Beyond Resilience: Reproductive Justice “On the Divide”

Filmmakers Maya Cueva and Leah Galant on their acclaimed documentary “On the Divide” and what a “post-Roe” U.S. might look like.

Film still via onthedividemovie.com

Editor’s Note: As part of Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series, we’re commissioning BIPOC nonfiction filmmakers to share reflections on their own challenges, strategies, and experiences of creating and distributing work during periods of social transformation. In this edition, filmmakers Maya Cueva and Leah Galant reflect on their experience making their acclaimed documentary On the Divide. The film follows the story of three Latinx people living in McAllen, Texas who, despite their differing views, are connected by the most unexpected of places: the last abortion clinic on the U.S./Mexico border. As threats to the clinic and their personal safety mount, our three characters are forced to make decisions they never could have imagined.

Finding the Story

“What are the stories that are being left out or misrepresented in your community?”

This was the first question we asked when we came to McAllen, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) back in 2014 during a Women’s March Rally. It was disheartening to hear many community members mention that no one had ever asked them this before and that reporters had often come to the RGV seeking a specific story filled with “poverty porn.” This question became the central guide for our nearly 7-year journey of making our first feature film On the Divide about three Latinx people who are connected to the last abortion clinic on the U.S./Mexico border.

At first, community members were hesitant to talk to us as two members of the media who were not from the Rio Grande Valley. Given the reductive narratives that the mainstream media was portraying of McAllen as a “poor, helpless, impoverished, population” it’s no surprise that it took us a while to build trust with everyone we filmed. Although Maya [Cueva] is Latina, we understood that the Latine/Latino/Latinx community is not a monolith and has varied experiences, and we made sure to listen to the community and what they wanted to be shared.

A “Post-Roe” World

We knew in order to tell the story of a region that is often silenced and ignored when talking about reproductive justice that we would work alongside the organizers every step of the way. This relationship eventually led to working with South Texans for Reproductive Justice which is featured in On the Divide.

We came down to the southernmost point of Texas because we read reports that abortion access was becoming extremely limited and anti-choice laws were closing down clinics. As two young women who lived on the coasts, we thought that Roe v. Wade was codified and limited access was a thing of the past. We quickly learned from the organizers and clinic workers that they have been living in a nearly “post-Roe” reality for years and what was most concerning was that no one was listening to them.

Film still via onthedividemovie.com

We were in production of our short film The Provider about a traveling abortion doctor in Texas when we heard that McAllen, Texas had only one clinic with the nearest clinic being 250 miles away. For undocumented people, there is another barrier to access since to get to the nearest clinic in San Antonio one has to cross through border checkpoints. So if the McAllen clinic were to close, undocumented people risk deportation in order to get to the nearest clinic.

All of this context, including the intersection between faith and the Latinx community’s relationship to abortion, informed our approach with On the Divide. The film follows three very different people over the course of years, and through their stories, we see how choice is necessary for survival. While reproductive access is at the center of our story, the three people we follow — Rey, Mercedes, and Dennisse — demonstrate that [the need for] access to abortion and healthcare extends far beyond the clinic walls.

The myriad of challenges that our protagonists and local organizers faced in terms of being patronized, dismissed, and rejected by politics and government was also unfortunately part of our journey with getting this film made. It was an uphill battle for industry to take us seriously until our rough cuts, but we are fortunate for the many grants and fellowships along the way [from organizations] who did.

The biggest “yes” for our film came when producers Melanie Miller, Diane Becker, Elizabeth Woodward, and Amanda Spain came on and believed in the project and became instrumental in the film becoming completed.

While we are not surprised by the inevitable overturning of Roe v. Wade, it is still devastating news. As evident in our film, people have been living in a post-Roe world for years. We hope the stories of our protagonists can help people see themselves represented, especially in Black and Brown communities where religion plays a central role in everyday life. We want people to see that they can have a stake in reproductive justice and have a voice in this movement.

Most importantly, we want to make sure that stories from communities like McAllen are centered in conversations and actions around abortion access and that people listen and follow the lead of those who are on the ground. We want people to see that they can have a stake in reproductive justice and have a voice in this movement — especially since much of the conversation around abortion access has been dominated by white women.

On the Divide is now streaming for free on POV on PBS: amdoc.org/watch/onthedivide.

To learn more about the film’s impact campaign with Peace is Loud and South Texans for Reproductive Justice, visit the film’s website: onthedividemovie.com.

To learn more about Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series, visit firelightmedia.tv/beyond-resilience.

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Firelight Media produces documentary films, supports nonfiction filmmakers of color, and cultivates audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.

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