By Raymond R. Beltran
Independent filmmaker John Frey knew that his project was going to be intrusive and that it could compromise the lives of migrants who have built homes in the backyard of one of the nation’s richest cities. But knowing that these undocumented people were soon to be evicted from the canyons of Carmel Valley, he packed a tent anyway, some lighting equipment and his camera and entered a clandestine community in order to unveil a story that neither politicians nor newspapers would tell.
The documentary film Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon is the product of Frey’s journey. It is a visitation in the lives of North County’s construction and agricultural workers, who bathe in rivers and water embankments, drink from a well that has now been removed, and sleep in huts made of tarpaulin and tree branches.
“I’m sure there’s a lot that goes on in the canyon that I didn’t get to see,” says Frey, who spent the first five months building relationships. “I had a hard time getting guys to trust me. That was the most difficult part.”
In the documentary, Frey visits the makeshift homes of Sinaloa, México natives Jesus and Raul, both in their forties, who cross into the U.S. through the hills of Tecate seasonally to work in a variety of labor industries for as low as $50 a day. Frey shoots honest and, at times, too personal questions at the men who are more than willing to tell their stories (subtitled), for they know they are facing eviction.
“We don’t come here to do anything bad. We just come here for work and nothing else,” says Raul, one of the film’s most compassionate speakers. “We just want to help our families (in México). We live here very peacefully.”
A Puebla, México native, Pedro, had created an elaborate shack with stranded materials from surrounding construction sites, but by day, he landscaped at the luxurious La Costa Resort and Spa in Encinitas. He fled his country because he had no money to cultivate his land, which he said was more than fertile.
Carlos, who plans to return to Oaxaca someday, left his wife and his daughters when free trade devalued labor wages in the coffee plantations where he worked. From 25 pesos a kilo to 5 pesos, low pay forced him to flee to find work elsewhere. Now in San Diego, he finds some labor and builds various shacks in the canyons (documented in the film) and faces evictions regularly. He’s heard of renting studios in Encinitas, which is now illegal, but like the rest of the workers, it’s better to live in the brush and send the rent money home.
“This is not a life. It’s not a life because I’m barely hanging on,” says Carlos, who sadly turns to alcohol later in the film when work wears thin. “I pray to God that I will forget living in California because I have suffered.”
This brilliant film rewrites what most people can only suspect about the issues migrants face. It shows them in their hopelessness as well as at their strongest, usually when they speak about how their situation relates to their faith in religion.
Frey takes viewers into a hidden outdoor church, built in 1986, where up to 100 canyon dwelling migrants attend.
“I was just fascinated that I was in such a wealthy part of the United States, and here I was in cardboard shacks,” he says.
In order to protect the identity of the undocumented, he used aliases and fabricated the name Deer Canyon. He doesn’t reveal, exactly, the area he visited and steers clear of entering the multimillion dollar neighborhoods which sit as ever-present backdrops in the film’s setting.
“I tried to stay away from the idea of politics [and] tried to keep the film about the immigrants. I didn’t interview activist groups, local residents, or police officials. The film would’ve become about politics, and I wanted it to be about what life was like for them,” he says.
Most of the clandestine fables told by the migrants, about life when the night crawls into their brush, were told off camera. Stories of murder and crime were shared with Frey, who had the mind to notify authorities but declined because witnesses would either disappear or deny mentioning such incidents while filming or in front of authority.
“I’m definitely an intruder. These are undocumented, clandestine lives living on private property,” he says.
Though he sadly admits, at times, his experience was much like documenting a nature film, this San Diego native filmmaker doesn’t solely disassociate himself with the Mexican migrant experience. He is a USD science graduate who was born on the other side of the border to a Swiss father and Mexican mother. They migrated to San Diego, where his father became a bus driver while his mother stayed home to care for the five children.
Sharing Imperial Beach with about fifty immigrants who’d cross their backyard nightly, the Freys were no stranger to Border Patrol sweeps. His mother, a U.S. citizen, had been abducted by immigration officials and deported to Tijuana while taking John for a walk in the local canyon, an incident that fed young Frey’s negative perception of Mexicans for years to come.
He says he disassociated himself with his Mexican heritage while growing up because most of what he learned about the culture was criminal, a disservice he labels “peer pressure” from the media.
“I had little study of Mexican history. There were no role models,” he remembers. “But the façade was cracking. The [Mexican] history I was running from, I started learning I had no reason to run from. It was full of art and science and technology.”
Frey went on to pursue film, got television acting jobs, and ultimately wrote and directed Gatekeeper, a fictional drama of a U.S. Border Patrol agent, Adam Fields, who ultimately finds he has more in common with Mexican people than he’d expected.
With the release of Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon, Frey hopes to emotionally arm people (without political polarization interfering) to address the issues of immigration with a sense of humanity.
“America needs to know this is going on. It’s not a service to keep any of this a secret. The majority of people on these farms are undocumented. How do we not know it?” he says. “We’re blaming the poor workers and it’s not their fault at all [...] This film is the result of a failed immigration policy. Men are living in squalor in construction fields and it’s a miserable failure.”