Private Project

Untitled Rio Grande Valley Project

On the Texas border, a civil rights worker battles against the deportation of her mother, and a DACA recipient striving to become the next Pavarotti finds his dreams boxed in by Border Patrol checkpoints. Despite the unprecedented militarization of the border, these residents of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley are determined to fight for their civil rights, and call on the United States to fulfill its promise of equal justice under the law.

  • George Lerner
  • Patricia Benabe
    Councilwoman, Memories of a Penitent Heart
  • Julie Bridgham
    The Sari Soldiers, Drawing the Tiger
  • Inés Vogelfang
    You Play Here
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
    Civil Rights
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 30 minutes
  • Completion Date:
    January 1, 2022
  • Production Budget:
    377,252 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    Mexico, United States
  • Language:
    English, Spanish
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital 4K
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - George Lerner

George Lerner is an Emmy-nominated journalist who has produced for CNN, Al Jazeera America, ABC Nightline, and various PBS programs, and has spent his career documenting the stories of under-represented communities. He has reported on civil rights struggles here in the United States, from the fight for marriage equality to the fight against Florida’s felon disenfranchisement. He covered historic democratic elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Frontline World and in South Sudan for Need to Know. As a producer for CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, he received an Emmy nomination for the Amanpour interview with Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe. As a broadcast producer, he has interviewed Native American environmental activists, Somali refugees facing discrimination in Minnesota, and Central American refugee families held in indefinite detention. A fluent Spanish speaker, he began this documentary in early 2018 with a focus on voting rights in the Rio Grande Valley. With “American Tears,” he participated in DCTV’s Documentary Work in Progress Lab with Bernardo Ruiz. This is his first feature documentary.

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Director Statement

This film emerged from interviews that I conducted in 2017 on voter suppression in South Texas. I grew up in New York City, mentored by former Freedom Riders, hearing stories of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights era, guided by the social justice theology of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. These stories, along with my experiences living in Peru writing a college thesis on the Shining Path guerrilla movement, helped to shape my career as a broadcast journalist. Over a dozen years as a news and magazine producer for CNN and Al Jazeera America, I focused on contemporary U.S. civil rights struggles: Florida ex-felons fighting to win back the right to vote; LGBTQ couples seeking marriage equality; Somali refugees facing racist discrimination in Minnesota; and Central American refugee families suffering in U.S. federal detention. My belief in the power of democracy led me to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan to report on landmark elections for PBS Frontline World and Need to Know. As an economics reporter for Reuters in the 1990s, I covered the financial crises hitting Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, and the hope that elections, and new leadership would bring change.

Over the past several years filming this project, I have celebrated with Lupita and Orlie at weddings and birthdays, and have been invited into their homes to spend time with their families. Through our many discussions, I have shared that my four grandparents were all immigrants, fleeing violence in Eastern Europe for safety and opportunity in New York. My grandparents spoke English with thick accents and struggled to make their way in a new country. The experiences of my own family convince me that the issues presented in this film -- of civil rights, justice and immigration -- are critical to how we define ourselves as a nation. When I film asylum seekers arriving in the Rio Grande Valley with harrowing stories of violence, I see the parallel between my own relatives who fled the Nazi armies to Siberia and Argentina, or who perished in the Holocaust. A photograph hanging on my wall shows my grandmother’s beloved brother, Dr. Ferry Sussman, who died in Auschwitz. I owe it to the memory of Ferry the Doctor to honor the humanity, grace and courage of Lupita and Orlie and the other families in this film.

In making this film, we have assembled a diverse team that approaches this film as a collaboration. Producer Patricia Benabe is from Puerto Rico and has produced projects across Latin America, and producer Julie Bridgham has filmed extensively among Central American communities and focused on stories of women in conflict in her film, “The Sari Soldiers.” Cinematographer Gilbert De La Rosa, who I have worked with for 15 years at CNN and Al Jazeera America, comes from San Antonio, Texas, and his family roots are from Nuevo Leon, Mexico, the region where Orlie grew up. Editor Inés Vogelfang immigrated to the United States from Argentina, and is working on an independent project on immigration. Editor Sebastián Diaz comes from Tijuana, Mexico and has made films about the U.S.-Mexico border. Our production assistants came to the project through the media studies department at the University of Texas - Rio Grande Valley.