Personal loss opened the door for filmmaker Marialuisa Ernst to share the stories of other families whose loved ones have been “disappeared” throughout Latin America. As an immigrant, mother, and artist, Marialuisa talks about her long journey—both literal and spiritual—to make her upcoming documentary, A Place of Absence.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
Yes, it was 14 years ago. I was invited by NYU to do a performance piece at a conference. The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics got me the visa, which then allowed me to live here.
You must have been highly regarded to be invited to perform!
Well, I've always loved making films, which is what I studied to do. But at a point early in my career, when I was living in Santiago (Chile), it was becoming so expensive to make films, and I needed a new way to express myself. I found that performance art allowed me that sense of immediate creativity. You could think of something, and then just do it. It was a very strong way of putting myself out there, and it allowed me to grow very quickly as an artist and as a person. I discovered I was also quite good at it, and after a while I was being invited to perform at festivals.
What were your performances like?
I never repeated one, so each one was new. It’s hard to explain, but they centered around the questions of what it is to be a woman, and how to find yourself amidst all the roles that are put on us. I was trying to find the essence of myself. I loved bringing that question to the audience, getting them to feel and experience the piece. In a way, with the audience there you are managing reality. It’s real actions, in real time, with real people.
What was the response to your performance art in New York?
It was very different to what I was used to. I had performed all over South America: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Spain. The response I would get from the audience in these places was very energetic. I felt like I was getting something back from them. But that didn’t happen here in New York. The audience here was so blocked and closed. I kept performing for a while after moving here, but it became very draining.
Because you weren’t getting energy from the audience?
Exactly. So I was like, “I'm done with this. Let me focus on films right now.” A friend of mine was a gaffer, and he put me to work on films he was working on. It was amazing. I was able to work on sets within three weeks of moving here. I didn’t speak much English at the time, but he spoke Spanish and explained everything to me. I pretty much pretended to know what I was doing until I knew how to do it! It was liberating to realize I could stay in New York and survive here working in a creative field. I was instantly in love with the city. I continued to work on the technical side of the industry during the day, while creating and writing my own projects on the side.
Your current project is incredible, and so upsetting. I was embarrassed not to have known about the huge number of Central Americans that go missing every year.
Don't worry about not knowing. Nobody knows; this is not in the news. We're talking about invisible people. There is a feeling that Central Americans are lesser people than Mexicans, in the same way that Americans feel like Mexicans are lesser people. So we're talking about really, really forgotten people.
Were you aware of this story when you were growing up in South America?
Yes, it is a story very close to me. My family relates on a very deep level, because my uncle disappeared during the Argentine dictatorship in the 1970s. One day he was there, and the next he just disappeared. That’s what the military used to do to people who thought differently or spoke out about the government—they just made people disappear. If there is no body, then they don’t exist. It was obviously very difficult on my mother, and she had no idea what happened to her brother for years and years. In 2010, we received a phone call that his body was found in a mass grave. They were able to identify him through DNA testing, 33 years after he disappeared.
That is really when this project started. I was making a film about our family going back to Argentina to bury my uncle. The Institute of Argentinian Anthropology got the body cleaned up and put all the pieces of his skeleton together. We went to visit his bones, and the skeleton told us the story of what happened to him. We saw the fractures in his fingers, and the gunshot wound that killed him. We found out that he died three days after he was taken, and was tortured during that time. I had seen my mother suffer for so long not knowing what happened to him. To finally know what happened, and to bury her brother, was liberating for her in a way. It was a relief, I think.
While I was researching this film, I kept reading about these missing people. They are called “desaparecidos”: the disappeared people. It's estimated that there are over 70,000 Central Americans that have disappeared on their journey through Mexico to the United States.
I began to reach out to some of the families of the disappeared, and I learned about “The Caravan of Mothers.” It's a bus that goes through Mexico for 20 days every year, driving about 40 women from all over Central America. They go looking for their loved ones and the loved ones of other families. They carry photos of the disappeared and they speak out, protest, and search. I felt an urgency to travel with them on the caravan—this story was happening now, you know? I knew it would make my personal story even richer, and bigger. It’s essentially the same story on a very large scale. They allowed me to travel with them three years ago, for the first time. I was on the caravan for 10 days. My daughter was only two at the time and I was still breastfeeding her. I had to leave her at home with my wife, so I was pumping and throwing away milk on this long journey. It was a killer, and quite dangerous.
Ten days with them wasn’t enough, but I had to come back to my daughter. I learned so much on that trip, and it just fueled me to tell this story. I got to know some of the mothers very well, so when I came back to New York I started applying for grants, while working on other sets during the day. But I wasn’t having any luck raising money for this project; I felt like I was at a standstill. And then Trump won, and it was a wakeup call. I realized I had to step it up, to keep going to tell this story, that I was meant to do this. My experience as an immigrant, as a mother, as a filmmaker can make a difference, because I can show the world what's happening!
