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Magical Realism and Other Subversions

By Maria Agui Carter

Maria Agui Carter holding a sign with "NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US." Photo: Monica Ramirez

Editor's note: What follows is an edited version of filmmaker Maria Agui Carter's keynote address at the 2020 Getting Real Documentary Conference. To watch the full keynote, head to


When we are fighting a pandemic and on the brink of environmental cataclysm and we can’t breathe and our children are locked in cages, what is our responsibility as artists? Our society is facing a pandemic of unprecedented proportions, a pandemic of racism. And it destroys us all, not just those oppressed.

It’s time for us to dream a new world. Today I’ll talk about my magical realism explorations as an artistic intervention in getting to the real—in story and in our industry.

As a Latinx who has grown up in the US, I see our communities framed by a white perspective that so dominates our world view that we have trouble competing with the destructive media images of who we are, especially our BIPOC communities.

BIPOC have paid the exorbitant price of US media misrepresentation. It’s time for every sector of our industry to halt the extractive and sensationalist practices that profit off our pain and our rich cultures, without giving back to our communities and our BIPOC artists.

As media-makers, we conjure reality for others. Documentary is an art of interpretation. Whether fiction or nonfiction, the media we make re-invents reality.

I’m a filmmaker because I believe that story can change the world. But I spent my childhood in silence.

Coming to America

My mother tried for years to get permission to move to the US, but eventually brought me to New York on a tourist visa. The day our visas expired, we became criminals in the eyes of the US government. 

We had no safety net. Reflected in the eyes of the dollar-shop clerks, my teachers, my neighbors, we were nobodies. I learned not to ask for help, and not to imagine I deserved any. We were careful never to complain, because we understood that nobodies like us had no protection. We were not considered human beings with human rights; we were considered Illegal aliens.

“Silence,” my mother asked of me. “If they find out, it could get worse. Do you want to be sent back? Or worse: do you want me sent back and you end up alone? Of course not.”

When I was a child, there was no DACA status. I would like to say it’s gotten better. Only it’s gotten worse. A Latinx undocumented mother coming to America today with her child could face family separation, with her child forced into a cage, and her own sterilization without consent.

Latinx make up the largest ethnic minority in the US today. We are not a race. We are the children of the conquered and the conquerors, from European white to Indigenous to Black as well as all the other races and ethnicities that have mixed with us in the Americas over generations.

But the media industry paints us all mostly as brown, likely undocumented immigrants who just swam over and have played no part in building this nation. The effect of this mischaracterization is an implicit message that US Latinx are criminal outsiders who have not earned the right to an American present or future.

Although I immigrated here as a child, my great-grandmother was born in the most diverse city in America, Stockton, California, of which Chinese women made up only four percent of the population, given the racist US immigration restrictions of the time. She would be sent to study back in Guangdong, where her feet were bound, and she was married off to a man named Agui. They would immigrate to Ecuador, where I would be born generations later. I am a brown woman, of Chinese, South American Indigenous and Spanish descent—a blend of cultures and allegiances that predict the increasingly mixed-race future of the United States and the world, as climate change will force global migrations of unprecedented proportions.

Maria Agui Carter directs battle scene from 'REBEL'. Photo: Max Prum

Refusing Colonialist Filmmaking

Starting at seven, when I first had access to a TV in the US, I was mesmerized by film and media storytelling. I watched the comedies and police procedurals, musicals and movies. I delighted in story, but as a child, media also taught me to experience humiliation and shame for my racial identity. Whatever I read or watched either had no Latinx characters or storylines, or if there were, we were caricatures and negative stereotypes. On top of the illegal immigrant narrative, American media portrays Latinx as predominantly uneducated, hypersexualized laborers and criminals. This shapes our lived reality and society’s expectations of who we are.

Growing up, everywhere I looked, others explained what my culture was like, what our issues were. And they often got it wrong. They still do.

My journey to perfect my craft of filmmaking and storytelling is motivated by my experience as a brown Latinx framed and erased by media. If I can convey our richness and humanity through my industry seen around the world, perhaps my work can contribute to fighting the destruction of our communities.

In college, I found a mentor in filmmaker and professor Robert Gardner, whose masterpiece Forest of Bliss was gaining international festival accolades. Bob’s philanthropy made it possible for me to travel with a group of students to study film and anthropology around the world. I studied with some of the greats: cinema vérité founder Jean Rouch in Paris; Japanese new wave director Shohei Imamura in Tokyo, winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his film Ballad of Narayama; Chris Marker, who had just made Sans Soleil; fiction filmmaker Emir Kusturica, whose magical realist fiction film In the Time of the Gypsies is an inspiration.

