The Father of “El Campo”: Dr. Antonio Delgado

Antonio Delgado was doing lectures at universities about the boxcar communities when the idea of a documentary first arose. He was so inspired by the lost stories of these communities, and noticed that their stories weren’t being told anywhere. When he started looking further into the possibility of doing a documentary, his research revealed that the resources were limited, as was the awareness and knowledge of these communities’ very existence. He decided to pursue a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council (IHC), and after being awarded this grant, began his search for a documentary filmmaker. At this point Antonio chose to reach out to Esau Melendez, a local Chicago-based documentary filmmaker, as he felt he would be the perfect person to tell the story of the boxcar communities and the people who built them. They decided to focus on a particular community in Aurora, Illinois: El Campo.

The Filmmaker: Esau Melendez

As soon as Esau heard the story of El Campo, he felt it was the perfect fit. As a Latino immigrant himself,the stories of the boxcar communities resonated deeply with Esau, who has dedicated his own filmmaking career to telling the stories that most need to be told: the forgotten, erased, or untold stories of immigrant communities in the U.S. His work focuses on creating social change, raising awareness, and highlighting the under-represented voices, rich culture, and important roles that immigrants have played in the nation’s development.

The Narrative: Gathering the Untold Stories

The first step of making a documentary is building the narrative. The process involved interviewing the grandchildren of the original boxcar immigrants and learning about their families’ stories. The compelling tales about who their grandparents are/were, their journeys and struggles, how they lived, their experiences, and the impact of living in these communities were revealed and documented. Unexpected challenges and events that these communities faced such as bandits and like the Mexican revolution, as well as the personal anecdotes came together to weave a compelling and fascinating narrative. The desire to find better opportunities for their families is at the heart of the story of how El Campo and the boxcar communities came to exist.

The Artistry: Stop Motion and Set Design of El Campo 

Since there are limited photographical and no video documentation from the era of the boxcar communities, many of the stories collected needed to either be reenacted, or animated in order to portray the whole narrative. Documentary filmmaker Esau Melendez decided that an creati and unexpected way to fill in these blanks was to use stop-motion animation. Melendez wanted to take the audience back in time to experience the period and stories in an authentic, interactive way that reenactment, static images, or graphics couldn’t deliver.  “I came up with the idea of using stop-motion to take the viewers to the era and recreate the community. I wanted to film this in a way that would allow viewers to see how they lived, and bring them into their world. Even the way we designed the puppets: they are all made with subdued tones to take you back in time.” The puppets were specifically designed to resemble the families of El Campo. Stop-motion was also a great option for working on a budget, as it was a creative way to bring the story to life without requiring actors. Melendez also appreciates stop-motion animation, because it is so unique: a unique way to retell this lost, unique story. “This is a very collaborative effort. I’ve gotten to work with so many artists to get this film going. Each artist has contributed to telling this story: from Sonia S. who created the Gonzalez family, Antonio “Piloto” Nieves who created the Perez family, Gillian who created the Nila family, Rodrigo Lara who built the set, and animators Gillian and Melissa that bring the stories of El Campo to life with their stop motion animation.” 

The Sonic Landscape: Music and Score of El Campo

Musician and composer Victor Pichardo was selected to compose original music that’s inspired by the period music of the era. The inspiration for the music includes corridos, or folk ballads that were widely popular during the early 20th century. Corridos are historically poetic, narrative, and metrical tales that sing of history, oppression, daily life and struggles sung in the Spanish language. Many describe the trials and tribulations of traveling from Mexico to the U.S. in search of opportunity, and the experiences encountered along the journey. The co-writer of El Campo Antonio came up with the creative idea of also including a musical piece that recreates the “clickity-clack” sound of a train moving on tracks, since the boxcar communities were built.