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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Mariah Barrera

By Shreya Khullar

A young girl, armed with a camera and a red baseball cap, marches through a gentrified world. Her walk is split between neighborhoods in various states of disrepair and areas of shiny new development. Upon encountering a sign that reads “DANGER AHEAD,” she promptly, almost casually, rips it off its post. A violin concerto plays in the background. 

Illustration by Em Bennett

Through the eyes of this child, Mariah Barrera, CC ʼ24, illuminates the devastating effects of gentrification in her 2018 short film, “A Southside Journey.” After confidently tearing down several other warning signs and tossing them to the ground, the film ends with the young girl facing an obstacle there seems to be no way to combat: an eviction notice plastered on her own front door. 

The pains afflicting this protagonist directly mirror ones that Barrera and her communities in Saginaw and Grand Rapids, Michigan, have braved. “A lot of the things that people probably see in movies is what my real life was,” Barrera said. “Gun violence was very normal. Drug abuse and selling was very normal.” But as she grew older, Barrera realized that the hypervigilance spurred by a turbulent childhood was, in fact, not the norm for most of her peers. 

Now, the community she comes from and the experiences she has faced are the inspiration for her films. The inherent wonder, confidence, and innocence of children have become valuable conduits for her stories, especially to those unfamiliar with the circumstances in which Barrera was raised. “It’s all about children being at odds with their environment. That’s really what the core of what my whole upbringing was. A young child will always be at odds with an environment that’s unstable, that’s unsafe, that’s scary.” The heart of her films rests on this juxtaposition; pulling viewers into this perspective is integral to her mission of humanizing families who are affected by poverty, violence, and drug abuse. 

Barrera recognizes, though, that these issues are not monolithic. They manifest in different ways, hinging on the particularities of the location—for her, namely, the urban Midwest. Her narratives are seeped in the details of her life in the Midwest and of her hometown in particular. The reasons for this are twofold: “Distinctive voices from the Midwest are so underrepresented,” she explained. More specifically, being a Latina from the Midwest can mean you are not represented at all. Exclusivity and the inextricability of the narrative from the location has led Barrera to elevate the importance of the Midwest in her stories. The “gritty inner city” functions almost as a character in the story, shifting forms and influencing the people interacting with it. “The residue of every story that I wanna tell is there on the ground in Michigan,” she explained. 

However, these films began as a form of escapism from this reality. Her beginnings as a filmmaker was as a young girl holding a camcorder, conducting “The Mariah Show,” an at-home talk show she hosted with her father and cousins. Continuing to make home videos, Barrera fully immersed herself in the filmmaking process, performing the role of writer, director, and cinematographer simultaneously. 

Though Barrera is the artist behind the camera, she also enlists the help of her family when producing her films. Since the narratives follow people in her community, Barrera asks herself how everyone collectively contributes to her stories. Because of this, a primary goal for Barrera is to depict individuals through a kind of radical representative lens instead of shoehorning people’s stories into the construct of “positive representation.” 

Rather than tell stories specifically designed to undo media stereotypes, Barrera wants to focus on stories that reflect people’s human experiences. “Ultimately, I think when you are focusing on exceptional stories, you’re still perpetuating a myth that our stories are only worth telling if they're exceptional … And so I think for me, as someone who comes from those experiences that people might see as stereotypical, I don’t wanna feel like I have to shy away from those, 'cause it’s my real life.”

Alongside these memories, Barrera’s favorite artists and writers also sow the seeds of her inspiration. She listens to playlists of Kanye, J. Cole, and Brockhampton as she puts pen to paper, mapping out visuals and voiceover. The written word is the genesis of each of Barrera’s films. She incorporates elements of lyricism and poetry she learned from her father when creating a script. Each scene is imbued with a sense of rhythm and meter. With film as her medium, Barrera’s niche interests and proclivities combine to form a coherent whole. The beauty of film, she believes, comes from its colorful marriage of all the disparate art forms that interest her. 

Her poetic sensibility can be seen clearly in her more recent film, “My Brother’s Keeper” (2020). The viewers see an array of family photos and video clips as a voiceover plays in the background, reciting lines like “It shouldn’t have to take eloquently written prose for the lives of brothers like mine to be humanized.” In the film, Barrera points the finger at all of us—all the viewers, internet browsers, and film festival goers—to raise awareness of the effects of incarceration on families and individual psychologies. 

Barrera’s films take the form of experimental documentaries, a genre that is particularly equipped to carry out her vision. The camera movement and intertwining of poetry, film, and music suggest an artist breaking out of the confines of traditional filmmaking. She is interested in narrative but feels the revered three-act structure and hero’s journey don’t coincide with the stories she’s interested in telling. “Traditional filmmaking … has served to tell traditional stories very well. If I’m telling a non-traditional story, I think [it needs to be told through] non-traditional ways of filmmaking. I think it'd be a disservice to these types of stories that I wanna tell to try and put them in this traditional container.” 

Through her studies as a film major at Columbia, Barrera has been immersed in theory, and though she finds the tools learned from her coursework beneficial, they are just that: tools. Rejecting strictly linear narratives, Barrera doesn’t want theory to dictate the trajectory of her projects. “I started falling into that,” she reflected. “To over-intellectualize your practice, to over-intellectualize what you do, over-theorize, get so heady that you’re forgetting that in everything you make, the heart is what resonates with people. That’s the core of a story.” 

Though the industry still places an emphasis on a very “cut and dry” model of filmmaking, there are filmmakers working to challenge the status quo and make the documentary an avenue for non-traditional stories to blossom. “And I’m up for the challenge,” Barrera asserted.

She believes this revolutionary space for storytelling will keep opening up for filmmakers to tap into its vitality; Her own innovative zeal has already brought her much accolade. Barrera’s films have been shown at several festivals, including the HBO-founded Urbanworld and the Cleveland International Film Festival, and she has been recognized as a YoungArts Alumna and Still I Rise Film Fellow. Her latest film, “Still Here” (2024), has finished its festival run and will be released in the spring through Still I Rise Films. At her core, Barrera is still that young explorer at the beginning of “A Southside Journey”: a pioneer marching through the world, tearing down all the stops. 


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