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Meet El Paso’s MacArthur genius grant winner, Cristina Ibarra

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Growing up in El Paso in the 1980s, Cristina Ibarra couldn’t wait to get somewhere else. After graduating from Hanks High School, she made her way to the University of Texas at Austin and then established a career as a highly regarded documentary filmmaker.

“I was really eager to get out because I felt a little bit invisible in El Paso. I felt as a young brown girl, I didn’t really have a lot of role models to look up to,” Ibarra, 49, said. But she came to realize that her family, which ran a series of small businesses in El Paso and Juárez, were her role models all along. “And so when I left, I discovered that my family had these really unique leadership qualities that I took for granted, that I never really saw myself. And so it’s almost like film is a way to see and a way to be seen by a larger American landscape that usually ignores us or misrepresents us.”

This week, Ibarra’s accomplishments were recognized when she was selected by the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation as one of 25 fellows for 2021. And in a first for the program commonly called the MacArthur genius grants, she and her husband and filmmaking partner, Alex Rivera, became the first couple selected as fellows in the same year.

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The MacArthur fellowships, considered among the most prestigious awards in philanthropy, are given to “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.” Fellows receive $625,000 each over five years to spend as they see fit.

Ibarra’s parents, Ildefonso and Alicia Ibarra, owned a junkyard that evolved into a used car dealership on Alameda Avenue called Express Auto Credit. Her sister, Isela Ibarra, is a pediatrician in El Paso. Her brother, Alfonso, used to work for the family business but has moved away from El Paso.

She and Rivera currently live in Pasadena, California, with their 7-year-old daughter.

Her family’s ties to the border shaped Ibarra’s identity.

“My dad grew up in Juárez. My mom grew up in Durango. My dad’s dad was working the mines in Arizona, and then he went to live in Juárez. So my people go back and forth on both sides of the border for a long time,” Ibarra said.

Her film work often is set on the border, including “The Last Conquistador,” a 2008 documentary that looked at the controversial statue of Juan de Oñate installed at El Paso International Airport.

“Filmmaking is a way for me to cure my home sickness because I look for ways to come back to explore the Borderlands,” she said.

Ibarra said she’s been inspired by “a thriving artistic community and intellectual community (in El Paso) that is unrecognized.” She cited border scholar David Romo; UTEP professors, Yolanda Leyva, Vincent Burke, Ramon Villa and Sabiha Khan; Gabriela Galindez and Andrea Gates-Ingle of the arts group Creative Kids; filmmakers Angie Tures, Valentin Sandoval, Hazael Anaya and Willie Varela; historian Oscar Martinez; entrepreneur Homero Galicia;  writer and photographer Cynthia Farah Haines; photographer Jody Polk Schwartz; artist Margarita Cabrera; and Alma Maquitico of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Ibarra and Rivera are best known for their 2019 “docu-thriller” called  “The Infiltrators,” which tells the story of two young immigrants who deliberately got arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol so they could expose the immigration detention system.

Ibarra and Rivera approached the MacArthur Foundation for funding for “The Infiltrators,” but the grant request was declined. Earlier this month, Ibarra said a program officer from MacArthur reached out to them “to talk about the state of affairs Latinx filmmakers.”

Ibarra said she and Rivera knew a program officer from the MacArthur Foundation from film conferences. Earlier this month, the program officer reached out to them “to talk about the state of affairs Latinx filmmakers.”

Suddenly, about 12 additional frames appeared on Zoom, including high-ranking officials with the MacArthur Foundation. “And then quickly they explained that it was a ruse and that they actually wanted to talk to us about was the MacArthur fellowship,” she said.

The MacArthur officials talked first about their work together in producing “The Infiltrators.”

“They went on to clarify because you two have your individual careers, we also took a look at those careers, and we actually are not giving you a MacArthur fellowship, we’re giving you two MacArthur fellowships. I think I almost cried,” Ibarra said.

Ibarra said the $625,000 fellowships will allow them to focus on the work they want to do and avoid work on projects that diminish Latinos and immigrants.

“At least what this does is it allows us to not have to take those work-for-hire jobs where we’re misrepresenting our community in order to get a paycheck,” she said.

Ibarra is considering two projects, one a scripted film and the other a documentary. Both are based on her family’s life on the border.

Rivera, 48, said his next project should be announced soon, but he could only describe it in general terms for now.

“I have a feature film, my first project with a Hollywood company, that’s a science fiction film set in the near future, looking at themes, immigration and surveillance, but through the kind of socially grounded superhero lens, if you can imagine that,” he said.

Rivera, who was born in New York to a Peruvian immigrant father and American mother, said he and Ibarra want to produce work that more accurately describes immigration, the border and Latinos. He said that’s difficult in the film world, which often produces distorted and stereotypical portrayals of those communities.

He said the MacArthur fellowship will help them in that work, and he called the combined $1.25 million MacArthur grants “life changing.”

“That amount of support is also equal to less than half of the budget of a one-hour episode of ‘Narcos,’” Rivera said of the Netflix series about drug traffickers. “That’s not to belittle the award, it’s an incredible gift. But the scale of the machine that creates misguided, negative, hurtful images of the border and of our cross-border families — that machine is gigantic. We view it as our mission to try to build an alternative to that machine. So this support is an incredible and bold start.”

Ibarra said her identity as a fronteriza will continue to guide her work. 

“When I was growing up in El Paso, all I really wanted to do was to leave. But when I left, I discovered the unique characteristics that made El Paso were also what gave me passion. What I used to have shame in, I found passion,” she said.

Cover photo: Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera (Photo courtesy of Pueblo Sight & Sound)

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Robert Moore

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986. His work has received a number of top journalism honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Pulitzer Prize finalist and the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year Award. Moore’s work has appeared in the Washington Post, Texas Monthly, ProPublica, National Public Radio, The Guardian and other publications. He has been featured as an expert on border issues by CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC and PBS.

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