In this contemplative documentary, director Yolanda Cruz follows indigenous Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago as he creates 2,501 life-size statues—one for every person who’s left his native town of Teococuilco in search of a better life. Though it’s slow to get going, the film eventually becomes an inspiring story of the hope that art can instill in marginalized, disadvantaged people.
Santiago was born in Teococuilco but his family moved to Oaxaca City when he was young. Upon returning to his hometown, he discovered that its population had shrunk dramatically; almost all its male inhabitants who were young and strong enough to work crossed the American border to find jobs. Many women went as well, and there are several scenes of a grandmother with her grandchildren in a stone and clay hovel, the young mother having died on her journey into the United States. The town is missing an entire generation, and with only the very young and the very old left, it seems that Santiago’s birthplace could disappear entirely.
To honor the forgotten lives—and deaths—of these 2,500 migrants, Santiago decides to mount a monumental art project: he will sculpt individual statues to represent every single one of the town’s missing inhabitants. As the process begins, Santiago is able to hire many young, indigenous Oaxacan workers to assist him—without these jobs, you can’t help but wonder, would those kids have ended up dead in the Arizona desert, too?
Though there are catastrophic setbacks (the studio floods at one point), Santiago’s young workers prove to be dedicated and courageous. Several of them even decide they want to grow up to become “great artists” like Santiago himself. This part of the film is particularly inspiring—not only is Santiago able to give these kids a vision of what their town used to be, and what art is, he’s able to help them see that their lives aren’t pre-ordained just because of where they come from.
Eventually, everyone involved in the project is flown to Monterrey, Mexico, to install the statues in an outdoor exhibition at a prominent museum. The finished product produces an almost eerie cognitive dissonance; you keep expecting the figures to move or talk. Santiago’s vision is powerful and Cruz does a great job of walking the viewer through the creative process. Though the overall pace of the film is rather slow, at fifty-seven minutes the film is a comfortable length and doesn’t try to overstretch its material.