Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez is Shining a Light on Latinx Communities
By Alyssa Klein
Welcome back. This week, meet photographer and film director, Miguel “M.i.G.” Martinez.
Growing up in San Miguel, Mexico, Martinez was surrounded by art. His father was an artisan, his mother a chef. It made perfect sense that he too would become an artist. One day, his father was gifted a film camera. Martinez made it his own. It was then that he began to document his surroundings, unaware at the time that he was even “documenting.”
When he was ten, Martinez’s parents made the decision to relocate the family to the U.S. in the hopes of introducing their son to a world of opportunities. They arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia in the ‘90s. “As soon as we crossed the border, immigration became part of my life, whether I wanted it to be or not,” Martinez told me over the phone. Subconsciously, he began to use his gift of storytelling and documenting to help his parents feel at home. After high school, he started hosting and producing a Spanish-English radio show, the first bilingual radio show in Central Virginia history. The show was a success. It ran for eleven years, ending only when Martinez relocated to Washington, D.C.
In 2008, a filmmaker friend, Jamie Sisley, sent Martinez an article from a Texas newspaper about the link between the U.S. carnival industry and Mexican migrant workers. Martinez was intrigued. He saw himself in the workers. The pair spent the next six years working on what would become a documentary titled Farewell Ferris Wheel. The film went on to premiere at the AFI Docs Film Festival, make its television debut on PBS and land Martinez an invitation to the Obama White House to speak about the film. It’s currently streaming on NETFLIX.
A short but impactful 56 minutes, the film explores the link between the U.S. carnival industry and the small city of Tlapacoyan, Mexico, where a staggering one third of all U.S. carnival industry workers come from (legally, through the “controversial” H-2B visa for foreign guest workers). On first glance, it’s a fascinating glimpse inside one of the USA’s oldest traditions, and the Mexican migrant workers who sustain it. Told from the perspective of two workers, a carnival owner and the Texas businessman operating a “one-stop shop” for employers looking to use foreign workers on H2B visas, the film leaves it to its viewers to decide who’s wrong and who’s right in this scenario. But on closer inspection, it’s a macro look at this country’s broken immigration system, and an important film for anyone committed to fixing it.
Of course, a lot has changed since Martinez and Sisley first began working on the project in 2008. And perhaps even more has changed since they released the film in 2016. Martinez was never one to step into the spotlight, always preferring to let his art speak for him. In the case of Farewell Ferris Wheel, Sisley would generally take the lead on interviews. But with immigrant children being ripped from their families every day, Martinez feels he has a responsibility to speak up and share his story. In 2018, representation matters more than ever for immigrant communities.
“At this moment in time I need to step up a little more, show my face,” he admitted to me at the very end of our call last week. It was then that I realized Martinez’s motivation to finally step into his own spotlight.
Below, “M.i.G” shares his own story of being a young immigrant in Charlottesville documenting the world around him and his thoughts on why representation matters more than ever for the Latinx community.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity and readability.
What inspired you to go into storytelling?
My parents got me into storytelling. They are both artists in their own right. In Mexico, my dad was an artisan and told stories through his glass and metal work. My mom was trained as a chef there and continues to tell stories through her cooking. And as a kid, I would use my dad’s Canon 35mm camera to capture what was around me.
When we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia in the early ‘90s the Latino community was really small. I saw how the absence of Latino culture impacted my parents and how they missed our home country.
After high school I had the opportunity to join a local radio station, which led me to create the first bilingual radio show in Central Virginia. I wanted to give my parents a little taste of home because I knew what they went through, and what I went through, after leaving Mexico. And it expanded from there to me wanting to give a little bit of a familiar sound to anyone that emigrated here from Mexico or Latin America. I wanted them to turn on the radio and listen to something they recognized as their own. I made the choice to make the show bilingual because I wanted not only the support of the Latino community, but also the support of the American community. And we got it! The show ended up running for eleven years.
Then I had other opportunities come up for me and I wanted to share them with my parents, so I started taking photos everywhere I went. Documenting my experiences for my parents was the beginning of my storytelling.
The film tells such a specific story, but it’s so much bigger than just the carnival industry. How do you describe Farewell Ferris Wheel in bigger-picture terms?
I’m glad you caught on to that. A lot of people think we’re just talking about the carnival industry, but we’re not. We are showing you an issue that the H-2B visa program creates, through the lens of the American carnival. Other industries also use the visa, but we wanted people to relate. That’s why we chose the American carnival.
Our main point in making the film was to educate people about the H-2B visa and how it affects many of the guest workers. And we tried to tell the story without bias.
What other choices did you make to avoid bias?
The music was very carefully chosen because we knew that we wanted to appeal to as many people as possible. People who are against immigration, or they don’t like the word immigration, we wanted them to feel comfortable, if that makes any sense. So, we hit you with Americana music which plays very well with the carnival. And we referenced Kodachrome, a type of film that had a specific look, in the color correction of the film. We were intentional about every little detail because we wanted the film to captivate, attract, and therefore educate, as many people as possible about this important issue.
The film came out in 2016, and you started working on it in 2008, which is obviously long before Donald Trump’s presidency. How do you see your film as relevant to the current immigration crisis?
The film focuses on legal immigration, whereas the current crisis is focused on undocumented immigrants. Regardless, the film is relevant because we are talking about the abuse that arises as a result of a broken immigration system.
I hope things change in the future and my film is no longer relevant. Because that would mean the situation is much better for all immigrants.
What role do you see artists and storytellers playing in the current immigration crisis in the U.S.?
Artists are what hip-hop was in the ‘80s. We’re trying to tell you the truth. We’re trying to tell you “look, this is what’s really going on,” whether it be through film, music, art, whatever.
Artists have always been the ones to speak up for their communities. You go back centuries and art is how we know where we came from; where our history comes from. It’s the same thing now. Every artist has a responsibility to tell the truth about what’s really going on.
For me, my art shows you what I see around me. I always use the hashtag #HowIViewTheWorldAroundMe because nobody sees the world like I do, and I don’t see the world like you do. Everyone has their own vision of the world and I’m just trying to show you my own perspective through my photography and video work.
Why does representation matter to you?
Representation matters now more than ever because of the current situation that we are going through in the U.S. We have somebody up top saying that all Latinos are bad—that you’re violent, you’re a gangbanger, you’re a rapist, everything bad under the sun, that’s what you are. Right now, the representation of the Latino community is the most important thing, so we can show a different light. That’s where us artists come in, to try to educate everyone that no, we’re not bad. Some of us are artists, some of us are doctors, nurses, janitors, cooks. We’re good people. Right now, we need to stay proud of who we are, where we come from, where our families come from. Right now, it’s important for us to show what we can do in the arts, in law, in the medical world, everywhere. And especially the political arena.
Follow Miguel Martinez on Instagram at @themigmartinez. Farewell Ferris Wheel is now streaming on NETFLIX.