Building empathy through representation in cinema

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Rosa Vargas-Cronin, left, Giovanni Santana, Denise Ester, and moderator Deborah Alvarez discuss the film “Sugar.” (Photo: Little Theatre)

Rosa Vargas-Cronin grew up in the Dominican Republic and in New York City, near Yankee Stadium, a destination for many of the up-and-coming athletes from her home country going through the minor league baseball system.

“We tried to nurture them and cater to them. Mostly, it was helping out with the language barrier, health care, and getting them a place to stay. Making sure they were OK,”  Vargas-Cronin recalls. “They had host families, but it was very basic needs. Those other types of social-emotional supports weren’t there. And they’re so important … because when you get to the states, it really is just sink or swim.”

Vargas-Cronin, a bilingual speech and language pathologist with Monroe One BOCES, joined Denise Ester, host of she.abidespodcast, and Giovanni Santana, a rising senior at School Without Walls, for a podcast discussion about representation in cinema following a screening of the film “Sugar” at the Little Theatre last week. They were guests of the Our Voices Project.

The film, which follows a young baseball player from the Dominican Republic in the grueling minor league system, was chosen to highlight perspectives similar to those of Vargas-Cronin’s, who compared the minor-league system to a “puppy mill.” 

Ester, who is of Puerto Rican descent, agreed with Vargas-Cronin about the film’s authenticity and cited a recent incident she had at the Department of Motor Vehicles to underscore the importance of representation. A man from Cuba who had been in the country only a week was obviously confused and limited in his English proficiency.

“The lady gave him a paper and then turned her back on him and he’s still standing there, not sure what to do next,” said Ester, who approached the man to help translate because “I realized he doesn’t know and no one else is going to take the time to help.”

Accomplishing those steps at the DMV made Ester’s new friend “so excited” and he told her of his plans to sign up for English classes after leaving. 

“Representation is important because it gives you an idea of someone else’s life, their culture, their family life. Maybe their struggles too,” Ester says.

“We might be different racewise, but we’re all the same with connections to our family or friends,” agreed Santana, who was affected by a Roberto Clemente quote that was featured in the film: “If you have a chance to help others and fail to do so, you’re wasting your time on this earth.”

Said Santana: “I hope people can have more empathy and put themselves in Miguel’s (the protagonist of “Sugar”) shoes.”

While the production company has hosted other virtual film screenings centered around BIPOC representation in cinema, this was the first in-person film screening it has held.

“(“Sugar”) fit our vision because we want to have more media that reflects experiences of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in an accurate, multifaceted way,” said Jackie McGriff, co-founder of Our Voices Project. “We also want people to expect more from their media.”

Upcoming projects include “A Dominican Dream,” a documentary film following Vargas-Cronin and her identity as an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, and “This Is My Grandmother,” which highlights intergenerational conversations with members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.

In addition to those films, McGriff hopes that more in-person film events can be held to highlight media that is both entertaining and accurately representative. Their discussions, including their discussion about “Sugar”, is available here

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