Just when I thought that being a filmmaker was out of reach, it was you who made me realize that I too can wield a camera to film our community’s reality. After all, you were the first undocumented filmmaker who let me see myself onscreen. “Lost And Found,” your 2007 short film about an undocumented Pilipina student in UCLA, reassured me that there were others like me and my family. At that point, being undocumented and being Pilipino did not co-exist in any media I had seen, but in the span of your 5-minute film, you shattered a lifetime’s worth of misrepresentation.
When I attended UCLA’s first ever Welcome Day for incoming undocumented students in 2010, the campus tour included a stop at an altar in Campbell Hall dedicated to two key leaders in the movement: you and Cinthya Felix. When we stopped at that altar, I felt the grief from those who knew you. Just 3 months earlier, you were both killed in a car accident. It’s been exactly 10 years since that incident took you away from us, but the films you made and the stories of who you are live on.
It’s bittersweet though that your films still strike a chord to this day. At an even more volatile time in history over a decade later, we’re still here fighting for justice against immigration enforcement terrorizing our community. At the same time, it’s a testament to the power of your filmmaking, that the stories of resilience you documented still resonate with us today. In the immigrant youth movement, we remember you for being the first to testify for the DREAM Act in Congress. You said out loud that you were “undocumented and unafraid,” in spite of the risk of deportation during a time before DACA. And beyond your activism, when everyone else tried to tell our story, you used your camera to show the world how you as an undocumented person saw our very own narrative. And since then, so many more undocufilmmakers (whether they knew you or not) have emerged.
As one of the co-founders of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, I always tell people that you left a legacy for us to do this work. I would’ve never thought that I would be standing on your shoulders all these years later, not only to craft my body of work as an emerging filmmaker but also to build power with others to reclaim how undocumented stories are told. Through our collective, we are pushing for equity in the field of filmmaking. We want undocumented people to be perceived as more than mere sources of stories. We are artists, creators, and primary audiences for whom films should be made.
I remember hearing your younger brother, Lolly, speak at a memorial event on the anniversary of your death. He said how at the end of the day, the main reason you did your advocacy work was for him. It’s not the fame, nor some semblance of a legacy that you wanted to build. It was a better future for those that you love – a future where we can live freely in the place we call home, and where we have the autonomy to tell our own stories for ourselves. I may have never met you face-to-face, but I consider you my mentor. What you left behind has been a guide for me. Not just your activism, not just your filmmaking, but your heart. As I do the work I do, may your vision and unwavering love guide me as well.
We miss you, Mentor Tam.
Building upon the media justice organizing of other undocumented leaders, the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective tackles the systemic inequities that undocumented immigrants face in the field of filmmaking, by centering the expertise of undocumented people not only as sources of stories but more importantly as creators, artists, and primary audiences.
Set Hernandez Rongkilyo is an undocumented immigrant filmmaker and community organizer whose roots come from Bicol, Philippines. They are the fruit of their parents’ sacrifices, their siblings’ resilience, and their community’s nurturing. Set envisions a filmmaking landscape that centers equity and abundance, where all artists have the resources to thrive using the unique skill sets they embody. Set’s short films have been televised, featured, and awarded in film festivals across the U.S. As part of the inaugural cohort of the Disruptors Fellowship, Set is developing a half-hour, TV comedy pilot about the undocumented experience. Set also directed/produced the short documentary “COVER/AGE” (2019) about healthcare expansion for undocumented adults. They have served as Impact Producer for projects such as “In Plain Sight” and the acclaimed documentary “Call Her Ganda” (Tribeca 2018). Since 2010, Set has been organizing around migrant justice issues from education equity to deportation defense. They are the co-founder of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective which advances equity for undocumented immigrants in the film industry.