A Bernie Sanders supporter in Las Vegas ahead of the Nevada caucuses.
When Bernardo Ruiz set out to make the PBS VOCES special Latino Vote: Dispatches from the Battleground, he knew the subject matter was timely.
Latinx citizens make up the largest ethnic minority in the U.S., and their votes grow more important with every tight political race.
Ruiz and his team focused on communities in Nevada, Texas, Florida and Philadelphia, highlighting the range of ideological and philosophical differences that coexist under the large Latinx umbrella. "Part of the design of the storytelling is to get at that diversity," says the director, who also produced the film with Andrea Cordoba.
Suddenly, in the midst of filming, the coronavirus shut down the country. The world was shifting, and the documentary had to shift along with it.
"Latinos are hospitalized and dying from the coronavirus at four times the rate of whites, and we know that, certainly in the early stages of the pandemic, many of the essential workers were Latinos," Ruiz says.
"What was already an urgent story — about ensuring that Latino communities are registered and that the ballot box is accessible to them — has become that much more urgent. The Latino community needs to flex its political muscles and ensure that the issues they care about are accurately and fairly represented at the highest levels of government."
The longtime, Emmy-nominated documentarian is accustomed to pivoting quickly. Ruiz's previous film, Independent Lens's Harvest Season, centered on the Latinx workers of the California wine industry. He was shooting when the North Bay fires engulfed the winemaking area, and his film's focus changed accordingly.
But how to film safely during a pandemic? "In this case, we took the lead from the participants," he says. "If they felt like it was a necessary risk for them to get out into neighborhoods to provide food aid and emergency supplies, then we felt that was a measured risk we could take to follow them and document that process."
Then, when the killing of George Floyd sparked an uprising against systemic racism, Ruiz had to adjust the story once more to stay current.
He notes that the Black-led civil rights movement has always served as a model for Latinx activists. "This moment was kind of a tipping point for the country and the politics of race and inequality. So, our job became to follow that and also see how the very diverse Latinx community is connected to that issue, and how that will impact the Latinx vote as well."
The film, which premiered October 6, emerges as an up-to-the-minute look at various Latinx voters — in battleground states and across the political spectrum — as they struggle to support the needs of their communities.
To meet this moment, Ruiz planned to keep filming as long as necessary.
"To assume that just because we've completed the film, some relevant or urgent change is not going to happen would be a mistake, so we're prepared to add some final content right up until the broadcast."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 10, 2020