For years, I thought being a good Latina meant working for your community, as an organizer, as an educator. And I did those things. But it wasn’t my true calling.
I grew up as a white, somewhat-privileged, middle-class Latina. I enjoyed the benefits, financial and educational, of my father’s long hours working at his bodega in the Bronx. I was born and raised in New York City’s Washington Heights, but when I reached the age of 12, my parents realized that the path they wanted for their daughter was going to be harder to reach if we stayed. So, we moved to suburban New Jersey, where they enrolled me in exclusive private schools. This education eventually led me to Boston, where I became the first in my family to attend college.
Meanwhile, my father continued to commute to his bodega to work, leaving at 5 a.m. every morning.
But even though I had only spent my childhood in “the community,” it was ingrained in me, and through family and friends, I knew that community. It was made of immigrants coming to the United States to chase the hoped-for dream of a better life. I witnessed this in my parents — my father, Puerto Rican; my mother, Dominican — and my extended family. They were all humble people who were grateful to be working, grateful for opportunities only available to them here. Contrary to the stereotype, no one was looking for a handout — they all came to work.
Just like in Chelsea.
The majority Latinx, immigrant, working-class city of Chelsea is defined by its small size, and by its close proximity to Boston, just across the Tobin Bridge. This densely packed city contains piles of rock salt as high as 3 stories, used to de-ice New England winter roads. Massive tanks along the Chelsea Creek hold 100 percent of the fuel for Boston’s Logan International Airport. Food, cargo ships, oil, natural gas, gasoline, and consumer goods enter New England through Chelsea. The city’s industries are essential to the basic functioning of the region — a role Chelsea’s residents also play in sustaining the regional economy.
But Chelsea bears disproportionate health burdens compared with most communities in Massachusetts. It has nearly the highest incidences of asthma, pulmonary disease, cardiovascular disease, and cancer — conditions that made COVID-19 deadly.
When the pandemic broke out, Chelsea, like many communities of color, was devastated by its impact. At its peak, the COVID-19 infection rate in Chelsea was the highest statewide and one of the highest in the country.
Despite these serious challenges, this city of essential workers had no other choice — people had to leave home to work, while I had the privilege of working from home as an independent filmmaker. As I watched the city suffer, I felt guilt and hopelessness. And I realized, Doing nothing was not an option.
The only tool I had was my camera.
As a bilingual documentary filmmaker, I knew the headlines had nuanced backstories, I knew Chelsea’s story was more than what we saw on TV news. The news portrayed the residents of Chelsea as victims, but I knew instinctively that that wasn’t true, because we Latinos aren’t victims. We fight. We persevere.
This was my call to action. I persuaded two colleagues to join me in documenting the city’s true stories. Little was known about COVID, and a vaccine was still almost a year away. We struggled to shoot simple scenes. We wore masks all the time, indoors and out, and sterilized our equipment. Stood 6 feet apart. We were afraid all day long, every day. Yet we continued to talk to people and to film all we could.
Being bilingual let me communicate easily with residents and gave us special access. Our cameras documented their daily lives: workers piling into buses before dawn; community organizers mobilizing volunteers to knock on doors to sign residents up for vaccines; and city employees distributing Chelsea Eats debit cards for groceries.
And we used our cameras to capture the joy of the community — celebrated through art, music, food, and most importantly, family.
I identified with the people I talked to and their values, and connected deeply with their stories of coming to this country and working hard to make their lives and their children’s lives better.
Filming in Chelsea gave me solace in another, unexpected way. It was during this documentary production that I lost my father to dementia. The film became, in many ways, my refuge during his decline. For me, it was a way to honor him through my work, in a way that had never been possible before. I knew his sacrifices had been so similar to those of the people I met and witnessed struggling in Chelsea. He, and they, helped me see what it means to be Latina.
As I lost my father, I came to deeply appreciate him in another way. And I found my activism.
Sabrina Avilés is the executive director and founder of CineFest Latino Boston. Her short documentary about Chelsea, “Raising the Floor,” will premiere this fall.