What was it like, being welcomed into this community of mothers?
It was very intense. To be with them, to see their suffering, their hopes, and sense of community was inspiring. I got very close to one of the women I was following, and so it was very hard to leave them. I was so impacted by their story, and I connected to them as a fellow mother.
How long has the caravan been going?
I think it's been almost 15 years, but they traveled in smaller, separate groups before that. Now the group is organized as an NGO. They’ve become quite well known and they have been able to find quite a few people. Some alive, but unfortunately most are dead.
Why is this happening?
I can explain a little bit. These people who are disappeared, they are illegal immigrants when they enter Mexico from Central America. There is no trace of them once they cross the border, because they are illegal and have no passport. There is no paper trail. Organized crime knows that these people are ghosts, and you can do anything you want to them because they don’t exist. You can kidnap them for ransom. You can put them to work in the sex trade. You can take their organs to sell them. And if that doesn’t work out, then you can just kill them because there are more coming. Each year, around 500,0000 cross the southern border of Mexico. And every year 20.000 go missing.
For women, it is especially dangerous. Women start the journey knowing that they will most likely be raped. Before they leave they get a vaccine, known as "La vacuna contra Mexico.” It stops them from getting pregnant. That’s how likely it is that they will be raped. They prepare for it. That shows you how desperate their situation is where they come from. There is an area called the Northern Triangle of Central America—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador—where gang violence is out of control. People are trying to escape this war zone. No one is leaving on this journey because they want to.
How is the film coming together?
In December, I reached my Indigogo fundraising goal to cover my trip back to Central America! Over half of the footage is shot, but I still need more. I want to share their histories and their stories.
When do you hope that the film would be released?
Hopefully, at Sundance [Film Festival], later this year.
What is your ultimate goal in making this film?
Ideally, I would like to help my “characters” to find their children. That is the direct goal. But, in a larger sense, I want people to know about this problem, I want to raise awareness and challenge the nature of immigration in this country. It’s so important that people hear these stories.
It’s especially important now in this political climate.
Exactly. I want to share the human faces of immigration. Because if you see a mother suffering for the disappearance of her children, you're not seeing the person that's coming to steal your job. You're seeing a human; you are putting a face to “illegal immigration.”
That's why the name of the film is A Place of Absence. The absence for these mothers is their missing family, but there is this place in everyone’s lives. Everybody can relate to this sense of loss—of someone you love dying, being far away, or estranged. It would be amazing to get the audience to connect in that way, to become aware of someone they love and how it would feel to have that taken away. Usually people think of their moms, because we often take our moms for granted.
You are the mother to a five-year-old daughter. What is it like raising her in New York, and working to make this film?
It's challenging. My wife and I don’t have family nearby, so that support system isn’t there. If you want to go for dinner together, or both work at the same time, then we have to pay a babysitter. You have to be very aware of the child constantly. The child depends on you for everything. It's not like if I had the child in Bolivia or in Chile. Our daughter would be with neighbors, or playing with cousins and aunties and uncles. There is family and community.
That being said, we have been able to create that in a way here. We have build strong friendships and know our neighbors. It is so hard to make family and community in the city, but it’s not impossible.
My wife also works in a creative field, so there is a lot of juggling—sometimes work comes first, and other times family comes first. Working on the Indigogo campaign was very tough; for two months that was all I did. My daughter was feeling that absence. I was able to talk to her, and tell her about what I was trying to do and why I was so busy. She has to understand that I am her mother, but I am not just a mother. I am a whole being, and I want to create change in this world. To live a fulfilled life means that I must do what I am meant to do. She knows she is loved and that is most important, but I want our daughter to be inspired to live her life passionately. The first woman you know in your life is your mother. We learn from what we see. I don’t want my daughter to learn that being a woman only consists of cooking, being at home, not having passion and life outside of the home. Being a mother has made me so happy, and it is the most amazing thing. I breastfed this girl until she was four; I gave her my body and my life in that time. But it took a big toll on my career. Now is the time for me to take a bit of that focus back for me, and for this project especially.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
Confront your fears in order to find the best version of yourself. Focus on overcoming those fears and you will find your power as an individual to make change. That being said, facing fears is a constant struggle! I’m always working on it myself. I also always struggle about how much change one person can really make. Things seem overwhelming sometimes. Why bother, you know? But when you find something that gives you purpose, that makes you happy, and can make change, you must do it.
What does New York mean to you?
New York is a place of opportunities. Where people are very connected with ideas and new thinking. There are so many people from all over the world living here; there is so much culture. New York is a place where things can emerge and grow.
Learn more about A Place of Absence here.