These artists, all men, looking at cultures or subcultures other than their own, crafted films about the "nobodies," with deep empathy. They questioned the precepts of “objectivity” and the possibility of “unmediated” representation in documentary. Some were documentarians finding new forms of expression, experimental methods, ethno-fiction. Some were fiction filmmakers using documentary or improvisational techniques. Their explorations would inspire me to explore new forms in my own filmmaking later on.

But I also saw them as filmmakers parachuting into communities not their own, and I marveled at their audacity to think they could explain them. Their films explored so-called “marginal” groups—gypsies, tribespeople on other continents, and women, or BIPOC in their own society. Well-meaning as they were, it was very hard for them to see what they could not see.

These were progressive films for the time, but many were shaped in the mold of “great explorer” colonialism—of those who felt they could know a culture without speaking its language, without living and engaging with and collaborating with the creative authorship of the people whose stories they portrayed.

Whether working on fiction or nonfiction film, my creative quest is to author new narratives about my communities, centering subjective perspectives of my protagonists. Why is this important? Misrepresentation and erasure of Latinx in news, media and entertainment has reached historic highs, and hate crimes have increased exponentially. Latinx voices are seldom heard in America’s national narrative, despite our $1.7 trillion buying power. Racial bias in media cements the negative images of us until many white Americans believe our conditions stem from our faults, rather than from our systemic exclusion to opportunities, with unequal access to high-quality education, housing, health care, food and opportunity. BIPOC exclusion creates biased media, which, in turn, perpetuates and creates inequity.

Media today is more powerful than ever. It influences how society imagines us, and how we imagine ourselves. Historically we have not been the architects of our own images. Latinx make up less than two percent of most of the Academy of Motion Pictures branches, whose entire membership continues to be about 85% white and over two-thirds male. The industry guilds are between two and five percent Latinx.

We see similarly low statistics for Latinx green-lighters and funders, as well as for the tastemakers—critics, reviewers, programmers.

Even in independent media-making, where you find more of us, each of our films is a miracle, given that less than two percent of all philanthropic funding goes to Latinx causes and services—direct services, health, education, welfare, and all Latinx arts, not just media.

Stories about Us, with Us

Let me clarify the term US Latinx. We are not the same as Latin Americans, or Spaniards. Although we may share some culture, our conditions, our stories and histories are not the same. Like in the US, Latin America is also infected by racism, and deserves to go through its own reckoning, as does Spain. If you are creating studies or counting racial identities in your efforts to redress systemic exclusion of BIPOC in the US media industry, please differentiate among US Latinx, Latin Americans and Spaniards.

It is incumbent for you to counter the extreme funding scarcity faced by US Latinx storytellers, especially BIPOC. Are your US labs, fellowships, programs, grants, financing and greenlighting amplifying Black or Indigenous Latinx voices? If your mission is to address US systemic inequities in society and media, how many of your US media grants are going to US Latinx? 

I do not mean that Latin American, Spanish, non-BIPOC Latinx, or even non-Latinx filmmakers who want to tell US Latinx stories should be disallowed—if they feel an affinity with, and if they have earned the authority to tell our stories, then we invite them to the struggle, preferably with our involvement at the highest creative levels.

BIPOC filmmakers need not be the exclusive authors of BIPOC stories. There are some non-BIPOC white and Latinx that have made it the center of their work to amplify our stories. There are those from BIPOC communities who are white but whose personal histories, ancestors, mixed-race families, have or do live BIPOC experiences.

But there should be no more stories about us without us.

And since US BIPOC have been disproportionally and systemically shut out of equity and opportunity in our society and industry, it is incumbent that our media industry—not just funders and green lighters, but festival programmers, exhibitors, distributors and critics—begin to take responsibility for their role in perpetuating media harm to our communities. It starts with learning our nuances, what the US Latinx experience is and why it’s imperative to hear our stories as authored from within our community voices. And to educate yourselves and make sure you incorporate BIPOC into your juries, panels and leadership roles.

On average, less than three percent of curators and programmers and critics are Latinx. It is that much harder when we do make films to find those who can be open to the references, histories and nuances of the media we do make. Thus, we are erased from the American narrative, and our entire community is delegitimized under a false basis for oppression based on citizenship, or lack thereof.

