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August 5th, 2008
18 with a Bullet
Filmmaker Notes: Nina Alvarez

Filmmaker Nina Alvarez produced the epilogue to the WIDE ANGLE film, 18 with a Bullet.

The day we met, Vilma picked me up at the hotel in her red SUV and said that she still did not quite understand what I was doing there. We ate lunch at a Marie Callender’s and spoke for a long time. She was in tears for much of it; she was in tears before we even got out of the car. She couldn’t utter her son Diego’s name without breaking down. She has never seen WIDE ANGLE’s 18 with a Bullet and has no desire to see it. She wondered aloud why WIDE ANGLE, or anyone for that matter, would care about anything she had to say.

I am a second generation Salvadoran-American, the daughter of Salvadoran immigrants. My parents were bright and educated young people; my father was an engineering student and my mother was a teacher. They came to the U.S. for the promise of bigger and better things. They would come, work in their craft and learn, and go home to help make their country a better place. That was the plan.

When they arrived, my mother worked as a nanny and housekeeper. She received room and board and $100 per month. On her time off, Friday afternoons and Saturdays, she worked in a beauty salon in the Bronx. My aunt Dolores left five kids behind, only to care for and clean up after someone else’s kids in New Jersey. She also worked in a factory and she and my mom pulled all-nighters washing and styling wigs.

My mother and her sister also left behind three younger siblings. In the early 1980’s, amid El Salvador’s bloody civil war, it was nearly impossible to get into the U.S. While the U.S. government financed the conflict, it refused to recognize the victims or provide them political refuge. My mother, who had originally intended to return to her beloved El Salvador, became a US citizen instead and worked relentlessly for almost four years to bring her little sisters and brother to safety. They arrived in 1984.

In 1992, the Salvadoran government and guerilla groups signed a peace accord. Despite great hopes, post-war El Salvador has failed to bring peace, democracy and economic prosperity for all. In fact, only five years after the war ended, El Salvador was the most violent country in the western hemisphere, according to the World Health Organization. Many demobilized young former combatants had few opportunities to change or improve their lives. Small arms were readily available. Furthermore, the U.S. increased its deportation of violent gang members who violated immigration laws. Put these elements together, and you have a social and economic minefield.

This is the world in which Vilma raised her sons, alone. Then a fire destroyed the San Salvador market where she sold her baked goods. Her dwindling resources soon made it impossible to pay for housing, the car, and food. Vilma decided to leave for the United States with the hope of earning more money. For Diego, the very act of his mother leaving to make his life better had the opposite impact. He sought family and found it with the gang. For Vilma, it was an ironic and cruel consequence that nearly invalidated her sacrifices in the United States.

One thing has remained constant across the generations of immigration. It is never easy to be far from home. And yet immigrants make Americans’ lives easier on a daily basis: cleaning our homes, caring for our children, parking our cars, or cooking our meals (if you eat out in New York City, I bet you have at least one meal per week prepared by an immigrant). Free of these burdens, everyone else has the time to be professionals, doctors, entrepreneurs, and even filmmakers.

Vilma works hard: sweeping, mopping, wiping; stovetops, venetians, under the sink, behind the fridge, inside the vase, on top of the bookshelf where no one even looks…it is backbreaking work. And I know that now. One day when we were filming, a homeowner asked that I not film in their house. I wanted to be helpful, so Vilma agreed to let me clean. Let me tell you, I was exhausted after about an hour. Vilma took one look at my work and suggested that I stick to making TV.

It has been eight years since she left El Salvador. Vilma did not think she would be here this long and does not know when she might go back; she very much wants to see her son and family. I sensed a streak of resentment in Vilma because she feels forced to stay in the U.S. Despite the accusations she sees on the evening news that illegal immigrants steal our public services, Vilma contributes here and pays taxes like everyone else. She has no health insurance and despite my own observation of her less than optimum health, she says she has never gone to the hospital. “Whenever I feel ill,” she says, “the cure is thinking about the bill!”

