Filmmaker Interview

POV: How did you meet the Ortiz family?

Aaron Matthews (AM): I met Sandra and the Ortiz family over 20 years ago when Sandra worked for my parents as a housekeeper. Our families have remained close ever since.

POV: What interested you in their story?

AM: I just felt that, as a family, the Ortizes encompassed a great deal that might speak to the general public. Originally, I figured I would just do a 10-minute portrait on Sandra, about how she came to this country with no money and no English. The film would cover how and why she came and what her life was like in those early years compared to the way it was now. I also thought the film could focus on her dilemma of leading a double existence, living between the world of the Dominican Republic and New York. Sandra is an amazing person and a great character but, most of all, she's always been the kind of person who I enjoyed spending time with, so I hoped others would feel the same way.

Then gradually, the more I hung out with Sandra, the more I realized that her daughters, Mayra, Aida and Monica, were each having different experiences as first-generation Dominican-American immigrants and that there was a rich story there as well. So it all just evolved. That's what is so exhilarating about making documentary film. It's constantly changing and what you start out with is guaranteed to be different from the final product.

POV: Your film presents the perspectives of both the mother and the girls — why this focus or structure?

AM: A short while after I started this project it became clear that the larger story existed in the stories of Mayra, Aida and Monica, and their individual Dominican-American experiences versus their parents' experiences in this country. It was interesting how each of the daughters was going in a very different direction. Mayra, the youngest is a self-proclaimed ghetto kid, and struggles with school — she likes to hang out. Monica, the oldest, recently graduated from one of the best universities in the country and she's a real success story. And Aida is, as she says, the typical middle child, literally and figuratively. She's very much trying to make her way between her two sisters — the world of the street and middle class American values.

The three paths that the girls have to choose from represent choices and decisions that we are all faced with in some way or another. By looking at the experiences of the girls in relation to their mother complex, universal issues get raised: the value of education, the role of women in this country, the issue of balancing work and family and the costs and gains of fulfilling your dreams.

POV: What drew you to the subject?

AM: Characters always draw my attention before any issues do. In this case, it was the entire Ortiz family. Good characters deliver the issues and themes that make the movie come alive. It would be difficult for me to make a movie based merely on an interesting 'message,' whereas if you start with an interesting character the rest takes shape.

POV: There wasn't much in the way of interviews with the father — why?

AM: Bautista plays a very important role in the Ortiz family. He's hardworking and loyal, and he loves his children. In the film, he's the one who's most focused on building their house in Dominican Republic, so he ends up highlighting the desire among Dominicans in this country to return home. In addition, all family dynamics are different. In the Ortiz family, as in many American families, the mother takes a more active role in the children's lives than the father does. And since so much of the film revolved around Mayra, Aida and Monica, there ended up being more scenes that involved Sandra with the three girls.

POV: I understand that you lived with the family while making this documentary — can you tell us what that was like?

AM: Living with the Ortizes — a family I knew long before filming ever began — underscored for me how much you never really know people until you have to walk in their shoes. I've made documentary films before, but never had I followed subjects with the intensity and duration that I did in making My American Girls. You learn so much about people just by sitting around, being patient and waiting for scenes to unfold. And when Aida says "our house is like a hotel for the Dominican Republic," she's not kidding.

One of the overwhelming impressions I had of staying at the Ortizes, for extended amounts of time, was how many people come in and out of there all day long. At certain points, I would turn to Mayra or Aida or whoever was near and ask them who that guy who just came in the door was and more often than not they would just shrug their shoulders and say "Absolutely no idea." Everyone's welcome in the Ortiz home be they distant relative or friend of a friend. As I think you can tell in the film, they are very open, big-hearted, generous people, so I always felt welcome there. Also, Sandra is a great cook and she makes the best arroz con pollo y platanos north of the Caribbean. I have to admit that kept me hanging around the house longer than I might have — there were plenty of kitchen scenes in the outtakes.

POV: As a filmmaker, what were you exploring?

AM: The immigrant story is one that I've always been interested in. The idea that people just pick up and leave their native lands and come to a strange country with next to nothing in their pockets searching for a new life is endlessly fascinating to me. Especially as a New Yorker in a city that has a greater than 50 percent immigrant population, I find this story to be one that's constantly stimulating and enriching me. But also as an American — we're all immigrants (some more recent than others) or the children of immigrants in this country and, therefore, it's a story that forms the very fabric of who we are. The immigrant question is still an important one for this country. And it is complex, diverse and still needs to be explored.

I wanted to explore what made the Dominican immigrant different from others. There are times when the Ortiz family will visit the Dominican Republic two or three times a year, and that sets them apart from previous immigrants to this country in a big way. Even today, a great number of immigrants leave their country never to return again. But, in part because of the proximity of the Dominican Republic to the United States, many Dominicans never leave their country entirely. And yet that creates a real tension, especially for the children of Dominican immigrants here in America. The family is still closely connected to DR but they've established roots in New York. And in a larger sense, we all have to deal with the questions that are raised by that dilemma: Who am I? Where do I belong and where do I fit in?

The contrast between who the Ortizes are in the U.S. and who they are in the Dominican Republic is related to this issue. Sandra and Bautista play two distinct roles and they do it simultaneously. There's a scene in the film where Sandra goes shopping for her family in the Dominican Republic. The bulk of what she ends up bringing down to friends and family is very basic. She's delivering bags of rice and beans for the poor people in her old neighborhood. She packs up placemats and shower curtains to bring to her parents. It's a strange twist because, here in the U.S., Sandra and Bautista are relatively low on the income ladder — they're both janitors in hospitals — and when they go back to the Dominican Republic they're handing out food and necessities to the town's people.

POV: What do you hope to achieve by making this film?

AM: Dominicans have been New York's largest and fastest growing immigrant group for the last 30 years. Yet there are few films that document the Dominican-American immigrant experience and there has never been a film that chronicles the story of a Dominican family over a long period of time. They are an under-served community. I can't tell you how many New Yorkers, as I was making this film, asked me questions like, "Wait a minute, aren't Dominicans like the same thing as Puerto Ricans?" or, "What part of Mexico is the Dominican Republic in again?" and, "Aren't Dominicans like a religious order?." According to the latest census figures, Latinos are the fastest growing immigrant group in the US and they are also now the largest minority group in this country.

Dominicans and Latinos are a huge part of what this country is and will be in the future. As a result, there's a real need just to create general awareness about Latino issues. When there is limited media concerning groups of people, in the eyes of many, they remain invisible. So one of the big hopes with My American Girls was that the film would tell a story that all families in this country would be able to relate to and therefore open up much needed dialogue.

POV: Any interesting or funny stories related to the making of this film?

AM: The Ortizes are lively and fun, so each day filming was never like the one before. One of the funny situations that happened in the beginning involved Sandra. At the outset of the project, Sandra couldn't understand why I would want to make a documentary film about her. In fact, her daughter, Monica later told me that Sandra initially thought that I was filming her so that some actress down the line would be able to portray the role of 'Sandra' in a made-for-TV movie about a Dominican family in Brooklyn. So, on the first 10 hours of videotape there's a lot of footage of me trying to convince Sandra that "Yes, this right here is what I'm going to make the film from." It was also hard to get Sandra to ignore my presence. You can often hear my voice behind the camera saying something like "OK, just pretend I'm not here. Now just act naturally....," and Sandra would turn to me, look directly into the lens, and say, "Sure, sure. We can do this later. Have you eaten breakfast yet? How about some coffee?"