Maya Cueva makes documentary films that cover the heavy topics: immigration, reproductive justice and xenophobia. Her latest, On The Divide, follows the stories of three Latinx people whose lives interconnect through the last abortion clinic on the U.S./Mexico border. The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2021, and is available to stream free of charge through July 18, 2022 at POV.
Cueva says her journey into professional storytelling began after covering current events at Youth Radio (now YR Media) as a teen. While attending Ithaca College in New York, she began work on her first film, The Provider, which follows Dr. Shannon Carr as she performs abortions in Texas in the midst of a heated battle for reproductive rights. She's also made Ale Libre, which follows reproductive rights organizer and undocumented activist Alejandra Pablos in her fight against deportation, and Only the Moon/ Solamente La Luna, an animated film about her father’s immigration experience to the U.S. from Peru.
Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Maya Cueva, which originally aired in March 2021.
Pen: What are you working on right now?
Maya: I'm working on a feature documentary that I've been working on for six years, actually. It's a film called, On The Divide. It's following three people who are all Latinx, who are connected to the last abortion clinic on the U.S./Mexico border in McAllen,Texas.
Pen: Six years in the making, that’s a marathon. How do you stay focused on one topic for so long?
Maya: What really keeps me focused is the idea that access is really, really dire. In a community like McAllen... for undocumented women trying to get access, it's really hard because they have to travel through border checkpoints in order to get to the nearest clinic That's 250 miles away from them. So if this clinic were to close, there would be virtually no access for for women or patients who are undocumented and are seeking abortion care.
Pen: You mentioned immigration and how that plays a role in covering abortion. But also you've done work specifically about immigration. Can you talk to me a little bit about the film, Ale Libre?
Maya: I actually came across Ale’s story when I came across a petition asking for her release from the ICE Detention Center. I kind of just started doing research on her and I came across all of her work as an organizer. She's a reproductive rights organizer as well as an immigrants rights organizer. And I also found that she had a web series about brujeria and witchcraft and how that intersects with organizing. And I was just like, this person is really cool. And I just wanted to know more about her.
Maya: So I ended up doing a radio feature about her for a Latino USA. And it was following her whole life story, but also this petition to get her released. And fortunately, she was released in March 2018 from Eloy Detention Center. And then after her release, she actually hit me up and was like, ‘hey, look, I'm actually really thinking about getting my story out there in a documentary, do you know anyone who could potentially make one?’ And I was like, ‘I am a filmmaker and I would really love to share your story in that way.’ The film is really following her after her release and her fight for political asylum.
Pen: On that note, your approach to your work. Do you see it as an art? Do you see it as activism or do you see it as a documentation of life?
Maya: I definitely see an intersection of all 3 of those things in the work that I do. I also do feel that there is an art behind pushing those stories forward. I have been around like-minded people my whole life, and I don't necessarily think that that pushes causes forward.
Maya: So for me, in general, I like to approach filmmaking and storytelling in a way that turns issues on its head or makes you think twice about someone that I might be filming.
Maya: For Ale, specifically, what's really interesting is that she is a reproductive rights organizer and an immigrant rights organizer but when she was 25, she got a DUI… We've all made mistakes, but has it landed us two years in jail or two years in prison or two years in a detention center, like for many of us no?
Pen: … With your father and even the other stories that you've grown to know, how do you walk that fine line of you're the storyteller, so you're the power holder, if you will. And at the same time, you try to empower this person, let them tell their story. How do you balance those two things of ‘I know what story needs to be told’ versus ‘I need to let them tell their story’?
Maya: I think it's really hard as filmmakers to think that we can be objective, completely. The balance is when I do approach the subjects, I'm initially asking them what are stories you feel like aren't being shared? Or how do you feel like you're being misrepresented? Because I cannot speak for you. I can get a camera and I can interview you and ask you certain questions but ultimately, your voice is the one that needs to come through and shine through.
Maya: I think an example is when I was first approaching the abortion clinic that I'm following in my feature, I asked the communications director ‘I feel like a lot of news media comes in here and they want to tell a certain story but what is the story you feel is missing?’ And she was like, ‘oh, no one's ever asked me that before.’
Maya: I don't ever want to come into a space—a community that maybe I identify with, but I'm not a part of—and think that I'm an expert.
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