Vilma is a fighter with a heart of gold. She is keen about helping the immigrant cause. After evading the idea of being on TV, she concluded that she was in a better position to do this than others who do not have legal status. She has a heart, a conscience and admirable empathy.

Diego’s mom inspires me and devastates me. She makes me proud of her, of my mother, my aunts and all the women who have left entire lives behind to make life a little better for their families back home and especially us, their children. I hope Vilma’s future and that of her family are more like my own. I hope Vilma can not only improve the lot of her family, but also improve her own life and be happy. My own mother survived 35 years of racism, classism, and xenophobia, but never wasted an opportunity. Today she is a public school teacher and a PhD candidate in Education. She is and has always been an asset to this country, and so is Vilma and millions like them. Perhaps the acknowledgment of this fact is a necessary step in improving U.S. immigration policy.

Photo credit: Simon Vanquaethem

  • Carol Kaye

    how can we help?

  • dan manly

    What you’ve created is an advertisement for street gangs. By empathizing with an individual who chose a life of crime, you glorify that individual and their choice, thus perpetuating the misery that you “document”. Job security, I suppose. For every Salvadorian emigre that joins a gang, there’s 30 who don’t. Let’s hear about them, if your censorship will permit it. The root of the problem is the government’s domestic policy. Not the U.S. government, the government of EL SALVADOR. You’ve inferred that the misery is a U.S. problem, which is as ludicrous as saying that U.S. contribution to global warming can be remedied in El Salvador.

  • Byron Crape

    Dear Nina,
    I lived and worked in a war displaced community along the railroad tracks in San Martin in El Salvador through one year of war and three years in the process of peace. After the peace accords in the early 1990’s, I knew that some guys had been deported from LA gangs (I had previously worked with gangs in LA). I met three Homies in my community from the LA 18th Street Gang(not Salvadorans). They had been sent down as a delegation of the 18th Street Gang to organize a branch in El Salvador. I spoke to them. At that time I knew of three other LA Gangs organizing in the country…I wonder if the “18″ was originally the “18th Street” Gang (one local guy that lived on the tracks had proudly showed me his new “18th Street” tatoo on his leg at the time after the delegations visit)?

  • Byron Crape

    Oh, I see that PBS mentions the 18th Street Gang and well as the split…I’m sorry I did not see the beginning of your doc…I’m assuming that 18 is the current 18th Street?

  • Miguel Reyes

    As a Salvadorean who lives in the US, I truly sympathize with Nina’s comments. Having left El Salvador during the early ’80’s, I saw the frustrations and sacrifices that many Salvadorean families made to find a safer and promising future for their children. In our specific case, my mother worked several jobs to support our family. Luckily enough, we got an education and are contributing members in our adopted country.

    Nevertheless, other Salvadoreans did not have the same faith. Alienation and the destruction of family connections have contributed to the deterioration of the Salvadorean society. You see mothers and sons/daughters who have not seen each other for years because of economy and safety concerns. We are truly losing a whole generation of young people in a country who needs them the most!

  • Rae Ponce

    In no way did this documentary glorify the lives of the gang members. What I saw was the pitiful attempt of a bunch of scared little boys trying to raise themselves into men in an extemely disfunctional and abusive way. What made it worse were the small children who are exposed to so much violence and destructive behavior. Maybe much more thought needs to go into the decision of parents to leave their young children in search of better resources. More men need to step up to the plate to model positive male behavior. But good luck with that, right?

  • dan manly

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Rae. The problem is, nice guys don’t make very exciting film copy. A film about bad boys is easy and ubiquitous. It’s more difficult to stimulate an audience with valor, but it has been done.

