As a child growing up in New York State, Alex Rivera lived near Pete Seeger, the American folk singer and activist who inspired him to become the artist with a social message that he is today. Rivera was always interested in the arts—he tried his hand at drawing, painting and music—but one day discovered that the best medium for him to combine beauty, story, humor, politics and culture would be through film.
“I found it inspiring to find ways to tell a story or make a work of art that could be part of an agenda…to be able to advance an agenda that is very humanistic and loving toward people,” he said.
A Social Message
Today, Rivera has not only found a way to do exactly that, he has also gained accolades worldwide for his filmmaking and has toured universities sharing his craft, ideas and social agenda with students and faculty. He has produced films such as “Papapapá,” “Why Cyrbaceros?,” “Borders,” “The Sixth Section,” “Sleep Dealer,” among others, that have won International Film Festival awards (including Sundance Film Festival); have been broadcast nationally and screened at prestigious museums and places such as MOMA, Guggenheim Museum and Lincoln Center; and have been shown at dozens of higher education venues.
While entertaining and beautifully crafted, all of Rivera’s works carry a social message that often portrays Latinos and other groups of people deeply impacted by migration. “One of the core missions of my work is to look at how we live in a world of globalization,” he said. “We live in an age of dissolving borders all around us, yet at the same time, we’ve built walls, and we are living in an era of great violence toward people crossing borders. Why in an age of globalization is there a need to build more walls and attack people crossing borders?—it’s a contradiction.”
A Series of Successes
Rivera’s first film of importance that carried such a message about globalization was “Papapapá,” a story about his father, a Peruvian immigrant to the U.S., and the politics of immigration. He produced this film as part of his thesis project while a student at Hampshire College, Massachusetts.
“I had a friend who was studying agriculture and focusing on the potato. That’s when I realized that the potato was first cultivated in Perú, and it’s called papa, as father is papá,” said Rivera about his first film’s inspiration. “I had this dream about the potato going from Perú to the U.S. and assimilating (becoming the potato chip and French fries), just like my father came here and assimilated (and became a couch potato watching Latino TV shows).”
“Papapapá” became what Rivera described as a “light-hearted meditation on immigration and assimilation.” But when his college film won second prize in a New York Film Expo and then proceeded to screen at MOMA and around the world, he was quite amazed. “I thought no one would want to see a film about my father and a potato,” he said.
But “Papapapá,” which inspired Rivera to keep going, was just the beginning. “Around that time, I had another dream. The Internet was just being born, and I thought about how my dad had come here to work in factories. But what if people like my father could work from home, and the workforce in the U.S. were made up of robot bodies controlled by workers in other countries,” he said.
Rivera described his dream as a fantasy of tele-immigrants where the laborer Bracero programs would become cyber programs. His dream eventually took shape in 1997 in the form of a five-minute film called, “Why Cybraceros?” It was shown and paired with a Charlie Chapman film in the Guggenheim Museum in New York and in 2008 became the feature film, “Sleep Dealer,” which received awards at the Sundance Film Festival and was recognized at festivals and museums internationally.
Prior to releasing his feature film, “Sleep Dealer,” Rivera also produced “The Sixth Section,” a USA/Mexico documentary, and “Borders,” a series of three short documentaries produced in collaboration with PBS that looks closely at the realities of immigration, both of people and products.
Touring the World
While Rivera seems to constantly dream up his next films, much of his time is spent on the road visiting universities, colleges and organizations throughout the country and world. At schools like the University of California at Berkeley and Pixer University, he offers scholars and students a collection of films and discourses that get people talking and reflecting on issues that especially impact Latinos and immigrants.
“I want to make films that are beautiful, funny and have wild imaginations. But I also want to bring Latino history into the center of the audience’s imagination and to help expand what we think of as America,” he said. “Latinos, in a way, embody globalization in our cells from how we are made up racially, and how we come from different places. We are people who are a crystallization of the world in an age of globalization where so many forces cross borders. We are the ones who do the most vital work, working in factories, restaurants and farms…we allow life to happen…yet we are also despised. The only way to stop this is to tell our stories.”
A Film Industry Crisis
Beyond politics and social awareness, Rivera brings inspiration and guidance to students who were once like him and may be interested in a career in filmmaking.
“There’s a real crisis in this country in terms of those that participate in the film industry. There is a crisis of access and support, and Latinos are facing the biggest challenges,” he said. “There is definitely a hunger and talent out there among Latinos interested in filmmaking, but the numbers are bad. At film festivals with new independent films, you may see one or two Latino films, and in Hollywood we only represent two percent. It’s not acceptable.”
Inspiring New Horizons
When Rivera travels the world with his message, he often achieves two objectives: he inspires more Latinos, and people like him, to tell their stories, and he opens minds and hearts to look at the world differently than before.
“My work that resonates intellectually with students helps them connect the dots in ways they haven’t before. They never thought about connecting globalization and immigration, yet I see them putting the Rubik’s Cube together and seeing the world in a different way,” Rivera said. “It’s also a privilege when my work gets past someone’s brain and reaches their heart.” •