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Monday, August 29, 2005 | The tiny kitchen of Cristina Alvarado’s upstairs apartment at Mercado, a low-income housing project on the edge of Barrio Logan, was transformed recently by a crew of local teenagers into a digital video studio.

Young filmmakers Joseph Romero, 13, and Filmon Ticho, 17, took charge of the set, whisking away furniture to make room for lights and umbrellas. Sonia Alvarado, 15, translated difficult interview questions into Spanish while Dereje Tegaw, 11, worked the camera like a seasoned pro. Cristina Alvarado, unemployed mother of three, was the star of the film, telling stories about her life as a Mexican immigrant in America.

MAC, a nonprofit organization that supports media artists from underrepresented communities in the area, will instruct six such production crews throughout the year to research and produce short, 8-10 minute digital videos on subjects deemed important to the health and survival of community, including employment, education, health, art and culture.

The project is backed by the Central Library, which secured a $120,000 California State Library grant to fund the work, and it will provide librarians and access to their digital storytelling station to aid in research efforts and sponsor public screenings of the finished videos.

By enlisting youth to take charge of the project, organizers hope to facilitate communication between generations, with the goal of helping youth develop a greater sense of cultural identity and empowering them to critically analyze the situation of immigrant communities in San Diego.

“By learning about their relationship to their community and region, [youths] can overcome alienation from being isolated in a lower income community,” said Robert Bodle, director of education at the MAC. “They can get out, look at it from another perspective, and critically engage with their environment.”

For the project’s pilot cycle, now in its second month, teenage applicants were selected with the help of the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee, which runs several low-income housing projects in San Diego, from two of their locations: Mercado, and President John Adams Manor in Oak Park, a drug and gang-troubled community made up largely of African immigrants and refugees.

Including youth from outside of Barrio Logan and Logan Heights will “force cross cultural understanding” between groups who tend to have many misconceptions about each another, according to Joaquin Ortiz, 25, a lead instructor at MAC.

“They come from difficult communities – problems with gang members, drugs – and more than just the obvious problems, it’s that people don’t really ever get out of the trap of low-income housing,” said Ortiz. “You bring them into class, they get to know each other, understand they’re in the same boat and start working together.”

Bodle observes that the intensity of the production experience and the extent to which participants have to rely upon one another during the first two months has already produced “almost seamless collaboration.”

Arcela Nunez-Alvarez, a researcher at the National Latino Research Center in San Marcos, will be instructing a series of oral history workshops for “Youth Voices” to help teens understand the importance of reclaiming neighborhood histories.

“Public education is really failing in teaching young Latinos their own history, being that we are so close to Mexico and that this area was technically part of Mexico several hundred years prior to the founding of our country,” said Nunez-Alvarez, who holds a doctorate in history with a focus on Latin American and Chicano histories. “Projects like this teach them that Latinos have made major contributions to this region and [they] belong here.”

Ortiz emphasizes that the teens are also excelling in practical skills that might help them get jobs later on, such as how to conduct an interview, interact with adults and handle complex video machinery and software with ease.

Tegaw, an African American boy, hopes that what he is learning through the project will help him achieve his dream of working for the FBI, maybe in surveillance.

“I know all the basic parts about editing video, how to film. I feel more comfortable interviewing other people. I’m not so nervous what to ask and stuff,” said Tegaw.

Ticho, whose family migrated from Ethiopia when he was three years old, says that this project has helped him and his new friends stay off the streets.

“A lot of kids don’t have opportunities to do stuff. When they don’t have something like this to do, they feel like there’s nothing out there for them, and they just do nothing – they sell drugs and drink and stuff – and drop out of high school,” said Ticho.

Bodle says that if the project continues to be a success, it will provide a model for launching other, similar projects in San Diego’s many diverse neighborhoods.

The projected date of completion for the project is June 2006, at which point a DVD will be released, and then all six documentaries will be screened.

Please contact Jessica L. Horton directly at

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