Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


University of St. Thomas to screen documentary on sexual abuse among immigrant women

The documentary film, directed by Mikaela Shwer, is scheduled to screen Thursday, from 7-9:30 p.m., at the University of St. Thomas.

Angy Rivera, right, and her mother Maria, both undocumented immigrants from Colombia, featured in "Don't Tell Anyone (No Le Digas Nadie)."
Courtesy of NLDA

Filmmaker Katie O’Rourke longed to create a documentary film that has a direct impact on communities whose stories have been overlooked.

So she joined forces with other filmmakers who wanted to accentuate the trials and hardships of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. But O’Rourke and her team didn’t have the means to produce the story they wanted to tell.

Despite that grim financial reality, however, they found a way to create “Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie),” a documentary film about Angy Rivera, an unauthorized immigrant activist who endured an ordeal too common to the plight of her immigrant community: sexual abuse.

The documentary film, directed by Mikaela Shwer, is scheduled to screen Thursday, from 7-9:30 p.m., at the University of St. Thomas.

Article continues after advertisement

Some Twin Cities residents helped fund the film, which records the personal story of 24-year-old Rivera from the days she lived in Colombia as a child to her current life as a rising immigration leader in New York City.

“We did sort of a crowd-funding campaign,” said O’Rourke, a St. Paul native who now lives in New York. “So many people in the Twin Cities came out. They were so generous with their support.”

The filmmakers raised about $26,000 to produce the documentary, which has been screened so far in San Francisco and New York City. “We always knew that as soon as we finished the film,” O’Rourke said, “we were going to bring it to Minnesota and have it here for the community.”

Sexual violence

At 3, Rivera escaped poverty and violence in Colombia with her mother, Maria, for a better life in the United States. As she came of age in New York City, she was mindful of her status as an undocumented immigrant.

But because she arrived here as a child, Rivera said she presumed that her experience would be better than that of her mother. “Once I got to high school, I started realizing that being undocumented was also going to impact my life,” said Rivera, adding that she was denied college and career opportunities because of her immigration status.

But in the film, she exemplifies the underreported sexual abuse among undocumented immigrant women in hopes of helping to start conversations about sexual violence in her community.

“It was important for me to get the story out there because we are not really talking about sexual assault in the immigrant community,” said Rivera, who is no stranger to the plight: Her mother’s now-convicted boyfriend abused her sexually — until she eventually sought help to end the 4-year abuse.  

Though sexual violence maybe a common threat for all women, Rivera noted that more women in her community fall prey to the abuse.

According to a 2014 report by the White House Council on Women and Girls, 1 in 5 women have been raped in their lifetime. And although all women are targeted, the report added, those in communities of color are more vulnerable to sexual abuse than others.

Article continues after advertisement

The study didn’t provide an actual estimate of abused undocumented immigrant women, though it stated unique predicaments they face in dealing with their abusers — a sentiment Rivera agreed.     

“It’s also very hard to report it because you’re afraid that you’ll be deported,” she explained. “It’s even difficult when our path to citizenship is tied with this abuse and with having to report it. It’s hard to come forward about an abuse … when you don’t have papers.”

Depending on the state they live in, undocumented immigrants are not authorized to drive, vote or, in some case, work. Likewise, among other things, they’re not entitled to financial aid or federal grants to attend college education.  

‘Don’t tell anyone’

For many years, Rivera avoided to talk to people in authority about her immigration status. Fearing forced repatriation, Maria often commanded River, “No le digas a nadie” or “Don’t tell anyone,” a common phrase among undocumented immigrants.       

Tired of concealing what was part of her identity, Rivera came out of the shadows at an immigration rally in New York five years ago. She said she wanted to free herself from a feeling of drowning into a sea of “shame and secrets” in her life.

And she did more than just coming out of the shadows.  

Today, Rivera is an advocate for young undocumented immigrants; she runs “Ask Angy,” a national advice column serving unauthorized youngsters with legal questions they fear to ask others. 

By documenting her life story, which will screen on Thursday evening, Rivera said she hopes to educate Minnesotans about the challenges that undocumented immigrants face in the state, which has an estimated population of 95,000 unauthorized foreign-born residents.

O’Rourke added: “I didn’t know tons about the story of immigrants before I started this project. But I learned so much through connecting with a personal story. This is not a statistic. This is part of the fabric of our country.”

Article continues after advertisement

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.