Even when she was hiding in the shadows, anxious and fearful that her status as an undocumented immigrant would be revealed, Diana Gameros couldn’t suppress her love for Mexico and her hometown, Ciudad Juarez. The emotion flowed through her clear-water soprano, pouring out in every song, evoking her longing for family, friends, and familiar landscapes left behind. Her remarkable voice provides the thread that runs through Dear Homeland, Claudia Escobar’s new hour-long documentary, which KQED presents as a ticketed “virtual premiere” on June 3.
The film follows Gameros on her quest for legal status and culminates (spoiler alert) with her surrounded by family on her jubilant but bittersweet return to Ciudad Juarez for the first time in nearly two decades. While Escobar captures the ebbs and flows of the legal process, Dear Homeland is most effective at situating Gameros within the Mission, enmeshed in a roiling nexus of fellow artists and activists. That’s where the filmmaker first encountered the singer, who landed a long-running gig at the historic Roosevelt Tamale Parlor within weeks of moving from Michigan to San Francisco in 2008.
“I lived close to Roosevelt and used to see her perform there all the time,” says Escobar, who first covered Gameros as a videographer for Mission Local. “The Latino arts scene in the Mission was really bubbling, she had such a striking voice. She enchants you with it. When she told me that she was going to apply for a Green Card so she could finally go home for a visit I said we should make a documentary.”
The fact that Gameros would consider telling her story on camera, let alone agree to the film, speaks to her evolution from undercover undergrad to fearless advocate. She came to the U.S. on a student visa looking to study music while staying with an aunt near Grand Rapids, Michigan. She ended up overstaying the visa and spent years on the down low, trying to keep out of sight.
“I didn’t share my undocumented status with anybody, not even my best friend or my teachers,” Gameros recalls. “Only my family and boyfriend at the time knew. It wasn’t only that people close to me didn’t know. I didn’t want to stand out. I became invisible. I didn’t say anything about my upbringing.”
She credits San Francisco with setting her free. Specifically, it was the community she found in the Mission once she started performing weekends at the Roosevelt. Singing French chanson, Mexican boleros, bossa novas and songs from her growing repertoire of finely wrought originals, Gameros quickly became a neighborhood fixture, accompanying her arrestingly beautiful voice with deftly strummed guitar chords. She’d had little contact with other Latin Americans during her years in Michigan, and reveled in the Mission’s cultural diversity.
“Whenever I’d encounter an artist in the Mission, I’d ask who they were and what they’re doing,” she says. “Artistically, that’s how I got involved. But from a more personal standpoint, coming to San Francisco meant that I no longer had to hide. It meant freedom, that I could feel myself again. It just opened up a new world.”
The community of artists she found buzzes in the background of Dear Homeland. Escobar doesn’t call attention to other musicians, but a sharp-eyed observer of the Bay Area arts scene can catch Gameros interacting with artists like Oakland vocalist Valerie Troutt, San Francisco Ethiojazz singer/songwriter Meklit Hadero, and San Francisco reed expert Patrick Wolff.
The freedom from fear meant that Gameros could join her artistic comrades in the intertwined struggles for Dreamers and families separated by ICE. By the time that Escobar started following Gameros for Dear Homeland, she was one of most visible undocumented artists on the West Coast and a major figure on the Bay Area arts scene. Sought out by ensembles large and small, she was featured prominently on programs with Magik*Magik Orchestra, the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco, while often lending her voice to immigration-related protests and rallies.
Nothing signaled her ascension as a bridge between Mexico and the U.S. more vividly than her budding relationship with Mexican superstar and 11-time Latin Grammy Award-winner Natalia Lafourcade, who recruited Gameros as an opening act for a West Coast tour (Dear Homeland includes an interview with Lafourcade praising Gameros, but she’s not identified).
A three-year endeavor even with the support of KQED and high profile advocates like Joan Baez, Dear Homeland became a mission for Escobar that resonated on a deeply personal level. Trained as an architect in Colombia, she also came to San Francisco looking to find her voice as an artist. She experienced a similar sojourn, unable to return to Colombia without risking giving up the life she’d built in the United States.
“I was undocumented for many years as well, and going back was one of the most bizarre experiences in my life,” Escobar says. “Being in such a familiar place, but after not going there for so long, there were too many emotions. I wanted to tell the story of going back. There are always stories of going to other places, the hardships, but hardly any about going back to the place you were born and reuniting with your people.”
The film’s culmination should have launched a whole new chapter in Gameros’s career, but a series of screenings, gigs and events scheduled for this spring and summer were canceled due to the pandemic. She and Escobar discuss the film on Friday May 29, at 7:30 p.m. at City Church San Francisco as part of the Artists in Conversation series. The event will be streamed live on Facebook and YouTube (and includes Gameros performing with the Magik*Magik String Quartet). On June 4, at 4:30 p.m., she performs at the UCSC Virtual Strawberry & Justice Fest, and, on June 6, she “comes full circle,” she says, performing at the Red Poppy Art House as part of a virtual Mission Arts and Performance Project.
While initially panicked about the sudden loss of work, Gameros has found a whole new world of commissions and collaborations under shelter in place. “What turned out to be a scary moment turned around for me,” she says.“I don’t know if I was ever this busy, with webinars, conferences and talks, virtual performances, and writing new songs with people all over the world. I could have worked with people from Barcelona and Brazil before, but it didn’t really happen. Now the silver lining is, I feel closer to a lot of people far away. I try to focus on the blessings. I’ve always been like that.”