Oriana Zill de Granados and Julia Reynolds spent three years trying to understand why so many young Latinos become victims of gun violence in the agricultural community of Salinas, Calif. The result is the groundbreaking 2006 documentary “Nuestra Familia, Our Family,” which creates a unique perspective on California gang culture. In this Behind the Story segment, Zill de Granados and Reynolds discuss challenges they faced during production.
“GQ” (gang member): I started running with gangs when I was, like, 12. I’d say about seventh grade.
Well, once you’re in, you’re in. There’s no backing down.
I felt like I was finally a part of something. I started hanging around with them a lot more. They were like my family.
Co-Producer Julia Reynolds: This whole project began as an investigation looking into gun violence in California, why there were so many murders among Latino youth. And we put together a lot of data from the state, and that just led us to Salinas.
It didn’t take very long for us to find out that there was an entrenched gang culture that had been passed on for several generations in that city. And we just uncovered a world and a history that we had lived next to and knew very little about.
Armando R. Frias (former gang member): Now, you hear about murders left and right. I think last year, we hit something like 20 homicides, all gang related.
It’s terrible; I mean, practically every kid has a gun. You don’t see fights no more; you see drive-bys, and that’s a common thing.
Producer/Director Oriana Zill de Granados: The story was really about a father and a son and their struggle to deal with gang membership in their own lives, and how one of them had overcome it and the other was getting deeper and deeper involved.
Frias: Visiting my son is always a difficult thing to do because every time I go visit my son, I want to take him home with me, and I can’t do that.
Zill de Granados: So I had a really hard time in the editing room combining that story, which was a very emotional story, with a story that was really an investigative documentary about the FBI and problems in a major investigation that the FBI conducted against the Nuestra Familia prison gang.
Narrator: Salinas police were intent on bringing down the entire NF regiment, but when they followed the chain of command up to Danny Hernandez, they got a big surprise.
Mark Lazzarini (Salinas Police Department): As part of the investigation, we became aware that there was an actual informant within the ranks of the Nuestra Familia. But at the time of the homicide, I don’t believe we had information that the FBI was conducting an investigation.
Narrator: Salinas police then found out that Hernandez, their top suspect in the murder conspiracy, was a paid FBI informant.
Zill de Granados: And so, in the end, decided we would choose different stories and then intercut them so that at one moment in the film, you’re in one story about the father and son. Then you find out about the mothers and the children that have been killed in Salinas.
And then you find out about the prison gang and the history.
And then, the last third of the documentary, we tried to lay out some of the complexities of the investigative story, which comes a point when you’re already in, you’re already hooked, you’re already wanting to know what’s happened with these characters.
GQ: This is what we do on a daily basis. Post up, make some money… (from all the dope fiends out there).
Reynolds: We didn’t like the idea of perpetrating the stereotype of the Latino criminal. But there comes a point when, you know, so many children are losing their lives that we realized we, as reporters for and about the Latino community, had to face this issue.
It took a long, long time of pounding the pavement and getting people to warm up to us and trust us. It took more than, almost two years before we really got inside and got close to some gang members for this story.
Unidentified mother: Marco Antonio Velasquez, November 14, 2004.
Reynolds: The mothers who have lost children in Salinas, and unfortunately there are hundreds of them, are still meeting and still growing stronger. That’s one of the positive things that has continued since the film was made.
Now’s the chance for other reporters to come in and tell more of these stories.
We focused on the men, but women and girls are being used and exploited by gangs just as badly, and it’s on the increase. That’s a story that needs to be told.