On a hot summer day in June, a crowd shuffled into an Alamo Drafthouse to catch a matinee. But the theater wasn't packed for your standard blockbuster with a big Hollywood name; the film was the brainchild of a group of teens.
"My story is a story of a family ripped apart by ice-cold hands. A 16-year-old left to battle her monsters alone. Monsters that, instead of living under her bed, colonized her mind. The monsters that took hold of her life and refused to let go. No matter how hard she fought, the monsters fought back harder."
Those are the words of I Am Here's protagonist, Yesenia, played by 16-year-old Giselle Garibay. Yesenia is a young Texas teen weighed down by a heavy burden: Her mother could be deported at any moment, leaving Yesenia and her younger sister, Angélica, all alone.
The concept was created by the Creative Action’s Youth Cinema Collective, a teen film program that tackles social justice issues. But what’s distinctive about this project is that it was largely written, directed and produced by teens affected by this issue, like 18-year-old Silvia Zuvieta-Rodriguez.
"My dad was deported about, I want to say, [when I was in] eighth grade," says Zuvieta-Rodriguez, "and I'm going into freshman year in college."
YCC found Zuvieta-Rodriguez and others through a partnership with the local organization Youth Rise Texas, a nonprofit largely made up of female and queer youth of color who’ve been affected by the deportation or incarceration of a parent.
Zuvieta-Rodriguez was 10 years old when her father was caught in the country illegally.
"After my dad was deported, my mom had to kind of carry the entire family," she says. "My younger brother was always asking for where his dad was. He was only about 2 at the time. He would run up to the window and he would look for my dad's car. Then he would ask if Dad was home and we would have to explain to him he wasn’t coming home."
Zuvieta-Rodriguez took those lived experiences and turned them into poetry. Those words were crucial for YCC’s Director Marcelo Tesón.
"The process of devising it was really about finding balance," he says. "How do we both engage our students to tell this story, without co-opting it from the young people at Youth Rise who are really living the story."
Tesón says the teens were hungry to tell the story of I Am Here, since many of their school theater programs tended to avoid controversial subjects. But Tesón argues these young people don’t want to be shielded.
"All they want to do is feel and make movies about how they feel and communicate that feeling to everyone else," he says. "And that's exactly what cinema is perfect at: It’s an empathy machine."
The film may take artistic license at times but, overall it centers around the rawness of real life.
"I wanted the daughter relationship with her mother to be like how I have with my mother," says 18-year-old Maria de Jesus Torrez, who directed the film.
One of her favorite scenes is set in the kitchen, while Yesenia’s mom speaks to her in Spanish and she keeps responding in English.
"We wanted it to be natural. We wanted it to be what life really is and could be like here in Austin – any parts of Texas," Torrez says. "When you’re little and you speak this broken up Spanglish, you have to know both cultures very heavily, and it’s kind of hard.”
For Torrez and most everyone involved, the film was a way of translating these real emotions into a format aimed at reaching more people.
“When we were making these characters, we were layering it on: how they were avoiding ICE, how they only had like one parent," Torrez says. "It’s just like making their lives seem like hell, but they’re still living.”
As the film came to a close, Yesenia drives home the point that no matter how difficult the loss of a parent may be, the kids left behind will make the best of their situations.
"Because I am here, I will make it. I will make it – even if I have to make it without you."
Members of YCC say they hope that kind of perseverance inspires other young people who’ve felt that loss – but are still here.