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How a Super-8 Camera Brought Me Closer to My Culture

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Road-tripping to Florida came nearly every year for my family. My sisters and I had devised a social order for who sat where in the three row SUV. My older sister would sit in the way back by herself for the 18 hours there, I would sit by myself for the 18 hours on the way back. Anna, my youngest sister, didn’t care where she sat, as long as she had her portable DVD player in hand and some snacks to hold her over between meals.

The last time we drove through Florida was in the early summer of 2015. This trip was different from the rest. We had planned to fly into Orlando to see my mom’s side of the family, rent a mini-van big enough to fit us and all of our things, head on down to Miami to see the southern tip of the state that we had never ventured toward in any of our other countless Florida adventures, and back up to Tampa to stop by my dad’s side of the family. I knew that this trip would be different which excited me. I had been to Florida to visit family more times than I could count on my two hands, and this time we would be venturing out of our familial stomping grounds.

In his apartment in suburban Orlando, my grandfather (“Abuelito”) does not keep a lot of clutter around. Aside from one hardly full storage closet, and a stack of boxes in his garage that matched my six-foot-three stature, he only keeps the essentials visible.

One night, when talking about everything that I was not alive to experience, my mother and Abuelito seemed to have a coordinated epiphany. Apparently, when my mom was a child, Abuelito never left the house without his Super-8 camera in tote. Supposedly, hours of footage lined the film reels tucked away in the hardly full storage box, packed tightly in a shoe box, and nestled in the corner. Abuelito ran his old man run into the closet, returning with two shoe boxes, a leather carrying case, and a bulky and awkwardly shaped brown steel box.

The first box was filled with film reels, wound up in grey and blue packaging, waiting to be put on their projector. The second box had an old fashioned light that looked like something that a 1930’s journalist would use to catch a quick shot of Al Capone. Opening the leather carrying case, I was met with the site of a seemingly brand new, brightly shining Super-8 camera. And finally, in the brown steel box contained a projector meant to turn a blank wall into a canvas for history. My family’s history. My history.

“I had never been very connected with my Dominican culture, but these Super-8 videos, these plastic tapes that were older than my physical being, made me feel more like myself than I ever had.”

Enjoying the rest of my vacation was easy. Taking in the amazing culture of Miami was a beautiful experience. However, throughout the trip, the urge to get home and watch the videos grew stronger and stronger.

Immediately upon arriving back to my house, I frenzied in search of the whitest and largest wall. I wanted to see my family members as if they were starring in a film, “La Historia de Mi Familia”. The premiere of this film felt like a premiere in Hollywood. I had never tapped into my family history this deeply, in a way so personal that I felt that I could be a part of it.

I flipped the switch. Click. The motor of the projector hummed softly, sounding just as it should have. The bulb shot a white light straight at the wall, indicating that it was working exactly as it should have been. I fed the film through the machine, each tick-tick of the feeder making me more anxious. A few seconds in, the wall transformed to a jumble of different faded colors. I twisted the focus lens to see what I could make out, and suddenly the blank white transformed me into a new world of bright colors and smiling faces.

Inside the camera’s world, little children ran around, hand in hand. The men sat talking in their sweater-vests over button up shirts, and the women pranced around in their flowing skirts, stream lined pants, or vest blouses, all tied up with a pañuelo around their thick hair. The video stayed quiet, but I superimposed Spanish onto the moving lips of my Tias and TiosPrimas and Primos that I had never met before.

I had never been to the Dominican Republic before, but these videos took me to that land. The palm trees blew, the weather was apparent in everyone’s dress, and the carefree attitudes of everyone struck me as particularly obvious. My family and their friends were closer than anyone I have seen in my lifetime, 50 years later. I had never been very connected with my Dominican culture, but these Super-8 videos, these plastic tapes that were older than my physical being, made me feel more like myself than I ever had before. Putting away these tapes, I sent a silent thank you to Abuelito. These tapes did more than he ever could know.

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Will is a junior in high school who loves reading, writing, and anything but math. Avid Chance the Rapper stan. He is super interested in politics and how social justice can intersect with the political systems of the world.

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