February 20, 2015

Documentary on Norristown's Mexican community, inspired by GSE research, airing on WHYY

Photo of church interior with American flag The scene at St. Patrick's Church in Norristown, PA, from the documentary Adelante.

When Father William Murphy steps up to the pulpit at St. Patrick’s, he draws upon deep traditions in the 181-year-old church to make parishioners feel at home. I see good, hard-working people who are just trying to have a better life for their kids, just like my grandparents did,” he said.

As a pastor in Norristown, a Philadelphia suburb that has seen waves of Mexican immigrants over the last 20 years, that means delivering his homilies in English and Spanish.

This commitment to community is featured in the documentary Adelante, directed by Penn graduate student Noam Osband and executive produced by Penn GSE professor Stanton Wortham. The film, which screens on Philadelphia’s WHYY on February 20th at 10:30 p.m., shows how newcomers from Mexico joined and revitalized this dwindling Irish-Catholic parish. Osband hopes Adelante’s broadcast on WHYY helps the film reach a diverse set of audiences. In addition to Friday’s showing, Osband is taking the film on a tour of the Northeast, and will be on campus March 30th for a screening and Q & A.

“The film shows how different communities in Norristown have made mutual adjustments in order to create meaningful and heartfelt bonds of friendship and understanding,” Osband said. “I think this movie subtly makes the point that, no, Latin American immigration to the US is no different from other waves,” he said. “Longing for your imagined homeland when you are far away and playing the music and putting on the costumes from your country of origin is as American an act as any, whether you are of Irish or Mexican descent.” 

Executive producer Stanton Wortham, who teaches in the Education, Culture, and Society Division at Penn GSE, is a leader in the field of educational ethnography.  He has taught courses on visual anthropology, media ethnography and documentary film, and spent a decade working with Mexican families and the Norristown School District. That led to important developments, such as bilingual resource rooms in elementary schools and a Latino parent leadership group. Wortham met Osband through a separate project to document how teachers can better engage with Latino parents. That helped lead to Adelante.

“I built trust and relationships,” Wortham said, “and I was able to introduce Noam to Norristown residents so that he could work with them to document their lives.”

As Wortham’s ongoing work in Norristown included film production, he co-founded Collaborative Advancements in Multimodal Research Activities (camra), a Penn media pedagogy lab. The initiative is designed to foster collaboration across disciplines, and Wortham hopes projects like Adelante become part of the research canon at Penn GSE. 

Adelante played a key role in shaping Osband as a researcher, helping hone his filmmaking skills on the path to his dissertation. “I think documentary filmmaking and fieldwork are similar as both require people skills,” he added. “It's all about humility, showing people you care about their stories, and listening.” He sees film as a medium capable of showing peoples’ emotions in a way that other forms of ethnography cannot—the power to communicate the incommunicable.

Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, Dean and Professor of Education at UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, praised the film as an important addition to the field of immigration studies. "Adelante is a must-see film for anyone interested in the essential nexus between immigration and religion in the making and remaking of the American experience," he said.

Osband came to Penn to pursue a doctorate in anthropology. “I was interested in studying Latin American immigration to the United States,” he said, “and Penn had faculty in various departments from anthro and history to education and sociology who all had expertise in that field.” He is currently working on a feature-length documentary about Mexican reforestation workers in the southeast United States. As he completes this capstone work, he is poised to become the first Penn student to submit a film as a dissertation University of Pennsylvania.

For more information about Adelante, including upcoming screening dates, visit www.adelantethefilm.com.