Fleischmanns' Mexican Community is focus of new documentary film

By Julia Green
Over two decades ago, Hamden resident Jessica Vecchione left the city life and the advertising rat race behind in favor of organic farming in Orange County. At the time, she could never have known how that decision would impact her life.
Now, more than 20 years later, she is putting the finishing touches on “Bienvenidos a Fleischmanns: An Immigrant Community in Rural America,” a documentary film about the Hispanic immigrant population in Fleischmanns that will be screened at La Cabaña this weekend.
Vecchione, who has a production company, Vecc Videography, began work on the documentary as part of her degree program at SUNY Oneonta, where she has been working for many years on a bachelor’s degree in Spanish. For the last five credits toward her degree, she came up with the idea of making a documentary film about the Hispanic community in Fleischmanns.
“I had been interested in Fleischmanns for a long time, because in the ’90s I did a lot of farming and worked with a lot of Mexican migrant workers,” Vecchione said in an interview last Tuesday. “When I came up here I didn’t expect to see a lot of diversity. Why would people come to Fleischmanns? This is not a county with a lot of agricultural employment anymore, and not a lot of jobs that would attract a Mexican community, so I was curious about the community for a long time.”
Her interest in the Hispanic community began with her interaction with Mexican workers with whom Vecchione worked during her organic farming years. She shared a house with three apartments and three Mexican families with whom she would make tortillas.
“Theirs would be perfectly round and mine would look like the state of Nevada,” she remembered.
During the workday, mothers, fathers and children would work side-by-side while grandchildren played in the grass nearby.
“It was really great,” she said. “They were just really great to work with, and that’s where I really got to know a lot about the Mexican experience in the U.S. There’s nothing like working next to somebody to learn who they are. Mexico is a wonderful country with wonderful people, and what they’re going through is so difficult – to have to leave their homes and go to another country just so they can take care of their families. Everybody’s got a tough challenge: the Americans that have to assimilate another group and the Hispanics that have to leave their own countries in order to survive. It’s not a simple thing.
“It’s amazing to me,” she added. “Everyone around here is so supportive of that community. This is a pretty harmonious and positive situation, and I think that’s pretty amazing.”
Vecchione traced the movement of the first Mexican families who came to the U.S. via Newburgh from a small town in Puebla, Mexico in the 1970s. She was told many times that Newburgh reminded them of Puebla, but that as time moved on, many left Newburgh for Fleischmanns, as they believed it to be a better community in which to raise their families. As a result, a Hispanic business community gradually began to develop in Fleischmanns.
“All those businesses – La Lupita, La Cabaña, Sam’s Country Store – they have all really enhanced the community immensely, and that’s something that’s happening around the country: Hispanics are revitalizing a lot of small towns.”
Vecchione said the film, which features all of the aforementioned businesses, was produced with the goal of keeping all of its interviews and depictions of the community very intimate, and offering real insight into it.
“We tried to stay on an intimate level so you really hear about people’s experiences,” Vecchione said. “What it was like to be a young girl and come into school and not speak English and straddle two cultures: live in one culture at home and another at school. The challenges that all immigrants face, that one generation makes it easier for the next. We get to meet a few second-generation people and younger first-generation people, so the Margaretville school system features prominently. And we see how the town has managed to come together around an issue that is very inflammatory in other parts of the country.”
Vecchione began work on the film just over a year ago, with the first interview conducted in April of 2008, and has been editing footage for the past four months. The entire film will be subtitled, with Spanish dialogue subtitled in English and vice versa so that it can be understood by both Spanish- and English-speaking audiences.
During the making of the film, Vecchione was amazed by the number of people who were willing to tell her about their experiences and by the openness of many of those she interviewed.
“I feel like I knew who the people were, but I feel like I learned a lot about assimilating into a situation like Fleischmanns, and how difficult it is for everyone, but how people can do it with such grace and dignity is, which is what I think the people in Fleischmanns have done. They’ve assimilated and found a comfort zone with a log of grace and dignity.
“I guess one quote that stands out in my mind,” she added, “was when Peg DiBenedetto said, ‘We’ve gained so much by being open to what’s around us.’ It’s hard to get to know each other, especially when we’re so different, but when we do learn what we have in common and how much we can enrich each other’s lives, we all have a lot to offer each other. Sometimes we just need a little push to open up to each other.”
There will be two free screenings of “Bienvenidos a Fleischmanns: An Immigrant Community in Rural America” on Saturday, April 18, at La Cabaña Restaurant on Main Street in Fleischmanns. The first screening of the film, which has a running time of 60 minutes, will take place in the dining room at 1 p.m.; the second, also in the dining room, will begin at 8:30 p.m. and will be followed by a Mexican Dance Party featuring DJ Sonido Escandaloso playing Cumbia, Ranchera, Duranguense, Bachata, Reggaeton and Salsa.
The movie trailer is available online and can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_hzTweJ5L8.