“Prodigal Daughter”: The Personal Cost of Immigration & Broken Family Ties

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By the time I finally got my green card granting me legal status in the U.S., it had been sixteen years since I last saw my family. I remember feeling shaken by that realization: Why didn’t I keep in touch –even if only by phone – with my parents and six siblings? Why did I cut the ties so severely?

When I left my Peruvian homeland, I remember my mom had given me a wool coat to keep me warm for my trip to San Francisco during the winter of 1993.  I embraced her as I left our modest home and promised that I would soon be able to help the family.

As a punk (“subte”) performer in Lima, Peru, I had witnessed my country being brought into its worst crisis in history. There was a bloody war decimating Peruvians created by systematic inequality at all levels. Young women like myself, “mestizo” (Indian/Spanish) from the working class had no options to develop artistically and professionally in life. I wanted to leave everything behind and start again in a new land.  Naively, I convinced myself that life in the U.S. would be easy.

Soon after my arrival, I became an undocumented immigrant on an expired visa. Everything changed then. I had no right to be, no right to exist. My expressive punk identity dissolved and a new Mabel Valdiviezo emerged: a voiceless, fearful, disempowered undocumented woman who fell into depression, lost her dreams of a being a filmmaker and even contemplated suicide.

By the time I finally got my green card granting me legal status in the U.S., it had been sixteen years since I last saw my family. I remember feeling shaken by that realization: Why didn’t I keep in touch –even if only by phone – with my parents and six siblings? Why did I cut the ties so severely?  As I packed my suitcase to go back to Peru, I realized I was a “Prodigal Daughter” seeking to return to my family and find acceptance and understanding for the tough things I had to do in order to survive in the U.S.  Sharing my story could empower other undocumented immigrants to come out from the shadows and contribute their voices to the heated debate on immigration reform.

As a filmmaker, it was natural for me to create a movie that focuses on the broken ties between an immigrant and her family, exposes the emotional and psychological cost of U.S. policies to well meaning people on both sides of the border. Prodigal Daughter was born out of my need to raise topics specific to the immigrant experience: survival strategy, cultural adjustment, personal isolation, psychological trauma, barriers to citizenship, and cultural healing.

The film connects its story to the personal cost paid by hard-working immigrants looking for a better life. It brings nuanced revelation to the difficulty of maintaining ethnic identity while attempting to assimilate.  And it reveals the deep trauma incurred by women who pursue life as undocumented immigrants without safeguard or a secure path to citizenship. Thus, it provides viewers with an understanding of what this experience does to women’s self worth, and how in turn it creates a barrier to relate to one’s family.

It’s my hope that Prodigal Daughter will aid in empowering immigrants, especially immigrant women. My vision is for the film and its website to become a resource that can be used by psychologists, social & health workers, art therapists, policy makers and empowerment leaders working with these specific audiences.

You can find filmmaker Mabel Valdiviezo on Facebook, Twitter and on the Prodigal Daughter website, as well as at Haiku Films.

Image courtesy Mabel Valdiviezo

  • Mitchell Teplitsky

    courageous and beautiful story Mabel – it’s going to be an amazing film I have no doubt!

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