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Storytelling Can Move Mountains

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storytelling can move mountains

In 2011, Tania Mattos started working with filmmaker Christina Antonakos-Wallace when she was a leader in the fight for the New York Dream Act. Mattos expected filming to take a day or two. It took eight years and followed her through a pivotal time in her personal life and the immigrant rights movement as a whole. 


Anotonakos-Wallace recently shared at a screening at Welcoming Interactive that she, too, didn’t anticipate working on From Here for nearly thirteen years. But funding challenges that delayed filming proved to be a help, not a hindrance. Documentary films rely heavily on grants for production costs and many funders didn’t quite understand the connection between a Vietnamese artist seeking refuge in Germany and a Bolivian-born forcibly displaced activist and organizer in Queens. What started as a New York story evolved to a global one, and followed the ups and downs of a movement from the perspective of people at the center of it. 


Mattos is one of four young people Anotonakos-Wallace followed while they grappled with the realities of global migration, what it means to belong and our inherent interconnectedness across arbitrary borders. She is Bolivian-born of Indigenous Aymara descent, raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. Mattos came to New York when she was four years old and her politics and beliefs were shaped by her politically active family, especially her father. She’s been working almost fifteen years as an organizer, policy advocate and strategist for immigrant rights, criminal justice, policing, environmental justice and more. 


We recently spoke with Mattos to talk about the film, her work and the power of storytelling. The following interview has been edited for clarity. From Here is available on PBS, as part of its America ReFramed series, through November 30, 2023.


Narrative Initiative

When you started filming with Christina, what did storytelling mean to you?


Tania Mattos

When I met Christina, I was part of the New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSLC), which is the first undocumented youth-led organization in New York. When I met them in 2009-10, they were advocating for the Federal DREAM Act, which is something that I would have benefited from. I joined the organization and it propelled me to working on advocacy. I had just graduated from graduate school. I knew that, even though I had this master’s degree, I still couldn’t work many places. I couldn’t fulfill that desire to make change somehow. I started volunteering with them and I found that’s the way I was able to make the most impact. I was able to learn and hone my power as an immigrant, as a woman of color, and use that to take up space and talk about these issues.


Part of a strategy that we had as the NYSLC – and nationally with other people fighting for the DREAM Act or fighting for stopping deportations – was how stories can contribute to movements and bring about the change that we’re trying to see. We learned how to tell our story effectively. We took any opportunity to get our stories out there. The whole premise was that undocumented people live in the shadows, and part of it is coming out and declaring yourself as undocumented. Then, later “undocumented and unafraid” was added. Part of our strategy was to involve the arts and media to make people aware that we exist, these stories exist. It’s not just how the traditional media paints people or immigrants or undocumented people. That there are a diverse set of people and stories around this issue.


Narrative Initiative

Over the last 12 years, what has stayed the same and what has changed about how you see storytelling in your work and life? 


Tania Mattos

Storytelling is an extremely essential piece to any movement and to the work that I’m doing. [My work] has transitioned from telling my story into helping people build and tell their stories. Part of my philosophy is that I’m not gonna live forever. I’m not going to be in this movement forever. I think it is extremely important to pass along the knowledge and lessons that I’ve learned, which includes storytelling. It’s a talent, it’s an art. It’s a skill that you have to acquire and it takes so much practice. 


Storytelling can move mountains. I’ve seen how around the immigration movement when young people who were undocumented were able to change the narrative and, therefore, change ideas, minds, politicians, and the general public. [They made] some advancement in the movement around immigration, whether people think about it as a negative or positive impact. 


I remember what it was like before. I remember Jorge Ramos saying, “There’s no one speaking out about immigration and people just continue to suffer.” Part of my responsibility in continuing these efforts is to advocate for people that are in more vulnerable positions than I am. To advocate to help uplift the voices of people in detention, of people that have criminal convictions, of Black immigrants or Asian immigrants. Their stories that don’t get told as much.


Narrative Initiative

What does humanity have to do with belonging and what does belonging mean to you?


Tania Mattos

For a long time, I felt like I only belonged in Jackson Heights, Queens. Like I wasn’t part of the United States. I didn’t have a green card. I didn’t have citizenship. I didn’t I didn’t have a New York State ID. I felt like, Wow, I don’t truly belong, except for this microcosm of the world, this neighborhood of Jackson Heights. It’s such a unique place to grow up and I feel very privileged to have done so. 


I felt rejected for a long time. In my mid 20s, especially during the time where the filming started, it was a moment of a quarter-life crisis. Who am I? Am I Bolivian? Am I American? Now I’m in my 30s and feel much more comfortable being in all these worlds, all these identities that I have; they’re a part of my being comfortable in my skin. When I went to Bolivia, I wasn’t Bolivian enough. I will always claim my Bolivian heritage, Aymara heritage. When I look at myself in the mirror, I see my grandmother, I see my ancestors in the mirror. I may not culturally understand 100% what’s happening in Bolivia, and people may never see me as American, but I know that I am. That in itself, along with all my other identities, is revolutionary: that I say that I belong here, I belong wherever I go. 


In the film, you see me in this phase of trying to figure it out and really just fighting to belong. You’ll see, I think, 10 years later I figured out I’m really fighting for my humanity. 


I have a piece of paper now, but it doesn’t shift anything about my identity of belonging. I can’t go waving my citizenship papers around and say see, I belong here. In the film, you see me transition to the fight for my own humanity, my community’s humanity, my mother’s humanity, my family’s humanity. I don’t think that will stop, even if I stopped doing this work. 