  • Sandra Villarreal

    Upon watching the show I really didn’t have the opinion that Diego’s mom did the right thing in abandoning her son. Instead I blamed his choice of life on his mother. I am a single mother of 2 (15 & 17) and the thought of leaving my children anywhere doesn’t ever cross my mind. But the decision to leave your children in another country saddens me. I was brought to tears watching the show and looking into Diego’s eyes when he spoke to his mother broke my heart. I held onto the hand of my son and just cried, and when I had looked over at him, he also had tears in his eyes. My son asked “would you ever leave us and go to another country?” I told him no, but our circumstances are alot different then that of El Salvador. My only aggrevation is yeah Vilma wanted a better life for her children, but why didn’t she return to get her boys or send for them? Yes I agree that her work is very hard and back breaking, I know my mother did the same thing and I would join her too; but I couldn’t fathom the idea of leaving the reasons why I live day to day behind in another country. I have issues dropping them off with friends at the mall. Your article was wonderfully worded I have to give you props for that, and the story on tv was an eye opener for me. With much love and respect, take care.

  • Kathryn Duerst

    I think sometimes it takes going through the pain yourself to have compassion toward others going through it. These folks responding are not seeing through the same eyes with which I see. I know the hardship of being forced to choose between children and a means of survival. I also rebel against the idea of leaving my own children, so that I did choose poverty over leaving them, in fact. But what a hard choice!!! Poverty is cruel. Even now, because of the finacial pressures on me, I have local people telling me I need to go away to take care of myself and let God take care of my children, and I just think, if only these people would learn a little compassion, what a wonderful world this could be. Meanwhile, I have great admiration for Vilma and great compassion also. I weep for her and her son. It is a hard, cruel world, as I have also learned, when fathers abandon and poverty does its ravages. Working so much as I have to, I am basically separated from my children though I chose to stay with them.

  • Cali

    Let their storys be told!
    these are the storys we almost never hear about. and if we do, some people dont want to hear about them. why?
    to every positive there is a negative.
    in order to understand it we must see it.
    we all know or have seen the happy side of life and the joys that comes with it.
    whats the bad side?
    its not just death, gangs and drugs.
    there is intense emotions
    and everything else u dont get from being happy.
    Listen and try to have an understanding of how they really feel.

  • salvador a alvarez

    im agree with dan manly, because im a former gang member, who started in the gang world after watching a movie about gangs in los angeles, when you are young you are tring to be respected and admired for others, so thats how most young kids get in to the gangs, i thing the biggest mistake the media had made is make this kind of films, because this make gangs member feel very important it makes them feel famous. what they really want is most people show them respect for who they are, in most cases when you are a gang member you are looking to be respected for other members thats how they start doing crazy things,like stabing,killing,robbing,rapping,kidnaping,all kind of crimes just to get to the top of the gang. thanks god i could got out of that, now im a person who try to help kids not to get in this gang wold.

  • ESL TEACHER

    I am an ESL teacher in K-12.I would like to point out that it is very difficult to bring your family into the country legally and to do so illegally can leave a teenager or young adult with just as an uncertain a future.The reason for gang membership and recruitment of teenagers in this country is similar to that in El Salvador ,kids who search for identity and feel ungrounded are an easy target.This has been going on for much longer than this latest group ,it has always been an issue .The American Bloods and Crips have been around for quite awhile, there are and have been Asian,Irish,and Italian gangs .

    Regarding poverty ,what should parents do ?We have access to some amount of support in the US,in many places there are no government services ,what would you do if you needed to survive and had no support available?

    It is a double edged sword, a big issue with many of my students at the moment is repatriation with parents who came here when their children were very young , these children are being brought here as teens to live with parents who are strangers.They must navigate American culture , the school system with little English , these parents work a lot so the kids are often on their own in a way.This is not only Latin America ,this occurs in families from many areas of the world as well ,immigration is tangled web ,it is not always possible to bring your family here together.Some of these kids at times will choose MS13 over the family they do not know or if they find little success in school and adolescents period don’t think as adults ,they are searching for who they are and the bigger picture is not always so clear. This makes it is very easy to make a decision that can ruin their life .

    One solution might be to remember it a takes a village ,community cohesion.Citizens with an education, English, and rights move outside of your comfort zone to tutor ,or give time in some way to lower income schools and communities.If you are an immigrant who succeeded and many, many do ,then give back! Don’t just finger point ,it gets us nowhere. I often feel like I am down at the bottom alone with everyone on top arguing about “shoulds” and “should nots “,while yet another kid slips through the cracks.

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