Culture Multimedia

March 30, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Portraits of the Mexican Diaspora: from Farm to Store to Plate

Portraits of the Mexican Diaspora: From Farm to Store to Plate from Maria Cerretani on Vimeo.

Last September I interned as a research assistant for the Longhouse Food Writer’s Revival, a gathering of food writers, and food media-makers held in Rennselaerville, New York, and led by longtime food writer, and founder of cookNscribble, Molly O’Neill.   The event started off with a Pop-Up Food Magazine, which included several multimedia presentations that challenged attendees to explore the ever-evolving, ever-adaptable art of telling food stories.

The content of the Pop-Up Magazine centered around Mexican foodways in the Hudson River Valley, the prominent geographic landform that links New York’s breadbasket to urban NYC. The stories would be told, in documentary-format, as part of the Pop-Up Food Magazine.  Maria Cerretani was soon brought on as our videographer, and together we drove through the Black Dirt Region, New York City, and Poughkeepsie to film “Portraits of the Mexican Diaspora.” The conversation below is between Food Politics, myself, and Maria.

FP: Can you tell us a little bit about what this video means to you, and about your experience creating it?

Maria: Two weeks before the revival, event coordinator Will Levitt contacted me about producing a short documentary about Mexican immigrants in the Hudson Valley. The objective was to highlight the stories of people who were preserving their cultural identity through working with food. Before I fully knew what I had committed to, we were driving around Orange and Dutchess Counties interviewing farmers, restaurateurs, cooks, and store owners about their lives, challenges faced, and their hopes for the future.

Aly: I was brought on to research and document the stories of Mexican-Americans who established themselves in the Valley as farmers, cooks, producers, and grocers: people who built their lives, and their communities through food.  I began my research via phone and laptop in Wisconsin and as soon as I got to Rennselaerville, started planning a documentary presentation with Will and Molly.  When Maria joined us, it really started to take shape.  To me, the documentary was a great opportunity to create food media, practice the art of interviewing, and research really compelling, less-told food stories.

FP: Why is this an important story to tell?  

Maria: One of my favorite aspects of living in New York City is the ability to essentially traverse the globe without ever leaving the five boroughs due to the multitude of ethnic restaurants and markets. My hope with this project is that it encourages us to view these establishments from a different perspective. While these businesses certainly allow us to expand our own culinary horizons, I would love to inspire people to think about the role that these restaurants and markets play in sustaining their communities.

Aly: I think it’s important to understand who and what shape our food traditions, and how new ways of eating and farming are always evolving over time and across borders.  The farmers we interviewed, for example, grow many of the same vegetables that they grew in Puebla – papalo for one.  These greens are incorporated in new and vibrant ways in New York City, sold in Greenmarkets and featured on restaurant menus.  In a different interview, with the tortilla-maker for our event, (not featured in this documentary) we learned how she was well-known in her community for her expertise on Oaxacan pit barbeques.  These huge barbeques are held in backyards in Poughkeepsie. It’s important for food media to capture this melding and mixing of people, traditional food knowledges, and current food policies and spaces that shape the way we eat and grow food.

FP: Were you familiar with any of these projects before you started? How did you connect with them?

Aly: Not being from the area, I wasn’t aware of the farming networks and markets that we connected with.  I started by researching New York City’s farmers’ market infrastructure, and quickly got in touch with Grow NYC’s New Farmer Development Project who helped me locate Mexican farmers in the Hudson River Valley who would be willing to be filmed.  My internet-based research also led me to the Oaxacan community in Poughkeepsie, famous for its Guelaguetza festival every summer.  I slowly got in touch with several off-the-beaten-path restaurants (which I discovered in several lengthy chowhound.com conversations), and the organizers of Poughkeepsie’s annual Guelaguetza, a dance and culture festival held every July. Once in Poughkeepsie, I interviewed Fel Santos, Guelaguetza event-organizer, who connected me with several local restauranteurs and grocers, including Reyna Garcia of Casa Latina.

Maria: Aly arranged many of the interviews before I was brought on board, but I was able to add in an interview with Gudelio Garcia of El Poblano Farm, who I buy from at my weekly Greenmarket in Queens. Both Gudelio Garcia and Rogelio Bautista (R&R Produce) are part of GrowNYC’s New Farmer Development Project, which is a fantastic program that supports immigrant farmers and connects them to markets. Since I am involved in the local food movement, I was aware of projects like NFDP and have enough of a basic agricultural knowledge to talk with farmers. I have been buying tortillas from Tortilleria Nixtamal since moving to Queens, so I was particularly excited to get to feature them. I did not know about the large Oaxacan community in Poughkeepsie, and it was really wonderful getting to explore the food scene there.

FP: What were some challenges in interviewing and filming this project? 

Maria: The two biggest challenges in putting this project together were time and language. I was brought into the fold literally 24 hours before we starting shooting the interviews and had less than two weeks to put everything together. As someone who generally does a ton of research prior to starting a project, this was difficult. I was also working full-time at my regular job, so I was working on the documentary on the weekends and during the evenings. Additionally, I do not speak Spanish nor did Will Levitt and Aly, who conducted the interviews. While this made communication a little tricky, I also struggled with the idea that we were asking that our interviewees speak in a language they weren’t completely comfortable in.

FP: What is your “dream” documentary/film project?  

Maria: I would actually love to return to this project and do a more in depth and well-researched version. I think it is important to preserve the stories of people who contribute to the perpetuation of their culture and I was impressed with the emphasis on community that all of the business owners expressed. I would ideally like to create an oral history project that celebrates regional food traditions and explores the challenges of transposing a traditional diet to a place with different agricultural products, marketing systems, and regulations.

Aly: I second Maria.  There are so many more people I want to interview in this project. I would love to continue researching and interviewing farmers and food service workers and producers who make up New York City’s foodshed.