Telling Tales in Mexico

Shauna Leff ’99 documents the oral histories of U.S. expats living south of the border.  by Gary Frank with Maura Stephens

“You can read a book, you can watch a documentary, but it’s nothing like hearing the voice of someone sharing their experiences,” says Shauna Leff ’99. “Our personal stories are very powerful. They’re our history, the people’s history.”

Early last year Shauna began collecting the oral histories of a community whose experiences had rarely been told: some of the 1.5 million non-native English speakers living in Mexico, most of them American citizens.

Aware of her reputation as a video producer, the American Benevolent Society, a nonprofit organization founded in the 1860s to assist Americans in need, approached Shauna about directing a marketing video. “I told them that a marketing video would be pointless,” says Shauna, “and that they should tell their story through the people they serve.” So Shauna began the ABS Story Archive Project.

Initially, some potential interviewees were reluctant to be recorded, for reasons ranging from fear of government reprisal to just wanting to maintain their privacy. Nevertheless, Shauna managed to interview 20 of them, including the writer Diana Anhalt, who talked about being uprooted as a child by her leftist parents when they fled the United States during the McCarthy era. Phyllis Hoffman, the older sister of 1960s and ’70s political activist Abbie Hoffman, talked about returning to the United States from her home in Mexico to lead fund-raising efforts for her brother’s defense during his Chicago Seven trial.

Then several interviews were shown at the ABS 140th anniversary celebration. “By the end of the night,” says Shauna, “there were lines of people waiting to give their oral histories, including American ambassador Tony Garza Jr.” So many people became interested that their number threatened to overwhelm Shauna. Good fortune arrived in the form of Inside Mexico, a magazine that has agreed to administer the story archive, now expanded to include oral histories from other foreign expatriate communities in Mexico. Shauna, who lives in Mexico City with her Mexican husband, Milton Ruano, will continue to oversee it in addition to being multimedia director and executive producer of the new website that accompanies it.

She’s also working with her former Ithaca College television-radio professor Mara Alper on Alper’s documentary about the Huichol, an indigenous ethnic group in west central Mexico. ”Shauna is resourceful,” says Alper, “in that she can imagine a creative possibility, then brainstorm until all the right elements are in place to transform an idea into a unique reality. She did this as an IC student with her children’s TV show Moo Schnew’s Corner. Now she’s doing it by creating a way to gather stories about expatriates.”

Shauna is well occupied for now, but looking further ahead, she sees herself continuing to work with the documentary form and possibly interactive educational media for children. “I want to keep working on projects that I believe in,” she says, “projects that affect how someone thinks, how they see something, how they listen.”