Focusing on the Essence of Immigrant Life


Packed with uncommon honesty and humor about assimilation, a new "POV" documentary, which will premiere on public television tonight, features Sandra Ortiz, a Dominican cleaning lady, and her three U.S.-born daughters.

Aaron Matthews' "My American Girls: A Dominican Story," is mistitled. It's not a Dominican story. It's an immigrant story. Sandra Ortiz and her husband, Bautista, work more than 18 hours a day. They balance their dreams of retiring in Santo Domingo with their dreams of a middle-class existence for their three daughters (whom Sandra simply calls "my American girls").

The story is set in New York City, where Dominicans remain the largest and fastest-growing immigrant group, although there have been "virtually no films about them," according to Matthews. The Ortizes live in a blue walk-up in a section of Brooklyn known as Sunset Park.

Their oldest child, Monica, ran track for Columbia University and graduated premed. Monica, 23, is the most thoughtful and articulate about the Ortiz dynamics, but she is also the most differentiated. She and her boyfriend live in a one-bedroom apartment in the Upper East Side, and she designs Web pages during the week. Her weekends are reserved for dancing and acting.

"I'm definitely the most removed from Dominican culture of anyone in my family. . . . I've been in private schools for the past 10 years. There's not many Dominicans in private school," she says and laughs. "I'll tell you that much."

The second sister, Aida, describes herself as the classic middle child, who doesn't know where she fits in. For Aida, 18, the chaos of the Ortiz house seems especially overwhelming. More than one dozen relatives live in the three-floor home, and she calls it a "hotel for the Dominican Republic."

The youngest daughter, Mayra, 16, is a wild child who neglects her studies to hang out with neighborhood friends. "I'm not the book type that's, like, always at home. I'm not Monica," she says defiantly.

Part of the problem is Sandra's work schedule. Since she took another job cleaning a doctor's office, the girls return to a house with no adult supervision until late at night. Aida and Mayra watch television, talk on the telephone and sit on the stoop with friends. Monica identifies the problem right away, telling her mother that the cleaning job that brings in $100 a week is not worth it.

Monica takes that familiar step for first-generation immigrants: She plays child and parent when she tells her mother the girls need more discipline. By the time Sandra tries to become an enforcer, it almost seems too late. Mayra is a freshman who is willful and distracted. She wants to take dance lessons instead of study. At parent-teacher conferences, her teachers catalog Mayra's classroom deficits.

This kind of access to the family appears to be unlimited for Matthews. In a phone call from his house last week, Matthews explained that his parents hired Sandra as a nanny and housekeeper from 1976 to 1983.

"She took care of me. Our families stayed close. We have New Year's dinners and we go to each other's big events," said Matthews, 29. "A couple of years ago, I thought Sandra was a great subject. The film was originally going to just be a 10-minute portrait on her, but the more I hung out with her I realized the story had to include her three daughters, because they were each going in a different direction in this country."

Matthews spent every weekend from October 1998 to February 2000 at the Ortiz house.

"I can't tell you what this film would have been like if they had been complete strangers," he said. "I met Monica when she was 1 and I was 7. I never felt like I had to work to get intimate moments. I felt strange sometimes, but they didn't. They would fight in front of me."

He even followed them on a trip back to Santo Domingo, a vacation Monica bowed out of because she was busy with work and acting. Sandra is disappointed, but she says she suspected Monica would pull out at the last minute. Still, Sandra idealizes the Dominican Republic, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Even Aida and Mayra are inspired and relaxed on the island.

Matthews shot 100 hours of film, and he spent eight months editing the hourlong documentary. On June 16 and 17, "My American Girls: A Dominican Story," premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The Ortiz family answered questions from the audience after the film.

Reached at the family home on 53rd Street, Sandra Ortiz said her daughters had typically different reactions to the film. Aida said she had decided to become more serious about schooling, like Monica. But Mayra turned to her mother after seeing herself on film and said: "I have to be me. I just have to be me."


* "My American Girls: A Dominican Story" can be seen at 10 tonight on KCET. It will be rebroadcast at 11 p.m. Sunday. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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