Antonia “Sandra” and Juan “Bautista” Ortiz are hardworking immigrants who live frugally in Brooklyn and dream of retiring to their native Dominican Republic. Their American-born daughters have other ideas and dreams. Welcome to the bittersweet contradictions of contemporary immigrant life as revealed in My American Girls: A Dominican Story, the dramatic portrait of one year in the life of a family as it struggles to sort out the rewards — and costs — of pursuing the American dream.
In 1975, Sandra became the first of her family to immigrate to New York from the Dominican Republic seeking better work and pay. She met her husband, Bautista, also a Dominican immigrant, and began bringing her brothers, sisters, and other family members over, until nearly the whole family — except her parents — was ensconced in Brooklyn.
As with so many immigrants, Sandra and Bautista work long hours for relatively low pay by U.S. standards. But it is enough for them to live a decent if not exactly middle-class life in Brooklyn, to give their children the advantages of American citizenship and education, and to return to the Dominican Republic for family reunions bearing big bags of coveted consumer goods. Most importantly, Sandra and Bautista earn enough to be slowly building a dream house for the time they retire and return to their beloved island.
The attachment of the immigrant parents to the homeland, their discipline and work ethic, and their clarity of purpose all contrast with the independent, searching outlooks of their three U.S.-born daughters. It is the story of the daughters that forms the dramatic spine of My American Girls.
There is Monica, the fast-tracking eldest, who excels in college, wants to be an actress, lives on the Upper East Side, and feels ill at ease with Dominican culture. Mayra, the youngest, is a self-described “ghetto kid” who has problems in school. Aida, the middle daughter, is mostly concerned with earning money for the things she wants and has little patience for her parents’ frugal ways.
Says filmmaker Matthews: “When you look at the Ortiz family and the struggles they have and the issues they deal with — education, opportunities gained and lost, the role of the mother, the role of women in the family, balancing work and family, and the fulfillment of dreams — you realize that these are issues and struggles and themes that affect us all.”
In vivid, vérité detail, My American Girls paints an intimate portrait of the immigrant experience at the end of the 20th century. Ultimately, Sandra realizes the irony in her situation: when she and Bautista leave New York to return to the Dominican Republic, she will be leaving her family once again.