One morning in late 2018, on the ice-cold floor of a crowded holding room in one of dozens of detention centers across the Southwest border, a scared, 16-year-old, dark-haired, soft-spoken boy daydreamed about reuniting with his mother, whom he hadn’t seen since he was 4 years old.

Regs, a teenager traveling thousands of miles from Guatemala, had been picked up a few days prior by U.S. Border Patrol agents when he was walking in the desert on his way to what he said “was a better future.” That future, as he explained it, was the United States and his mother. Behind him lay thousands of miles of a difficult, long and traumatic journey across Central America — as well as a beloved grandmother who was dying from cancer and couldn’t care for him anymore. For Regs, getting to his mother in Riverhead, his final destination, was not a matter of choice, but of necessity.

The profound solitude, tears, sacrifice, determination, and ultimately hope and accomplishment, of Regs’ immigration story are some of the subjects explored in “Solo,” one of two short films recorded and produced by Riverhead High School students for an after-school program sponsored by OLA Media Lab in collaboration with filmmaker and former Ross Institute director of media Maria Maciak and advised by high school ENL teacher Claudette Garley Rottkamp. The workshop, which offered all interested students the opportunity to learn how to tell their stories via film, started in January of this year.

“We wanted to make sure that the students had a chance to learn about visual storytelling, all the basics, which is what Maria is adept at, the editing, the framing, the sound, and then when it was time for them to decide what do they wanted their story to be, they had to decide themselves; we didn’t guide them towards any direction, it could be about anything they chose, ” OLA’s executive director Minerva Perez said in an interview.

What was initially designed to be six sessions was postponed and then spread out throughout many months due to COVID-19 and the closing of the schools in mid-March, said Perez. Of the six students who initially signed up, only two were able to finish their shorts on time for OLA’s annual film festival, a showcase, now in its 17th year, of Latino and Spaniard award-winning movies that are presented every fall at different cultural venues across the East End. The main screenings are preceded by short films from OLA’s Media Lab. This year the two short films that premiered at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton were Riverhead’s High School students’ “Solo” and “Rocco.”

“Solo,” which is only seven minutes long, shows Regs talking about what he felt on his journey from Guatemala, with interspersed images of his life here: one day helping his stepfather at work, a close-up of Regs’ hand holding a seashell, his little sister holding a flower.


“Rocco” shows Alejandro, who is younger than Regs, talking poignantly about the dog he left behind when he immigrated.

Perez said that the process of the students choosing the subject of their films “was fascinating.” All six students that signed up first started with very distinct, big ideas, and then, gradually, as their projects became more focused, they decided as a group that they wanted to tell their immigration stories, or aspects of it, she said.

“That blew me away because I wasn’t expecting it and I was also kind of nervous about it,” Perez said, adding that they made sure the students’ parents and guardians knew about the project.

Garley Rottkamp, who facilitated the workshop, said that in the end, “storytelling is about communicating something that you know or have experience with,” which is why choosing this topic made sense for the cohort of six.

Regs said that telling his immigration story for him was more than just talking about that part of his life. Now 18 years old, he is a long way from the boy waiting in the cold room of the detention center. In the two years that have passed since then, he has learned a new language, become an honor student at Riverhead High School, an ROTC cadet, and \an avid fitness enthusiast, budding photographer and filmmaker. His dream, however, is to become a nurse — he is currently attending BOCES’ Practical Nursing Program — and “help others.”

“I wanted to show people that there’s so much more to somebody’s story,” Regs said. “There is racism and people that talk about someone who immigrated like me and they say we come to do bad things, but that is not true. They don’t know the real person behind, they don’t know we come for a better future and sometimes there are no choices.”

“I was scared and felt alone in the beginning, throughout the journey from Guatemala, but I knew I had to get to my mom in America. Then I was detained and I thought they would deport me, but when they told me I would be able to rejoin my family after one month in that place, it was a relief I can’t describe,” Regs said. “Seeing my mother again, I was crying and it was the best moment of my life.”

When Regs arrived in Riverhead he said he felt lost because everything was new, but once he found his footing everything changed, and he now feels “very happy,” has friends and “loves Riverhead.”

Garley Rottkamp said Regs is “a hard-working student, kind-hearted, always at the top of the class,” doing activities and involved with the larger school community.

“He has moved on beyond just being an immigrant student,” Garley Rottkamp said. “He’s always the first one to volunteer and help, for a fundraiser or anything else, and really participates in the whole school community and that’s what we want for the kids.”

Regs’ mother Patricia said she is “very proud” of her son. When she received the letter congratulating Regs for making the honor roll, she said it felt like an early Christmas.

“I am so blessed with my son. He always says that coming here is his opportunity in life, and is working hard to build something good. He has made so many changes, and it is all thanks to his determination,” she said.

Regs’ story is not unlike those of other unaccompanied children that have arrived in recent years to the East End, Perez said, and added that amplifying the voices of young people like Regs is crucial. She said that too often, these voices are muted “with the assumption there’s nothing to hear,” and that is not a good thing for communities.

“We are hurriedly shooting ourselves in the foot to not have more ways of listening, and just listening and taking in, and then potentially even putting some of those things into action, so that’s just a problem across the board, whether you’re Latino or not,” she said.

Garley Rottkamp agrees.

“I think is important that they do get an opportunity to tell their story, I think it would only increase the empathy and understanding and maybe open pathways of communication,” she said. “So, kudos to the students and to Maria Maciak and OLA for bringing the program to the district, and I hope that we can grow it.”

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria