Eboni Johnson and Victoria Ferrell Ortiz are kindred spirits. Johnson is an emerging historian and documentary filmmaker. Oritz is the vice president of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL), a nonprofit that preserves the history of the city’s Mexican American communities. Both women are united by a shared love of community-led storytelling, which led to a partnership: Nuestro Oak Cliff, a new documentary that chronicles the historic and contemporary contributions of the neighborhood’s Latinx communities.
Three years ago, Johnson attended a screening of Wela, Ortiz’s documentary about the life of her abuelita (grandmother) in Cemento Grande (Cement City), a locality built for workers of the Trinity Portland Cement Company Town in Cemento Grande. After the screening, Johnson messaged Ortiz on Instagram with praise for the film and an invitation to collaborate on supporting and telling cultural histories of communities in West Dallas. After a few phone calls, the two women of color bonded over their shared love and respect of using documentary to archive the stories of West Dallas that were rapidly disappearing.
Johnson’s documentary film, Unrequited Dreams: An American Truth, explored the impacts of discriminatory housing practices in a gentrifying West Dallas. In researching the film, Johnson connected with the DMAHL as well as community leaders in West Dallas and other historic Latinx neighborhoods experiencing displacement due to unchecked development.
This year, DMAHL hired Johnson to edit and direct Nuestro Oak Cliff, a documentary about “what’s happening in our community in Oak Cliff,” she says.
Ahead of the film’s premiere Thursday night at the Latino Cultural Center, Ortiz and Johnson spoke to D Magazine about the film. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Earlier this year, I spoke to the founders of the group Artstillery about using art as a form of oral preservation to tell stories of West Dallas’ communities. We know Dallas, especially West Dallas, is rapidly changing. How did you as co-creators approach this?
Ortiz: I feel like this piece that Eboni helped DMAHL bring to fruition is going to speak some truths that people might not be ready for. I think it’s a great opportunity, a learning experience to uplift untold stories, because this is just what’s happening in our community in Oak Cliff. People are losing their homes, people are being displaced. It’s a serious situation that our community is in. There’s a lot of work to be done. I’m very grateful to have Eboni as a co-creator and thought partner through it all.
Johnson: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. West Dallas has been a grounding center for both of Victoria’s and my stories. In Unrequited Dreams, I talk about housing discrimination and focus on West Dallas. The displacement of 300 homes because of HMK Ltd. [Ed. note: The landlord closed about 300 of its low-income rentals in West Dallas in 2018, evicting those who chose not to—or could not—purchase their homes after coming under fire from the city for not maintaining the properties.] Talking about how this happens and the way our neighborhoods are formed. Especially the way government withheld resources from communities of color, which prevented them from building equity. When I did that film, I felt a deep responsibility to the community and the way they opened themselves to me, and knew that there are so many stories in this area that that needed to be supported.
I would love to hear your perspective on what uncomfortable truths need to be told. I think in order for our city to grow, we have to acknowledge the racial horrors that have been done and are continuing to be done.
Oritz: Whenever I’m in a group of mixed people—“mixed” being people whose experiences are not the same as mine—I say, ‘you know, Little Mexico was gentrified to the point to where it is Uptown?’ We don’t have a presence there. Are Oak Cliff and West Dallas going to experience the same plight? I mean that wholeheartedly. There’s so many things that are happening. I think Nuestro Oak Cliff is going to be a reclamation of our narratives and memories.
I think what’s missing in Oak Cliff is community because the current development is not being community-led. Just like it was shared in The Guardian article, I think about the Vietnamese and Thai restaurant; that’s a business owned by a person of color that’s been in Bishop Arts for over 2o years, and yet they’re not able to renew their lease. There are people in Oak Cliff, who, like myself, would like to come back and buy a house, so we can pay our taxes and invest in the community that we love so much. But because of the way that prices are, we can’t afford it.
I work for a nonprofit. That’s my my job that I actually get paid for. The work that I do with DMAHL is in a volunteer capacity. My partner and I together can’t afford the prices that houses are selling for right now in Oak Cliff. So, for us, it’s really disappointing. It hurts to not be able to continue to live my life here in Oak Cliff and to raise my child here in Oak Cliff. Like Little Mexico, West Dallas, that urgency is the same as what I felt when I recorded oral histories with my grandmother in West Dallas. This is how I feel now with Oak Cliff, Because it’s just it’s not community based. It’s not for me, or for my people.
Johnson: I really have nothing else to add other than that. History is hard to deny, but it’s something that we have to face because it’s going to repeat itself unless we come to the realization of why it happened. I think about how I approached my film Unrequited Dreams; I came to that film because I didn’t know about housing discrimination. I saw the effects of it in my community and my grandparents’ community in Highland Hills (in southern Dallas).
As a little girl, I thought, ‘why is this community so underfunded, under-resourced?’ It’s a Black community. Why was this community of color suffering so much? Was it because it’s filled with people of color? No, because it was purposefully built that way. It was supposed to be a failing community, because the people weren’t being resourced and helped and aided by their government.
I think this history has to be told because we really have to address the the faults of White supremacy, of racism, of discriminatory practices that have found their way into our laws and legal systems. In order to really come to what the American Dream is, but coming to a place of equity, for everyone in this country, we have to really to just address what is wrong with our society and the ills that seem to constantly find a new form or face in every generation.