Elvira Arellano at a rally in 2006
South Side Projections concludes an ongoing series of films about undocumented immigrants with a free screening at 7 PM Saturday night at the U. of C. Logan Center for the Arts of the locally produced documentary Elvira
(2009). The film, directed by Columbia College graduate Javier Solórzano Casarin, profiles Elvira Arellano, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who became an activist for immigrants' rights after she was arrested in the early 2000s. Arellano, who will attend Saturday's screening, had been working at O'Hare Airport when she was arrested by immigration authorities; after being released, she found sanctuary with her son (who was born in the U.S.) at a church in Humboldt Park. As she waited for her case to be tried, Arellano took part in rallies for the rights of undocumented immigrants, becoming a symbol for many; she also garnered the attention of U.S. politicians who offered to sponsor her stay in the country. Despite her prominence, Arellano was deported to Mexico in 2007. She returned to Chicago in 2014, where she was reunited with her son, and the two returned to the Humboldt Park church. Arellano will share her story on Saturday and discuss how she continues to stay involved in the immigration rights movement.
"I'm grateful for the film," Arellano said when I spoke to her the other day. "It doesn't just tell my story, but the story of many people who live here in the United States. Sometimes [my experience] has been positive, because many of the communities [I've visited] and people who have supported us have told me positive things about the film, and they've encouraged me in taking sanctuary." She also notes that being a spokesperson has had its negative side. "It's difficult [finding a job] sometimes, because I've been discriminated against for who I am. [Potential employers] are afraid that I'm going to organize all the workers and start a movement there."
Because her reputation has caused such repercussions, Arellano has tried to keep a lower profile since she returned to the U.S. four years ago. "I'm only [participating in activism] through my church right now," she says. "But I get a lot of messages on Facebook from people asking me how they seek asylum here, so I refer [those people] to the church, who then take care of each family. Even families from New York and California have contacted me. I'm still trying to help out in any way I can."
Community outreach has been an important part of the current South Side Projections series, which has involved lively conversations after each screening. Programmer Michael W. Phillips Jr. notes, "At the screening of a movie called Don’t Tell Anyone
, which we did at the Yollocalli Arts Reach, the audience was mostly high school kids, and during the conversation afterwards the speakers ended up sharing where undocumented immigrants could find resources. We also showed a film called The Other Side of Immigration
, which was shot mostly in the Mexican state of Michoacán, and we showed it at Casa Michoacán, which is a cultural organization from people from that state in Chicago. At that postshow conversation, we didn't have an expert onstage to answer questions, so we just put the chairs in a circle and people who were from [Michoacán] or had relatives there talked about their own experiences."
Phillips adds that he's learned as much from people who have attended the series as he has from the films themselves. "There was one amazing older man who attended the screening of The Other Side of Immigration
. He was born in Spain, and his family fled the Franco dictatorship to go to Argentina, and then they ended up fleeing a dictatorship there. He was talking about echoes of the dictatorships he fled in the Trump administration. That was a great addition to the conversation." For Phillips, conversation is what the series is about—he especially values the connections he's made within Chicago's immigration rights community. "One of our collaborators on the series has been the Spanish-language cultural magazine Contratiempos
, who we worked with two years ago on a series of labor-oriented films, and Moira Pujols, the director of Contratiempos
, has been really helpful about making connections between us and the Latin American community. Because I'm a white guy from outside of the community, it takes introductions before people in these organizations will talk to me."
Phillips's experience reflects the challenge that non-Latinos often face in communicating with Latino immigrant rights groups, but as Arellano explains, she and others like her often have good reason to fear talking with strangers. Because she had been labeled as a terrorist when she was arrested in the early 2000s, Arellano risks being referred to authorities whenever she shares personal information with a new party. She describes one experience of being terrified to go to the hospital. "When I crossed the border four years ago, I came with a group of families. While we were traveling, I was drugged; I was given a piece of candy that had been made with marijuana. And because I had never used that substance, I was hospitalized after taking the candy. That put me in fear, not only for my own life, but for my child as well."
Arellano also describes receiving death threats from anti-immigration groups while living in asylum, which has added to her anxiety about living in the U.S. Still, she takes pride in her involvement in the immigrant rights movement, and she hopes that their activities can lead to positive change for the undocumented. "I believe that this fight is not mine, but for everybody," she says. "Women have the right to raise their voices. What I'm trying to do is inspire other women and families to share their stories, because they'll only be heard if they speak out."