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Adoption, immigration, incarceration, political prisoners, and a boy coming-of-age.
Each of these hot-button issues are made intimately personal and all-too-real as explored and revealed in the award winning PBS documentary, The Double Life of Ernesto Gómez-Gómez, the true story of an American-Puerto Rican-Mexican boy with two names, two identifies, two families, and three nationalities.
In his boyhood, Ernesto Gomez-Gomez had far more drama in his life than anyone would want. Like the young Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Ernesto was raised in a remote desert place, in hiding from the Empire, under another identity, with a secret parental lineage that even he did not know.
But on his 10th birthday, over ice cream, the Mexican parents who raised him and loved him told him for the first time who he really was: that he was not their son, that he was adopted, that he had another name, that his birth parents were on the run or in prison, revolutionaries fighting to win independence for Puerto Rico, struggling against the American Empire and its colonial rule, and that at long last his birth mother had sent him a message, asking to see him …
… and so began the journey into this documentary: from Mexico, to the US, to San Francisco and the prison near there where his mother was incarcerated, and ultimately to that most wonderful and precious destination of them all: to freedom -Presidential Clemency for his mother and for Ernesto, the freedom to be himself – whoever that might be.
The 2 minute clip above is the opening of the award-winning PBS documentary.
Summary of the film: At age 15, Ernesto began a 5 year journey, from Mexico to California to Puerto Rico. His goal: to get to know for the first time his biological mother Dylcia Pagan who was in jail in California, serving a 55 year prison sentence for her independentista political beliefs. Dylcia is a Puerto Rican patriot, a militant activist who had spent her life in struggle hoping to create an island nation, a sovereign Puerto Rico entirely independent of the United States. For this cause, she sacrificed raising her son and sent baby Ernesto to Mexico to be raised in secret, under another name, safe and distant from his mother’s political struggles until…
At age 10, his Mexican adopted parents tell him who he really is. At age 10 he hears the true story of his own life for the first time.
The documentary follows his journey, both physical and psychological, as he changes his Mexican name takes on the Puerto Rican identity he was born into, all while coming to the USA to live near his mother’s prison. There, behind barbed wire, during his weekly visits to prison, he gets to know his mother, Dylcia, for the first time. He learns about his own heritage, what it is to be a Puerto Rican. He comes to feel the torment that anyone with a double identity must confront. Manfully, he struggles with the burden of being the son of la patriota, a heroine, a political prisoner. Ernesto visits Dylcia, hoping and working endlessly on behalf of his mother’s freedom. In the end, it is too much for anyone, let alone one teenage boy barely able to speak English. He flees California where his mother is incarcerated, to find a another route to his own life and his own life path.
The completed film received nearly a dozen Best Documentary awards at film festivals, was nominated by the Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Documentary Directing, and was broadcast on the prestigious PBS non-fiction showcase series, POV.
But most importantly, the finished film was an important part of the successful world wide campaign that resulted in the 1999 decision by President Bill Clinton to sign an official Act of Clemency and free Ernesto’s mother Dylcia Pagan and 11 other Puerto Rican political prisoners.
The updated version of this documentary ends with this transcendent moment of freedom. Ernesto, accompanied by the film makers, goes to the prison for his mothers release, tearfully whisking her away to freedom, to Puerto Rico, after more than 19 years of incarceration.
Reviews & Articles
“The Double Life of Ernesto Gómez Gómez is an extraordinary film which captures the anguish of a family torn apart by the power of the state, and puts a powerful political story into human terms. It is heartrending, but also exhilarating as it portrays the courage of a mother and her son facing, in their own ways, an ordeal which every family dreads, while holding on to their dream of justice.”
– Howard Zinn, author of The People’s History of the United States
“…a moving depiction of a family torn apart by political belief and then stitched back together, in a fashion, by loyalty and love.”
“By all accounts, Ernesto Gomez Gomez was a happy boy growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico. He did well in school, was popular with his classmates and played in the local Little League. But all that ended the day his parents took him aside and told him his whole life had been a lie.
And for five years, Ernesto tried to ignore his past. When that didn’t work, he decided to confront it, setting off on an emotional quest in search of both his true identity and the mother who had abandoned him. His troubled journey of self-discovery will be told tonight at 10 on KCET-TV in The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, a striking self-portrait that not only explores the costs of profound political idealism in one family but that also touches on such issues as immigration, adoption, colonialism and love.”
from LA Times review, Kevin Baxter, “Teen’s Hesitant Search for His True Identity”
“RIVETING … This documentary illustrates the fine line between filmmaker and subject, and how those boundaries can bleed over and turn into real relationships. “
“LO MAS INTERESANTE … Este documental representa la relación entre el cinematógrafo y el tema y como esa relación puede sangrar y convertirse en una verdadera amistad.”
El Tecolote Review, in English and Spanish
“Film makers Update”, 9 years after broadcast:
“On July 27, 1999, our film, The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, premiered on POV. Let it never be said that TV accomplishes nothing. Less than two months later, Ernesto’s mother, Dylcia Pagan, received executive clemency from President Clinton and she walked out of the U.S. federal prison, a free woman, after having been incarcerated for 19 years of her 55-year sentence…”
POV announcement and description of film:
“The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez is a striking self-portrait of the costs of profound political idealism in one family. It confronts issues of adoption, immigration, colonialism, and love merged into a single mesmerizing teen odyssey. The film combines interviews and archival footage with more expressionistic sequences in which Ernesto/Guillermo tries to communicate the feeling of being catapulted from one reality into another.”
“… a glimpse into one of the deeply personal, agonizing effects of colonialism, rarely dealt with in film.” Filmakers Library
“This high quality production is recommended for all collections…” Library Journal
“This true story of a Puerto Rican boy, born Guillermo Morales but raised in Mexico under another name, raises issues of identity, immigration and cultural conflict as well as concerns about the justice system.” from “S.F. Couple’s Documentary Uncovers a Gripping Story of social injustice. “
“The experience was unforgettable, seared into my memory, and it remains to this day a high point of my life and of my lifelong commitment to activism and media. We had begun this work with hope, but without a real expectation of victory. We had begun as a matter of principle, to fight the good fight: for the rights of political prisoners, for the rights of prisoners victimized by injustice in general, for the principle of self-determination of peoples, causes so noble and worthwhile that we never believed with certainty that we would achieve a victory.
That it came to be makes it all the more worthwhile to look at the reasons why… from “Case Study: Changing the World, One Documentary at at Time”
Directors Guild of America nomination announcement
Cover story, International Documentary Magazine – a short description of the film and it’s making
“In Focus: Cathy Ryan” a profile piece in Irish Voice, a NY based weekly newspaper, “Cathy Ryan’s work as a filmmaker may often run perilously short of finance but it’s never short on passion.” The piece is centered around Catherine as Producer of The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez.
“Double Dipping” Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg Have Landed PBS and Network Slots this Summer” , by Sura Wood. From Release Print Magazine. June 1999. (Click article title for PDF)
“Aprendí todo lo de su historia y su cultura, pero aunque realmente soy puertorriqueño, me siento mexicano, fue allá donde me crié.” -Ernesto Gómez Gómez, La Opinion, Julio 27, 1999