The Statistics of Exclusion

A study of Latinx and Latin Americans in Media by the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, in partnership with NALIP, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, found that of the over 1,200 top-grossing films of the past decade, only three percent featured Latino actors in leads, or had Latinx producers. Latinx directors helmed only four percent of those films, most from Latin America.

We are largely invisible in media stories, yet we make up 18% of the population in the US, and 25% of the moviegoing public.

Our images are being framed by non-Latinx. Framing has real-life consequences.

Take the latest popular stereotype: the Narcotraficante. In 2015, an American presidential candidate would kick off his campaign by uniting his base around hatred of the immigrant, especially Mexican immigrants to the US: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he said. Our leadership has unleashed American anti-BIPOC hate to the extent that even white supremacists feel comfortable carrying torches and skipping the white KKK hooded robes.

US Latinx and Latin Americans are grouped as the same category in most US media. When we appear through the White Gaze, we are portrayed predominantly as criminals, from documentaries like Cartel Land to Hollywood films like Sicario to popular streaming series like the many Narcos series.

Media Framing

Latinx in the US are now 60 million strong, a fifth of the entire US population. If we had anywhere near one in five media stories focusing on our people and culture, we could imagine a time when negative stereotypes would not define us. The Narco of today is the gang member of urban films and the bandido of the Western genre and the greaser of early cinema. Real-life Latinx in the US confront the burden of criminality, of illegality labels every day.

This is called media framing, and it’s killing us. The ubiquity and exclusivity of these negative media stereotypes brainwash people into associating Black and brown bodies as criminals and police as protectors.

In the infamous Rodney King trial in 1992, media framing convinced a white jury who viewed footage of police viciously beating an unarmed Black man to find the police not guilty. And this keeps happening over and over in courts across the nation, even though citizen journalists, mostly BIPOC, bravely share their eyewitness footage of the attacks and murder of unarmed Black and brown people by the police. The images we make are so few they are reframed by the onslaught of non-BIPOC media stereotypes in a society brainwashed to mistrust us.

I’m in production on a documentary project about our criminalization. ALLEGED is a digital series about crime and punishment in America, about justice and the possibility of redemption, told through the story of Patricia Esparza, a former psychologist and professor, imprisoned for a crime she did not commit—the murder of her rapist by her boyfriend. The project explores race, class and gender in the treatment of a rape victim, the consequences of prosecutorial overreach, and the generational toll of incarceration on one family.

When Will Our Voices Matter?

According to national surveys, immigration has replaced terrorism as the highest concern for Americans. Given our media stereotypes, no wonder so much of America suspects all Latinx are immigrants and likely undocumented, even though two-thirds of us are US citizens—not that citizenship is a virtue in and of itself.

We are living a false media narrative, that Latinx have not helped build this nation, that we contribute nothing of value beyond cheap manual labor, that we are outsiders who “don’t belong,” that Latinx are bad criminal immigrants and somehow the reason so many Americans have not achieved the American dream.

We live in a society filled with the mirage of plenty that seems beyond the grasp of most in the 21st century. The American dream seems harder to obtain than ever, as increasing wealth inequalities suffocate our democratic institutions. How much easier it is to attack the “other” than to take responsibility for the real and complicated obstacles to all those unrequited dreams and desires.

Whose Story Counts?

In 2013, I finished a film called Rebel, a hybrid documentary that navigates the boundaries between documentary reality and fiction to tell the story of Loreta Velazquez, a US Latinx woman soldier and spy of the American Civil War, who was considered so dangerous that Confederates would erase her as a hoax and a prostitute for over 150 years. I wanted to explore her complex moral choices, her gender and race in a painful history of a US Latinx presence during a pivotal moment of the nation’s narrative, when America was portrayed exclusively as white and Black.

As a BIPOC filmmaker, my work interrogates the absences. I want to bring our ghosts into the present, into the larger narrative, into the soul and memory of this nation. But as a person of color, I know that our archives have not always deemed our stories worthy of collecting, so I created my own archival photo albums and I filmed dramatic scenes with actors.

Isabel Carter as Young Loreta Velazquez in Maria Agui Carter’s 'Rebel'. Photo: Alex Vlacos

I contrasted recreated archival with historical archival material to question the conventions of historical documentaries that do not always serve BIPOC filmmakers. 

Rebel is a meditation on the politics of national memory. It took 13 years to cobble together the funding, while I produced, wrote and/or directed other films in the industry. But US Latinx are not just routinely excluded from telling our own stories through difficulty finding funding.

