I’m the oldest of four children. The exclamation, “It’s not fair!” was oft heard in our household. Sometimes I wonder if growing up with fairness in mind pushed me into documentary filmmaking. I can’t claim any pure motives here. I just get mad when things aren’t fair.
Our latest film, about the intersection of gentrification and culture in Fort Collins, started with the exploration of the statement, “Fort Collins is so white!” I heard this statement from visitors and new residents and had myself noticed the homogeneous nature of my new town when I arrived from San Diego ten years ago. Except for on the campus of Colorado State University I rarely encountered in Fort Collins people who appeared much different from my own Northern European heritage. For some reason I believed that Fort Collins hadn’t always been so, particularly knowing its history in the sugar beet industry. So I began to explore the people-history of the microbrew capital, bike-friendly, Mainstreet U.S.A., Choice City that I now so proudly call home.
This exploration brought me to the Tres Colonias neighborhoods. For the film we were looking for families that had been in Fort Collins for 5-7 generations, arriving in Northern Colorado by train, or covered wagon—particularly families of Hispanic and Latino heritage. Following threads of family connections we met people who lived in all parts of the city: the old suburbs of the west side, City Park neighborhoods, and Old Town; people who worked at the university, in city government, business owners, recreation and healthcare workers. If you go far enough back through the generations every one of our Fort Collins native sources had family who lived in these small neighborhoods at one time in their history. Buckingham, Andersonville, and Alta Vista came to be known as the Three Colonies, the heart of Fort Collins’ sugar beet industry.
In 1902 the Fort Collins Sugar Company (later bought by Western Sugar) built the first two-room houses in Buckingham for German Russian immigrants who worked the sugar beet fields. According to Historian Wayne Sundberg, those German Russians saved their pennies to buy farms. As they became the beet farmers and immigration ceased with World War I, tremendous numbers of laborers were needed to work the fields. Seasonal workers who mostly came from New Mexico and the Walsenburg area of Southern Colorado filled the labor gaps. In 1927, to attract permanent residents, Western Sugar offered these workers a deal: we’ll supply the land and materials and with a graduated mortgage you can build and own your own homes. Alta Vista was born and called, “The Spanish Colony.”
It was about this time that Frank Barella’s father arrived as a toddler on the train with his parents. He later owned a grocery store in Buckingham and raised a family of eight children. Frank, a middle child in that family, recalls working aside his father and siblings to lay the grass on the Mountain Avenue median. When he was grown he started as the Woodward Governor barber, eventually opening his own barbershop.
Several generations later it was Frank’s niece Jan who told me that her young nephew had been called an “illegal” and was confused and upset by this encounter. As we interviewed these native Fort Collins residents we repeatedly heard the phrase, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” And indeed Southern Colorado and New Mexico were owned by Mexico before the Mexican American war. With the Treaty of Guadalupe this territory became part of the U.S. So when Jan’s nephew went with some family members in 2010 to work in a Fort Collins neighborhood and heard a resident say, “What are these illegals doing here?” he was confused. The youth is a fifth generation native of Fort Collins. It could only have been his brown skin that identified him with this slur.
While doing research for the film, we toured the tiny Museo de las Tres Colonias and saw a sign that reads, “White Trade Only.” Until the mid 1970s such signs were displayed in the storefronts and restaurants of charming Old Town. People told us that some members of their families were whiter than others, so that the paleness of their skin enabled them to deny their heritage, “pass” as white, and shop in those stores, buying goods for those with darker skin who were denied entry.
Being very fair-skinned and of Norwegian, German and British heritage, I have never known such discrimination. I have mostly always lived surrounded by people with my own skin color. Intellectually I don’t understand racism based on skin color, knowing as I do that the pigment that makes our skin darker or lighter is designed to allow penetration of maximum or minimum sunlight so that we can soak up more sun in northern climes and less in equatorial regions. I do understand fear of the unfamiliar and I believe that if people with all colors of skin live in close proximity to each other with openness to the experience, the unfamiliar will become familiar revealing that we all love, fear, grieve, celebrate, and hurt.
The thing is, if somebody is hurt by a term such as “illegal” or “redskin” who am I to judge his or her experience? And in all fairness I think people should come before business. In the Fort Collins hullabaloo about the hip, tasty, musician-friendly Illegal Pete’s moving into Old Town I heard friends say that some people are “thin skinned” for being upset by the restaurant name and that people should just chill out and that changing the name of a business is a major disruption and very expensive; people should just get a life. Well the people who are bothered by this name have a life and it’s a life that I have not lived. It is up to the rest of us to listen to the people who have lived that life, and if some say, “This is hurtful to us and to our children.” we have an obligation to listen, just because we are all humans.
It’s only fair.
- Errol Morris at Telluride, Time-lapses and Visual Effects in Documentary Filmmaking
- You Have to Learn to Kill