With the rise of Donald Trump, there has similarly been a growth in media and art projects by immigrants and children of foreign-born parents responding to xenophobia and celebrating the beauty of our people. Joining the canon is “Caracol Cruzando,” a short animation film unlike anything you’ve seen before.
The 20-minute movie, written and directed by queer Costa Rican animator Pamela M. Chavez, tells the story of a 7-year-old girl named Anais, who has to make the most difficult decision of her young life: whether she’ll bring her best friend, her pet turtle, across the border with her to Miami or leave it behind in Costa Rica.
“Caracol Cruzando,” which is expected for completion in late May, is largely based on Chavez’s own childhood immigration story and captures the risk and tough choices that must be made when migrating. As an animated film, however, it’s filled with stirring mythological creatures that bring her childlike feelings and experiences to life.
We spoke with Chavez, 33, about the short film, why telling a migration story through a child’s perspective is important, what she hopes viewers take away from the short and the role animation plays in expanding representation for Latinxs.
What inspired you to tell this story now?
The timing is relevant to what’s going on right now, but I think it’s been relevant, depending on your region. In terms of inspiration, however, I’ve been sort of writing this in my head since I was pretty young. But when I went to school for illustration and animation in 2014, I started writing this script. I wanted to share this story I had but through the perspective of a little girl, so we can understand immigration through a different lens, the lens of a child. I’ve done a lot of youth work throughout my life, and when speaking with young people, I try to get them to tap into their strength, power and courage. I think this film tries to do the same. I didn’t want to victimize immigrants or to explain immigration but rather to see where we can grow, finding the coming of age story in immigration.
In the short, the young migrant has to decide whether to bring her pet turtle across the U.S.'s Miami border with her. What are you hoping to convey through this dilemma and decision Anais, the main character, has to make?
For kids, it’s about: do we take risks and, if so, what are the things that we weigh in those risk-taking moments? I think the kids will see that; they’ll see her following her heart and making decisions with her heart. And that relates to adults in a deeper way. It’s affirming their decisions, risks and passage. Most adults leave things behind – homes, loved ones, family members – and there’s a desire to validate that decision because it was one made by the heart.
Sketch of Anais, courtesy of Pamela Chavez
What do you think a child’s perspective can bring to the larger conversation around immigration occurring in the country right now?
I think it can bring empathy. I think that it’s easy to take an adult story and say, “well, that’s something you should just deal with and figure out in your own country.” Someone making that comment to an adult is wrong, but it’s also easier to say that to them than to a young girl; you’d sound like a jerk. Doing this through the lens of a little girl is humanizing. I also find that there is more fun in telling this from a child’s lens. There’s more play. There’s interaction between a girl and her pet turtle, which doesn’t speak but walks around with her. We see her relationship with her environment and her home being important to her identity. Adults will be able to see themselves in the child and remember those parts of their identity they left behind as still present. It’s for children, but it’s also for adults and the child inside of them.
I know that you yourself are from Costa Rica. How much of this narrative is linked to your own immigration story?
It’s like a bio mythography that is based on some pretty true facts, but some through the perspective of myself at that age, which is the same age that I migrated. So something may be fictional in the sense that they didn’t happen that way, but that’s how I saw them happening as a kid. Maybe the logistics of how I immigrated wasn’t the same, but that’s how I read them. There’s an element of fantasy that allows for me to break from that narrative and be creative: There’s a talking tree. It’s important for me to see these other mythological characters. Real-life Latinos might not have full-on conversations with a tree, but we are really connected to land and nature, so there’s something really beautiful there. It’s a magical realism type of reality that I wanted to convey.
How has the process been for you to create a short that’s both so close to home and so deeply connected to so much of what’s happening around us right now?
It’s been a huge learning process. I think in terms of the technical pieces – working with a team, working on a large 20-minute animation project, being a director and writer – I’ve grown a lot. It’s not something I knew how to do. Also, the reception we’ve gotten for this film is that it’s something the community really wants. They’ve been specific: we’ve seen the immigration story, but this is different. It’s not victimizing us. It’s saying, how do we grow from this, change the narrative, take control of this dialogue that has become so political?
As an animator, what do you think this medium can bring to this conversation?
So much! I love animation, and one of the main reasons is because you can give anything life, and give it the life you want it to have. Latinos are still carving our identity in popular media. We are still the sidekick and still the stereotypes. But we are so diverse and have so much to say about who we are that being able to take that in a way that’s limitless like animation, where there are no boundaries, is amazing. If you want to be a person that walks around with limbs like a tree, you can do that. There’s power in finding identity in ways that are different and new. It’s hard because you have to have lessons in how to do animation, and that’s difficult to do, but the more Latinos we get in this medium, it’s going to be really powerful to see.
Pamela Chavez at her drawing table
Much of your team, like yourself, is made up of queer women of color. Why was this important?
This is my community. This is a part of my surroundings. I wasn’t necessary saying, “which queer women of color can I work with?” It was like, “Aurora Guerrero is great, understands storytelling in a way that doesn’t have boundaries and is clear of a message that she wants people to get out of the story.” Queer people of color have a clear understanding of how we’ve been portrayed in media and so we bring an important perspective. There are a lot of young people on the team, too.
What do you hope viewers get from this animated short?
I hope that their hearts are filled with love, and I don’t mean that in a corny way. This is a story about a young girl who has to make a really hard decision, and I think that’s challenging, and people will be upset about the result, but there’s value in that and value in understanding how we are people who can be resilient. I want that sense of power and movement toward what we love to be integral. For people who have immigrated or who are immigrating, I hope it’s affirming, that they feel validated, and that it allows young people to talk about immigration in a way that is caring, responsible and loving.
For updates on the film, follow “Caracol Cruzando’s” Facebook page.