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My American Girls: A Dominican Story

Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th St.; New York, NY 10016, 212-808-4980
Produced by Aaron Matthews
Directed by Aaron Matthews
VHS, color, 63 min.
High School - Adult
Adolescence, Latin American Studies, Multicultural Studies, Women's Studies, Sociology

Reviewed by Helen McCullough, Pelletier Library, Allegheny College

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   

At its most basic, My American Girls: A Dominican Story is a cinema verité study of Sandra Ortiz, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, her husband Bautista, and their three American-born daughters. But there is nothing basic about this documentary that works so well on so many levels.

The opening scene shows the Ortizes preparing for a family wedding. The atmosphere is hectic as the entire household tries to get dressed and out the door. Sandra asks; “Did you ever try to get 20 people organized?” The household, a multi-family dwelling in Brooklyn, includes assorted uncles living in the basement; a grandmother and another uncle’s family on the first floor; more extended family on the second floor, and the Ortiz family on the top floor. Immediately, the viewer is drawn into the story of this family.

Sandra and Bautista’s youngest daughter Myra is 14 and counting the days until the end of eighth grade. Exuberant and a natural leader, she loves playing in the neighborhood; “Where there’s action, you’ll find me.” Monica, the eldest daughter, is preparing to graduate from Columbia with a neuroscience major. Intending to go to medical school, she was sidetracked when she discovered acting and now plans to seek an acting career. A high achiever, Monica feels the furthest removed from Dominican culture and finds that it’s difficult “being on the outside.” Aida is 16 and says that she learned in Psychology class that she’s a typical middle child. Her goal is to break away from the pattern of dropping out of school and early pregnancy that is prevalent in her neighborhood. Aida believes that “being first generation is hard” and sites cultural differences between her parents and other parents as the reason.

The cultural differences become evident when Sandra forgets to pay the electricity bill and the power is turned off. The parents enjoy the candlelight because it reminds them of their native non-electrified villages. The younger girls complain because it’s dark and impossible to do anything. Monica frets because she sees her parents’ complacency about deadlines and bill paying as problematic.

In an effort to sustain the household, both Bautista and Sandra work on the housekeeping staff of Long Island Hospital and clean a doctor’s office in the evenings for extra income. Their dream is to return to the Dominican Republic and live near the beach in a house they are building. Their long work schedules are a source of conflict with the girls. The younger girls are unsupervised during the evenings and homework is neglected in favor of noise, friends, and long phone conversations. The girls’ preference is to have their parents home at night rather than working around the clock to fulfill their dream of returning to the Dominican Republic. Sandra tries to fulfill everyone’s expectations and ends up asking herself whether she’s working for herself or her daughters. The tension between personal desire and parental sacrifice drives much of the film’s content.

The film chronicles the Ortiz family as they try to resolve their differences over culture, education, and familial expectations. With no omniscient narrator to guide the documentary, family members are given the opportunity to narrate from their own perspectives. What the viewer sees and hears is a loving, generous family, whose members, despite their differences, care deeply about each other and respect each other’s decisions.

The video is moving, yet never lapses into sentimentality. The Ortiz family is by no means perfect, but they manage to stand up to the scrutiny of a movie camera with integrity and honesty. Filmed over the course of a year, the program unfolds with better pacing and more interest than many feature films.

The excellent editing and camera work add to the flow of the program. The sound mixing is also very good, dialogue is easy to hear, and the occasional subtitles are easy to read. The lively soundtrack adds additional interest to an already exceptional production.

Documentaries of this caliber deserve as wide an audience as possible. It would be a good choice for just about any type of public library. For classroom use, the material is accessible for high school students, yet challenging enough for college classes.

Highly Recommended