Narrative Initiative

You brought it back to the film and your own personal journey through. What are the main things you want people to walk away with after seeing this film? What do you want them to remember?


Tania Mattos

How we’re all connected. You’ll see that in the film how I’m connected to people in Berlin even though I’ve never been to Berlin. I only recently met one of the other protagonists from Berlin, but I feel so connected because of this film. I hope that people understand this is an international issue of humanity and human rights. That it’s not just happening in the United States, it’s happening all over the world.


I hope this film serves as a conversation starter, as something that propels people to make a connection and look beyond the United States for ways people are dealing with this issue. 

I wasn’t able to travel internationally, but just knowing we’re not alone in fighting for this and this is much bigger than us, like the fight for human rights is much bigger than us. There’s a lot more to do, but I think it’s ordinary people that can change the world. It doesn’t have to be one person, one president. It’s ordinary people that make that change.


Narrative Initiative

The film starts out with you working toward the New York DREAM Act, and wondering what inspired that shift from work for policy reforms and to focus on abolition?


Tania Mattos

I was the Director of Advocacy, Outreach and Education at UnLocal, which is an immigration legal organization in New York City. We had attorneys that would help people with their immigration cases and my job was make people in the community aware of all the policy changes, how we can help people do things like get ITIN numbers, what they are, what are your rights. We will also did consultations. I mainly focused on communities that didn’t have a lot of that outreach done by traditional, much bigger institutions. Corona, Queens. Parts of the Bronx. So those are the two boroughs that I really paid a lot of attention to. 


I heard thousands of stories of people that were undocumented, family members that have gone through so much, individuals. I worked with over 200 organizations citywide and I heard story upon story of people that were going through the system under the Trump administration. It took a huge toll on me.


Something shifted in me and said this is enough. I came to a place where I knew that this has to end and I have to do something. I cannot just sit down and just listen to these stories. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, but I’ll figure it out, step by step.


I went to a Detention Watch Network Conference in Colorado in 2018 and heard that California had passed a bill to end immigration detention in their state. Eventually it was struck down but they’re still fighting to get it passed. I said to myself, If California can do this, absolutely New York can do this. Fast forward and I am a founding member of the Abolish ICE New York, New Jersey Coalition. We were able to pressure the New Jersey County Sheriffs to end their contracts ahead of time before a bill passed to prevent any new ICE contracts from existing in the state of New Jersey for immigration. 


That took blood, sweat and tears with many people involved, including people in immigration detention and hunger strikes. Now we’ve shifted the work to New York where we’re trying to do the same thing little by little. I know our work has inspired a lot of people across the country to do the same. In places like Louisiana, you can’t pass a bill like this, but you can do site fights where you fight to end immigration detention.


A lot of the work that I’ve done comes out of frustration for a system that doesn’t move fast enough. And it’s a system that is harmful and terrorizes us. That’s how I shifted into this area. 


Of course, I started to read academic work on abolition and [its] historical context. I knew it existed, but I didn’t know that’s what I was trying to do. Now I can claim it. 


Narrative Initiative

Abolition applies to so many different systems, including immigration detention, so what does abolition mean to you?


Tania Mattos

I’ve been exposed to different areas of work that people are doing on abolition. I saw how people were fighting the child court system, the prison industrial complex, the criminal justice system and immigration. I think we’ve had enough of systems that kill us. 


There’s people that are benefiting from all of this. We’re saying, no, we don’t want this. We have the power in organizing to say, if another human being made it up, then other people and other human beings can break it down because it’s not serving us and it is killing us. That’s what abolition means to me.


Narrative Initiative

What do you think the role of storytelling is in the fight for abolition?


Tania Mattos

It’s absolutely critical because the way that the media, politicians and people in power with platforms present abolition is that it’s this radical idea and it will cause mayhem and anarchy. We’re saying “no, this affects everyday people.”


Abolition is one way of achieving our human rights. We have to make this an idea that people buy into and the way you do that is storytelling. Telling my story, [having] people in detention telling their story. We have examples on our Instagram of people calling in from jail talking about the need to end detention. It moves people because it could be you, it could be anybody. Most of us are just one or two steps, paychecks, [from] being in the wrong place at the wrong time to land[ing] yourself in the child welfare system, in detention in the criminal legal system. It’s just a loop. 


For the safety of everybody, we have to continue to spread the word about why our stories matter and why our humanity matters. We need the abolition of these systems to make sure that no one else goes through this. People in detention always say, “I know I want to fight because I don’t want anyone to ever go through this. I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy.” It’s that bad and I don’t think people know the truth. Through our stories, we expose the truth. That’s what media, politicians and these companies don’t want us to do.


Narrative Initiative 

Is there anything else you’d like to add or share?


Tania Mattos

Whatever issue that may be affecting people or impacting your life as an individual or your families or communities lives, it’s everyday people that can make a difference. There are people out there that feel the same way about the systems that we have now. [With] all this anti-Black, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman, anti-any person with a uterus rhetoric, we have to be able to tell our stories to shift the narrative. We can do that and flip the script of what people want and plan for us. We have to take control back of our lives, our bodies, our identities, our stories. I hope the film can serve as one example or one inspiration of the different ways to do that. You don’t have to be an activist. You can be an artist, social worker or any job and you can contribute to change. If you want to get involved, visit nydignitynotdetention.org. You can get in contact with us. We talk to anyone and everyone who wants to listen.


Author: Megan Izen



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