In Texas, These Latina Girls Produced A Virtual Reality Documentary On Gentrification In East Austin

credit: Christian Nelson

Vibrant colors, sweet and spicy aromas and lively conversation fill the walls of East Austin staples such as Cisco’s Restaurant on Sixth Street and Piñata Party Palace on Cesar Chavez Street. They are among the few businesses still standing in neighborhoods once beaming with Latino and Black influence. Remaining business owners have felt the impact of gentrification as beloved friends and family left because they could no longer afford rent. Condos, boutique shops and urban eateries have replaced fellow Latino businesses.

Latinx Culture in East Austin,” a virtual reality documentary project produced and directed by a dedicated group of girls, aims to preserve and put the spotlight on East Austin culture and the growing impact of gentrification. The project was possible through resources and equipment provided by Latinitas, a nonprofit media organization that seeks to empower girls of color to innovate through media and technology, that is also based in East Austin.

(Photo Credit: Christian Nelson)

The documentary is an example of the immersive experience offered at Latinitas. The founders launched the organization in 2002 as a webzine written by Latina girls for Latina girls. The goal was to give these youth, between ages 12 to 17, a leg up in the journalism and media industries, while presenting them with opportunities to interview and write about women they could identify with and who could inspire them.

Since then, Latinitas has offered a variety of programs, including more than 25 after-school clubs, low and no cost summer camps, free family workshops at area libraries and one day Chica Conferences focused on themes such as coding, healthy living and starting a business. It has even established an additional chapter in El Paso, organized one-off events in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas, as well as Las Cruces and Anthony, NM, and will be hosting its first Chica Conference in the Rio Grande Valley on August 4 in McAllen, TX focused on video game design.

The award-winning nonprofit publishes Latinitas, its recently-rebooted online magazine, and will revitalize its teen reporter intern program this summer. Girl content is also found on Latinitas’ own social media site and YouTube channel Latinitas

Program director Sylvia Butanda said since its founding, Latinitas has served more than 30,000 girls, all of whom are considered economically disadvantaged by Austin school district.

Latinitas affords girls opportunities to analyze Latinx representation and act to change the narrative to a positive one, training on the latest tools available in the tech and media platforms so they can explore themes like social justice and journalism, and opportunities to explore identity, gender and culture.

(Photo Credit: Sylvia Butanda)

“We hope they’ll embrace their identity and culture and be confident in exploring careers in STEM and media,” Butanda told FIERCE.

Isabella Cruz, a 12-year-old heading to seventh grade, said she watched East Austin transform throughout the years during family visits, but she didn’t grasp the negative aspects of gentrification until she worked on the project.

“New people are coming to this part of the city and changing what was there, including the original culture, and changing it to more of a modern place,” Cruz, who helped plan the project, scout filming locations and edit portions of the video, said. “It’s important to East Austin to preserve its culture because that’s what East Austin is.”

According to Latinitas, encouraging girls to take ownership of projects is a key element of the nonprofit.

“We started having the girls explore topics of gentrification last summer at our Cine Chica camp. Those girls did four documentary pieces on the same topic and the girls worked in groups to brainstorm what the project would look like from the interview stage all the way to publication,” Butanda said.

(Photo Credit: Sylvia Butanda)

Latinitas recruited girls for the project last fall after securing funding for the VR Cine Chica Project, the umbrella program for the documentary. Four girls signed on to head the project this spring.

Butanda said staff produced the documentary and helped guide the girls, but they took ownership of the project.

They spent February conducting on-the-ground interviews, and in March they worked on audio voice-overs, editing and publishing elements. In May, the girls celebrated the screening of their documentary at Cine las Americas.

“That was a really valuable experience for them to see their work screened at an actual film festival. People were able to put on a VR headset, watch the video and hear the audio that went along with it,” Butanda said.

The film will also be screened at the Mozilla Gigabit Community Showcase in the company’s San Francisco headquarters on Aug. 14.

Cruz learned how to come armed with ideas when working on a creative project. The editing portion forced her to prioritize the most important elements of a story. She used iPads, 360-degree cameras and other equipment she said she doesn’t have access to at school. She believes the opportunities afforded by Latinitas will help her prepare for a future career in science or technology.

(Photo Credit: Christian Nelson)

Sisters Vianey and Kayla Segovia worked on recording, editing, reporting, voiceovers and interviewing for the project.

“I really felt empathy for what they were going through,” Kayla, a 13-year-old rising eighth grader, said of her interviewees. The girls identified a deep sadness as interviewees shared stories of the once vibrant Mexican culture that is slowly fading in the area.

Kayla said she feels many people know about gentrification in East Austin on a superficial level, but the documentary aims to get to the heart, the human aspect, of the issue.

“I hope it will change the community and that they’ll care more about the issue,” said 10-year-old Vianey.

Read: These Guatemalan Teens Photographed Maya Women In Los Angeles And Learned Critical History Lessons About Their Culture

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