to stereotype people into certain culture archetypes that they don’t identify with in their own lives. Doing research is a constant process of learning from mistakes and trying to improve in the future, and I look forward to creating my own filmmaking style in an ethically and culturally sensitive manner.
How did you come to the field of sex trafficking from Marianismo? Do you see a connection between the two?
Themes of urbanization, health disparities, power dynamics, and Latino immigration are common to both my films. An additional connection between the films is that many trafficked women, including the woman I interviewed for Pack and Deliver, contract STIs during their trafficking experience and must cope with a disease and psychological trauma for the rest of their lives.
What are some of your findings from this new film?
I found a major gap between the many different organizations doing anti-trafficking campaigns and the very low number of trafficking survivors accessing services in Houston. Local groups estimate that 2,000 persons are trafficked each year throughout Houston, yet police “rescue” less than 20 trafficked people every year. Still fewer are eligible to remain in the United States and obtain social services in the city. What is really ironic is that Houston is considered to have one of the best collaborative models for ending human trafficking in the country.
From my research, I learned about legal barriers, funding constraints, and, in one case, apathy within law enforcement that deters them from raiding well-known brothels in Houston. However, I also found an objectification and re-commodification of trafficked persons in the way in which nonprofit organizations use visceral images to encourage donors and volunteers to support their missions.
More broadly, there were large ideological differences between lobbyists that were never resolved during the anti-trafficking debate and adoption of public policy in 2000. While, individually, I would say everyone I interviewed is doing the best they can to ameliorate the trafficking situation in Houston, structural violence and institutional barriers are huge factors for why human trafficking remains endemic in the city.
How is trafficking related to other social justice issues?
Human trafficking is only a minuscule extreme of much larger issues related to immigration, domestic violence, labor policies, prison policies, and free trade arrangements at work in our country. It’s so easily to condemn human trafficking, but when it comes to these larger, more taboo issues of contention, hardly anyone wants to touch them. However, I would argue to do good work in anti-trafficking initiatives we have to recognize larger connections to much more common forms of exploitation in the United States.
How are your films connected to a larger social justice/change agenda you may have for yourself?
During my time as an undergrad, I was convinced it was possible to combine science and art with activism. As I learn more in graduate school, I realize some of the ethical dilemmas that this position poses, and one of the main reasons why I am in school is to figure out some of those questions for myself and to learn how to speak to larger audiences in public policy, medicine, the social sciences, and the general public
What do you hope to accomplish and begin in the media you are creating?
My end goal with filmmaking is to create public forums to engage communities and foster discussions about improving their local environment. Films are just one way to raise public awareness about social issues, but they are only small beginnings to catalyzing the kind of social movements necessary to enact real change. I think recognizing and accepting the limitations of the film medium has been a major realization for me, but it has been a freeing experience as well. Now I am learning how to collaborate with others and find interdisciplinary partnerships to strengthen my overarching purpose of promoting education and spurring more critical analysis of the world around us.
What new projects are you working on today?
Right now I’m assisting Professor Rebecca Hester on her film project about sources of suffering on Galveston Island (where I am currently living). This is my first time working in a film team, and I’m excited to contribute to the production process from start to finish.
What other projects do you have in mind or that are coming up or that you’d like to do in the future?
I have way too many ideas and too little time to do them! Some of my goals include purchasing my own photo and video equipment, learning more Portuguese, doing ethnographic work in Brazil, traveling more, planning more film screening events, and continuing my focus on interdisciplinary studies and multimedia communication. I’m not sure what my next film/dissertation topic will be… I’ve been in grad school for less than a semester thus far, so luckily I still have time to figure that out!
How may folks get in contact with you?