Denver-based Mexican immigrant filmmaker Raúl O. Paz-Pastrana, director of a feature-length documentary about migrant labor at the Kentucky Derby, is a recipient of a Creative Capital Award.
ALBUQUERQUE, NM—Raúl O. Paz-Pastrana, a Mexican immigrant filmmaker based in Denver, has spent extended periods of time in Lexington, Kentucky staying with his wife’s family. During initial visits, the couple would awe at the horses around the Churchill Downs Racetrack, home to the Kentucky Derby. Later, they wondered who was responsible for the care of the bucolic grounds and majestic animals.
“I think the seed was planted by my wife Emily. She wondered who the workers were,” says Paz-Pastrana. “I started looking more and more into it and you can totally see that it’s a migrant labor force behind the horses.”
Shortly after, Paz-Pastrana, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico and director of the applauded Border South (Frontera Sur), began pursuing a full-length documentary film that highlights the migrant workers that make the most famous horse race in the world tick. As an independent filmmaker, money is often an issue—that’s one reason why last week’s Creative Capital Award announcement came at a fortuitous time for Paz-Pastrana, who’s one of the only artists in the Southwest area to win the esteemed award.
“It’s a great honor,” says Paz-Pastrana about learning that he was one of fifty-nine recipients of a 2022 Creative Capital Award, which was announced January 12, 2022.
Creative Capital, a twenty-three-year-old New York-based nonprofit arts organization, granted $2.5 million (up to $50,000 per awardee) to support fifty different artist projects. According to a press release, ninety percent of the awardees are multi-gendered Asian, Black, Indigenous, and Latinx artists ranging in age from twenties to sixties. Past award winners include composer and performer Meredith Monk, artist Liz Cohen, filmmaker Penny Lane, and author Ben Marcus. Southwest-area recipients of the 2022 awards include Devin Alejandro-Wilder of Austin, Texas, Jasmine Hearn of Houston, and Crystal Z Campbell of Oklahoma City.
Though there are no stipulations on how each artist deploys the funding, Paz-Pastrana says that he’ll definitely dedicate grant money to Backside, which will follow the Kentucky Derby racing season from March through November 2022 with a focus on “the underrecognized migrant workers… [that] reveals the web of class, labor, and wealth in the American South,” says Paz-Pastrana, who has worked as an immigrant rights and labor organizer.
Paz-Pastrana is also a multimedia artist and part of the Coyotek collaborative, which created a fictitious dark-web site where immigrants and refugees could “buy” products that would protect them from surveillance. But his main passion is cinema—he spent five years filming Border South (Frontera Sur), a 2019 documentary that follows immigrants traveling from southern Mexico to the United States-Mexico border.
The film—which also documents the journey of anthropologist Jason De León, who collects left-behind objects along the migrant trail—won Best Feature Film at the Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival. It screened at worldwide festivals, including San Diego, New Orleans, Guadalajara, and London.
In addition to Backside, he’s working on a short documentary on Santa Fe-based Mexican immigrant poet, writer, and distance runner Alejandro Jimenez for the American Masters series on PBS. It’s expected to debut in the fall.
Paz-Pastrana found out about the Creative Capital award when a New York area code number called his cell phone. The only reason he answered the unknown number is because much of his work, along with his cinematographer, is based in New York. “I usually don’t answer my phone,” says Paz-Pastrana, “but I did and they told me I got it. It was a great feeling.”