A Choice

As an undocumented child, I internalized I had done something terribly wrong, and I wasn’t sure why, but I accepted we didn’t belong, that we were criminals because we lacked papers.

I knew fear, not facts, and there was no one to ask, lest we reveal ourselves.

I was ten when my mother met an American who promised to marry her and sponsor our “papers.” I was 18 when we became legal residents. We paid a price.

An undocumented immigrant mother such as mine had to consider what would happen if she reported her citizen husband for molesting her undocumented daughter. What if her husband had her deported instead? What if her daughter was taken away?

And if she successfully defended herself and myself against him, how would she take care of her new infant boys if she sent their father to jail? What would become of them when her chronic asthma sent her to emergency rooms, and she lost her job?

My mother was forced to choose between the needs of her undocumented teen daughter and the survival of her two American-born boys. She chose the babies.

I have come to understand the true grit it takes to survive, the impossible choices our people, like my mother, feel they must sometimes make. 

And yet, we get up again. We dare to ask for what should already be ours—justice, equity, opportunity. What is more heroic than a “nobody” standing up again and again, despite a system created to extract their labor, and crush them for being unworthy. These are stories worth telling, worth hearing.

My childhood silence allowed injustices to go unchecked. I don’t make the same mistake twice. 

Never Look Away

Akira Kurosawa, the great film director, once said, “The role of the artist is never to look away.”  My work as an artist is not to recount, but to find shape and meaning in a way that argument and reason can never do. 

I cannot remain silent about my undocumented experience, which connects so deeply to the false media narrative of Latinx as illegal Americans. My own story is not about a child in a cage in a detention center, part of a continuum of incarceration of our peoples, in a long history of criminalization and imprisonment of Black and brown bodies. That is what perhaps many outsiders would film or report on, and it’s an experience that should be told. But the cage will continue even after that child is out; the cage is systemic oppression.

When my mother died, I stayed awake for several weeks straight, writing the draft of a script about a girl who can hear the songs of the Monarch butterflies—a girl who tries to escape her abuse by poisoning herself with their milkweed, but learns to fly instead.

Sometimes to create a nonfiction film, you need to expand the documentary genre to speak the unspeakable. I wrote a script to transpose real life into a magical realist fable to get closer to the truth I know.

My new film, The Secret Life of La Mariposa, is set in a dystopian world much like ours now, with climate change at our doorstep and ICE agents hunting immigrants and refugees. My story centers a 13-year-old Latinx girl as a protagonist, fighting to be free. In my modern re-imagining of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, this girl lives in New York’s El Barrio and has a special connection to the Monarch butterflies of her native Mexico. She transforms into a magical creature to escape abuse, but must find her way back or face extinction.

I’ve made many films. Why have I remained silent about my own story for so long? First I remained silent out of love for my mother and brothers. Although I was young, I also made a choice not to denounce my stepfather, agreeing to my mother’s silence so our family could stay together. Later, I was waiting until my children were old enough to bear the weight of my story. And then I was waiting for my mother to go, so that I did not out her in her lifetime.

Over the years, I started my own family, and my mother raised my brothers, my stepfather’s sons. I called dutifully every week. We had awkward phone calls across too many miles. My stepfather left her; my brothers stayed.

My mother died just as her favorite crimson Hibiscus burst into flower and the hummingbirds arrived to sip their nectar.

Alone, I cleaned her house out. Her life was reduced to 60 black plastic bags melting in the hot asphalt driveway, waiting for Goodwill trucks.

On her bureau, my mother had a shrine with many saints and candles and rosaries. In the center was a cracked Virgin Mary, a plaster bust with a broken nose taped back in place. Her altar. In front of the Virgin, a little cheap candy tin. Inside, scraps of paper in Mom’s handwriting, in Spanish—she had never really picked up English that well.  She wrote prayers for my brothers.

“Virgencita, ayudalo a Carlitos que encuentre un buen trabajo.” (“Little Virgin, please help Carlitos get a job.”)

“Virgencita, make Vicente’s tumor disappear.”

I found one prayer for me: “Virgencita, help my girl get money for that film about the woman soldier, the REBEL. It’s been so long.” She had been listening.

A lottery ticket for a million dollars had no note attached. I think Mom expected the Virgencita to figure that one out herself. And one final note in very large shaky letters: “Paz Al Mundo”—“World Peace.”

She asked nothing for herself. To the last, she believed herself a nobody, even in her secret prayers.

My mother was afraid of breaking her silence. She quietly scribbled her pleas on paper scraps she did not expect anyone in this world to hear, shutting them tightly in a cheap tin box, in front of a broken Virgin Mary.

