When Art Imitates Life - Define American

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When Art Imitates Life

For U.S. citizens, trying to imagine what the experience of being undocumented is like can be difficult — if not impossible — and at the least tinged with stereotypes. In order for more people to understand what the undocumented experience is like, there needs to be more representation, particularly in the media. Armando Ibanez is doing his part to fix that. He is the director, producer and star of a new web series called Undocumented Tales. The show centers around a waiter named Fernando, who navigates Los Angeles as an undocumented and gay man. He not only hides his true identity from the outside world, but also from his family, who do not know that he’s LGBTQ. What follows is a humorous and honest portrayal of a man trying to pursue his own happiness and freedom.

Armando is 33, was born in Acapulco, Mexico and is undocumented. He was brought to the United States when he was 18 by his single mom, along with his two younger siblings to look for a better future, and a better life. He quickly began working in the restaurant business and has worked at over 20 establishments. His first gig was at McDonald’s, and it’s at fast food restaurants where he learned English. He continued his education through GED classes. Armando wanted to pursue college, but he quickly realized that it is tremendously challenging to go to college as an undocumented student. He was eventually able to attend college in Cerritos, CA as a film major thanks to AB540 (a California state law which allows undocumented students who have attended a California high school to attend a California college and pay in-state tuition). Armando wanted to make a series about what servers hate about the restaurant industry, and that’s where the idea for Undocumented Tales was born. We asked him a few questions about the series and about what inspired him to create it now.

How did you come up with the idea that would become Undocumented Tales?

I started working on the series because usually at (film) school, they teach you how to get a job, and then the studios hire you. But I realized that that system is not going to work for me because I’m undocumented. No one can hire me because I don’t have a social security number. Nowadays we have easy access to tools like cameras, Facebook and social media channels, so I thought I should take advantage. Someone mentioned a web series called Awkward Black Girl. I started watching it and loved it, and noticed they started on YouTube then held a Kickstarter to continue shooting. Then, she (Awkward Black Girl creator and writer Issa Rae) was asked to help create a similar show for HBO. This strategy inspired me, and helped me share my story as an undocumented server.



Why did you pick a web series as the medium for this project?

As a kid, I always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker. I watched the 2015 Emmy’s when Viola Davis was the first African American woman to win an Emmy for the best actress in a drama series. She said something in her speech that impacted me. She said, “You cannot win Emmys for roles that simply aren’t there.” This convinced me that I need to share my story for entertainment. I used to complain about not seeing enough people of color, LGBTQ people. I realized I should stop complaining and go to work and make the change. After that, I sat down and started writing Undocumented Tales in September 2015. I also realized that I’m going to be honest and am writing the full story: I’m gay and undocumented. This is me coming out of the closet and out of the shadows.

Tell us more about that—about sharing your full story.

The undocumented LGBTQ community has to live in two different worlds. Fernando, the main character, hides his identity from family and, in the outside world, he hides his status. I want to show general audiences about our community. There are a lot of stereotypes the media has created about Latinos, but we can’t relate to it. That’s why I want to show this side. We still have hope, we dance, we go to parties. We have dreams, moments of joy and happiness, and I also want to show that. We’re living in critical times in politics and entertainment, and there’s controversy about minorities who are not being represented. I feel like this could be a contribution.

Photo by Moka Laguna
Photo by Moka Laguna

What inspires you to do the work that you do?

I used to watch films as a kid. I used to fall in love with Mexican films. But growing up as a poor Mexican kid, you don’t dream of becoming a filmmaker. You don’t consider it because you grow up learning to survive. When I came here, I was told the only things I could do were work and work and work and pay rent, and that’s it. So I followed that idea that I wasn’t going to be able to pursue a dream or anything I wanted. Eventually, I started watching more movies. I always felt like I wanted to do something else, and it wasn’t until two years ago when I started seeing many undocumented activists on TV and I was so inspired by these DREAMers and said, who are they? Where do they come from? How can they be so unashamed? I felt a lot of feelings and emotions, and started getting to know activists who I have to say changed my life, and made me feel that I could embrace my identity, and we’re going to see that in the series. Fernando will go through so many situations, meet so many people and they’ll make him consider that hiding and lying is not the right way to pursue happiness.

What are the goals you have in making Undocumented Tales?

To entertainment industry people: we need to change representation. The media’s stereotypes aren’t working anymore. As my experience as a Latino LGBTQ member I have two goals for the series: 1) educate a general audience about who we are and our experiences, and 2) I want my people to feel like they can relate. I want these people to see themselves on the screen and say “He doesn’t have papers! That’s me.” I want to make them feel better because often as undocumented LGBTQ we go through so much anxiety and depression. I want to let them know that they’re not alone. I want to convince the LGBTQ undocumented community not to give up, know that they’re not alone and that we are many.

Photo by Freddy S. Pech
Photo by Freddy S. Pech

What would success look like to you?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Growing up, I thought that winning an Oscar is something that someone who wants to make films wants. When you are LGBTQ and undocumented, success means being finally free. For me personally, as an undocumented LGBTQ individual, I am constantly looking for freedom. Looking to feel myself, and not be afraid of being of who I really am.

Anything else you want to mention?

We’re currently in the last stretches of editing, so the show will premiere in May 2016 on YouTube. To find out what the Undocumented Tales team is up to, visit our Facebook page and Instagram.

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