Wendy Sandoval grabs pliers and tinkers with metal parts to add the finishing touches to a robotic arm in the opening scene of “Disrupted Borders,” a new documentary about a remarkable friendship between two El Pasoans. Sandoval carefully tests the arm and programs it to move, watching the robotic fingers wiggle on what will become her best friend’s new hand.
“Disrupted Borders” traces the story of Sandoval and Rachel “Shelly” Salcido, El Paso high school students, as they overcome obstacles and reshape their lives. The film follows Sandoval, an aspiring engineer, through the creation of a 3-D printed prosthetic arm for her friend Salcido, who has double limb deficiencies. For Salcido, an artist, the new limb means new creative horizons and exciting possibilities.
Sandoval initially reached out to Cathy Chen in May 2019 to use her workspace and resources to build a prosthetic arm for Salcido. Chen is the co-founder and executive director of Fab Lab, an El Paso-based nonprofit that focuses on providing access to STEM technologies. It was then that Chen immediately saw the potential to tell an enthralling story about the friendship between two girls, and had the idea to create a documentary about them.
“This was actually the first time I have ever really delved into film production,” Chen said.
Chen reached out to Ramón Villa-Hernández, a producer and lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso, after Sandoval spoke to her about what the project entailed. Villa-Hernández asked Mexican filmmaker Alejandra Aragón to direct the documentary. and from there they began the process of producing what would become “Disrupted Borders.”
Aragón wanted to highlight themes of race, gender, and socioeconomic factors in the film.
“There’s an element of harshness to the story, so we were very careful to show their struggles,” Aragón said.
Sandoval and Salcido — now 19 and 18 — attended Montwood High School together, where they met and became friends.
“I just wanted to be a good friend,” Sandoval says in the documentary. “She’s a really good friend to me and, in high school, I really needed that, so I’m repaying her.”
Sandoval, a first-generation high school graduate and college student, has been interested in the field of engineering since grade school, she said. She has years of first-hand experience building robotic innovations in school.
“Female Hispanics (are) one of the lowest (represented) minority groups in the fields of engineering and science,” said Luis Ramirez, Sandoval’s robotics teacher.
“There’s not much opportunity,” Sandoval said. “The only place where I could learn anything was Fab Lab.”
Salcido and Sandoval understood each other’s struggles.
“Throughout my whole life, I was taught that I could do what I wanted,” Salcido said in the documentary. “I know I shouldn’t let my disability limit me, but how?”
Salcido has always had a keen interest in art. In “Disrupted Borders,” she competed in an art competition the same day that Sandoval showcased the prosthetic arm she built.
Although opportunities for engineering can be slim, Sandoval received recognition for her 3-D printed invention, revealed in a scene in the documentary. She was asked to present her project at a Microsoft Technology retreat in Santa Barbara, California.
Filming the documentary provided its fair share of struggles for everyone on set.
The “Disrupted Borders” crew organized in August 2019 to begin filming, following the lives of Salcido and Sandoval daily as they attended high school.
Aragón had to travel across the U.S.-Mexican border every day to film in El Paso, which became challenging at times.
“In one way, it enriched the project because both the girls come from Juárez,” Aragón said. “But it became difficult because (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) were asking why I was crossing so often.”
After filming a good portion of the project in August 2019, the crew decided to take a break to fundraise for the documentary. Filming resumed in December 2019 and concluded in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the border.
The pandemic placed a hold on the production of the film when COVID-19 first broke out, but the film crew gradually worked on finalizing the project throughout the rest of 2020.
Chen said she was excited to take on a new role.
“It was nice to be able to draw on personal passions and translate some of that into a film that fairly represented young women and their experiences, but there was definitely a lot of learning I had to do,” Chen said.
Sandoval and Salcido said being filmed every day was an adjustment, but it provided an opportunity for them to grow and show others that they are capable of bringing their dreams to life, no matter the circumstances.
“It did take me a while to get used to having a camera around while I just do my daily activities, but I honestly think it was worth it because, ultimately, my goal was to be able to show the things that Wendy and I have been able to do throughout our high school experience,” Salcido said.
Sandoval said that participating in the documentary allowed her to do much more than build a prosthetic arm for Salcido.
“This documentary has made me realize that the arm that I’m building is no longer just for Shelly [Salcido], I’m essentially proving a point by building this,” Sandoval said. “The whole reason for this documentary was to show people one of my self-given goals: anybody can do what I’m doing.”
Sandoval is currently studying at UTEP and Salcido plans on attending the University of Texas at Austin for the 2021-2022 school year to study studio art.
The documentary premiered internationally on April 7 through the online streaming event of the Cleveland International Film Festival.
“Disrupted Borders” won several awards, including the Adan Medrano Legacy Award in Film and the Spalding and Jackson Award from the Cleveland International Film Festival. Aragón says that the documentary is expected to be showcased at the virtual Femme Frontera Filmmaker Showcase in August.
Cover photo: Wendy Sandoval, right, said she began taking on more technical projects because she realized how much her inventions could help other people, such as her friend Rachel “Shelly” Salcido. (Photo courtesy of MuVimon Studio)
Disclosure: Microsoft is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Salcido and Sandoval crossed from Juárez into El Paso every day to attend school.