For my first six months in NYC, Betty and I lived together in a Brooklyn brownstone (*single moms in solidarity*) with our kiddos. If I had to go grocery shopping after I put Amora to bed, it was no problem because Betty had my back. Since the first day we met, she felt like a homegirl I'd known since my elementary schoolyard days.
When I think of Betty, I always recall the Thanksgiving potluck she organized that brought 30 kids and adults together. Smoked salmon, lemon and thyme chicken, rosemary fingerling potatoes, roasted pumpkins, warm bread, hummus, salsa, and so much more (officially salivating) covered the entirety of our dining table.
I knew some of the folks that came by, but for the most part, it was a night of meeting new friends. Betty asked everyone to gather in a circle and hold hands around the food we prepared to express what we were each grateful for. I remember thinking, "wow, my daughter and I are so lucky to be enjoying a sense of family in a city that can feel so lonely for newcomers." I wasn't alone in my appreciation. My fellow feasters gushed about how thankful they were for Betty connecting all of us during the holidays.
Since we both moved out of the brownstone, we haven't had a solid catch-up in a while. Plus, there were questions about her creative journey as an accomplished storyteller I never got a chance to ask (busy moms, ya know). So what better time to introduce y'all to this creative spirit and share her story? In Union Square park, we chatted about motherhood, resiliency, and her drive to tell stories that celebrate the strength of the human spirit. I asked her why community building was so important to her.
She believes that cultivating communities = planting seeds of positivity.
“When women come together, we are capable of miracles and our powers and strengths are even more magnified.” Let’s be real, the resourceful strength of women is straight up *magical*. I often wonder how I could've pulled off a move to NYC with my 3-year-old, work, and a part-time master's program if Betty and I weren't housemates. She often threw living room dance parties. Many a Friday nights we blasted Kidz Bop, Spanish or Reggae music, and boogied down with our two kiddos. Laughter filled the house.
"I've learned that laughter is cathartic. It has the ability to transcend any divisions and can bring ease and humanity into awkward or uncomfortable moments,” she told me. Motherhood can be hella tough and without laughter how are we supposed to get through the week?
Betty's positive nature is also what keeps her moving as a photographer and filmmaker. But how was that love for storytelling unleashed? She told me that 2 years after her family moved from Ecuador to New York, she received her first camera from her father.
“As an immigrant child, the camera became a tool that let me explore and understand my new surroundings, and to navigate the two cultures I found myself sandwiched between—American and Latino.”
Armed with her camera, she thrives as an unstoppable social justice warrior who is drawn to issues about youth, immigrants, and identity.
Her photographs have been published in The New York Times, Esquire, and VIBE. She holds a B.S. in Marketing from NYU, an M.A. in Journalism and Documentary Studies from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a certificate in documentary photography from the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Maine. She’s one hell of a storytelling force.
She shared her tougher times as a journalist too. In 2004, while she was photographing a demonstration at the Republican National Convention in New York, she was arrested along with 1,800 people (many were journalists and demonstrators). The Wall Street Journal reported that “protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention were arrested without probable cause and that other New York Police Department tactics employed then were illegal.”
The police confiscated her photography equipment and put her handcuffs. Before that, she had never been in legal trouble. It was obvious to her that everyone was unjustly arrested or criminalized for protesting—and in her case—taking photographs for news organizations.
“I kept thinking this is so messed up, but I can’t break down or be so angered that I let my emotions take control of me,” she recalls. “I remember keeping calm and keeping a sense of things are going to be okay. I found myself soothing other people and telling them, ‘We’re going to get through this. We didn’t do anything wrong.’”
Betty was right—the mass arrests were a troubling injustice. New York City ended up paying close to $18 million altogether for the arrests, detention, and fingerprintings of hundreds of protesters, journalists, legal observers and bystanders. All the charges against her were dropped.
When she recounted the process of making Dreamtown, her resilience was evident. For 7 years, she traveled to Ecuador multiple times, made financial sacrifices, gave birth to her son, and balanced motherhood and teaching. Doubts about finishing the documentary would creep into her thoughts. “How will I be able to accomplish this…?” she’d wonder when challenges arose. “But I realized that when I let fear take over, that’s when I can’t come up with solutions.”
This summer, Dreamtown premiered at the Ecuadorian Film Festival in New York City. The screening was sold out and Santiago was there to watch.
“I feel like as a woman of color being committed to that documentary and seeing it through to completion not only set an example for me and the people that I know, but my son got to witness a dream come to reality,” she says. “One of the best lessons I can provide to him as a mother is to fight for your dreams and to be unstoppable in that journey.”
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