Perhaps when you see my mother, you see a monster. I see a woman who made terrible choices, faced with options I would not wish on my worst enemy and subject to a broken immigration system that brings people to their knees every day.

As a child, I believed silence and secrecy were my mantle of safety. As an adult, I am committed to telling the stories of those beautiful souls that have been programmed to believe they were nobodies.

The undocumented are criminals, according to our judicial system, and our democracy stands under the rule of law. But let us not mistake law for justice. Let us never forget, in this country slavery was once legal, and loving the wrong race or gender was illegal.

My family’s experience was not just our personal failure; it was destined in a broken immigration system. Keeping the system broken benefits the American economy, and a social order that privileges some at a steep cost to others. In fact, around the world, governments determine human worth according to lines drawn on maps before people are even born.

Widening the Lens

Here’s what the lack of greenlighting, funding, exhibition, critical reviewing of US Latinx media voices costs our communities:

Today in the US, speaking Spanish or existing while brown can trigger a search for your papers. If you look Latinx, you look un-American to many; we need passports in our own country. ICE hunts us in bus stations, at workplaces, highways, hospitals. Our government calls us criminals and rapists and animals.

The media collude in demonizing and disempowering us when we are not part of the storytelling. That’s what allows the US government to throw our children in cages.

In Orlando, El Paso, Gilroy, California and elsewhere, we Latinx look over our shoulders in public spaces. Is another angry white man with a semiautomatic coming for us at the nightclub, the festival, the Walmart, the grocery store? Recent FBI reports show Latinos are facing  a surge of violent attacks. A Department of Justice report shows that just in California, hate crimes against Latinx have increased more than 50% since 2016. And this doesn’t include the daily acts of bullying.

As a Latinx writer and director who grew up undocumented, but who is a scholar of history, I think about what it means that Latinx are majority mestizos, children of rape, of conquistadors and Native Americans or slaves who were brought to the continent against their will. I think about the fact that so many of us are descendants of the population of first peoples of the Americas, here for at least 450 generations. I think about how Latinx are considered immigrants and undocumented on native land.

This is the land of Raza. We represent the beautiful, multicultural diaspora that we are as Latinx of our Americas. We are an integral part of the past, present and future of this country. By 2034, Latinx will comprise 40% of this nation’s workforce. Every 30 seconds, two non-Latinx reach retirement age and one Latinx turns 18. So, while 10,000 baby boomers hit retirement age every day, a million American-born Latinx teenagers hit 18 each year. That’s voting age.

How can it be that we are not integral to the story America tells about ourselves, integral to the media industry as authors of our own narratives? Who better to convey the nuances, the joys and tragedies, the complexities of our stories?

What Do Media Reparations Look Like?

Latinx are the largest ethnic minority in the US at 18 percent, and the least represented in relation to their population in media, living through media misrepresentation and invisibility with devastating consequences. Latinx over-index in media viewing across all categories, from theatrical to TV, cable, streaming and digital/online presence. How destructive and cynical to continue to recycle 21st-century greasers and vixens to us. Media conglomerates make billions of dollars off of us and all our BIPOC communities, who disproportionately suffer the inequities of misrepresentation. What would media reparations look like?  A portion of those profits could go towards our communities and for BIPOC media greenlight funds. This is not just about an industry, this is about democracy, justice and equity. BIPOC communities deserve reparation for the compounded generational damage suffered from media framing and misrepresentation.

Maria Agui Carter (center) and crew shooting PBS series 'SciGirls.' Photo: Maria Villaseñor

Dream with Me

If we all practiced anti-racist media-making, what would our world look like?

Here’s my magical realism dream of our industry: Filmmakers of all colors march together with the support of our BIPOC ancestors. The generations of murdered Indigenous First Nations peoples, enslaved Africans, Chinese railroad workers and Japanese internment camp victims, Latinx farmworkers and laborers through the generations. We are a sea of colors, calling for a media industry rich with fresh stories of all of us, contributing to thriving societies instead of BIPOC oppression. 

Dream with me: an industry rich with our voices unleashed, the magic and realism of our resilience, our joy, our visions as authors, as creatives who have so many stories our world needs to hear.

Maria Agui Carter is a filmmaker and writer who believes storytelling is sacred work. She tells stories about heroes and rebels. She grew up undocumented in New York City, graduated from Harvard on scholarship, and is a professor at Emerson College. Her company is Iguana Films.