The Radical Act of Remembering

The Radical Act of Remembering

September 5, 2023 | Ellie Walton

A graphic image from the film, La Manplesa: An Uprising Remembered.

Block parties and porch culture raised me. My mom was part of a community of artists in Mount Pleasant—a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.—and our lives spilled into the street. I can still viscerally feel the memories in different parts of my body: wearing flip flops and running through alleys with friends on my heels, sticky mango dripping from my chin, the pulse of the electric slide and cumbia in my hips, and the heat of May 5, 1991, in the pit of my belly.  

I was nine years old, and I remember the gunshot. I remember walking the block up to Mount Pleasant Street, the gathering crowd, too many police, and the ambulance taking Daniel Gomez away. I remember the pain in my neighbors’ faces, a deep feeling that enough was enough. The next day, I remember the stomping boots of riot police, my eyes burning while running to the roof with my older brother, watching tear gas rise into the air, and our faces pushed into wet towels to calm the sting. Those three days in May marked the beginning of my understanding not only of the systemic oppression in the city I have called home my whole life, but of the power of people rising up to demand justice.

A few years ago, I took a walk back through Mount Pleasant, one of DC’s first barrios, which became home to thousands of Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s and is now filled with multimillion-dollar row houses and yoga studios. I waited in line for an $8 coffee where I used to get 50-cent donuts. While there, I tried to strike up a conversation with folks about the 1991 uprising after the police shooting of Gomez and was floored that no one had ever heard about it. Honestly, it made me mad. People walk these streets every day and don’t learn the history beneath their feet. With the 30th anniversary of the uprising approaching, and the urgency on the streets for police abolition or reform, it felt like this film needed to be made.

Through testimony, song, poetry, and street theatre, La Manplesa weaves together the collective memory of the ‘91 rebellion. As people across the world take to the streets to demand an end to police brutality, the film honors the largely untold stories that have come before us, and explores how artists prompt us to remember what we still have to fight for.

My process as a filmmaker is always deeply collaborative with those who lived the stories. So, I reached out to Quique Avilés, a legendary Salvadoran theater artist who was part of the rebellion. Our journey began making a film to honor a largely untold history about everyday revolutionaries who took to the streets to protest years of police brutality and discrimination against the Latino community. We sought to explore how artists prompt us to remember what we still have to fight for today.

This film matters because it brings together a lot of our lived experiences. As we took to the streets, we didn’t have a handle on the history that we were making, on the history we were repeating. Some of us will go to our grave without finishing that task of understanding how all these things fit together into the bigger history of the United States. This film is part of that journey of understanding. — Quique Avilés, producer

A screening of the film, La Manplesa: An Uprising Remembered.
The premiere of the film at Mount Pleasant Lamont Park Plaza.

Since the premiere, we have had more than 50 screenings across the country at festivals, universities, community centers, public libraries, and schools. We’ve partnered with communities to explore the intersections of art, activism, and racial justice; we’ve invited audience members to connect personally to the themes of immigration, community, and resistance. Artists, social workers, teachers, and former police officers have sat in on our question-and-answer panels. High school students asked the most powerful questions about the connection to their own history and the possibility of real change that’s just and equitable for all. We created spaces that facilitated necessary conversations, which prompted young people to talk to their parents for the first time about their immigration journeys from El Salvador; in turn, this inspired teachers to include the film in their curriculum.

Sharing this film has been an opportunity to confirm how important it is for people to see themselves, their stories and how that causes people to push through the silences that are created because of the trauma our history carries. – Sami Miranda, memory keeper

The film ends with Día de los Muertos, a holiday and yearly community event that brings former residents back to the neighborhood to gather in the plaza to dance, sing, share poetry, and honor those who have passed in an altar filled with flowers. We close the movie here to celebrate a final act of resistance and center the power of community, of this community, which still claims this neighborhood and this public space as home. We end here for the same reason that we screen the film in the plaza every year on May 5. Because when histories are hidden and erased, the most radical act might just be to gather publicly and remember.

Ellie Walton is a DC-based documentary filmmaker, committed to honoring stories of everyday revolutionaries with authenticity and dignity, through deep collaboration, visual artistry, and shared authorship. She is an ongoing collaborator with DC-based production companies Meridian Hill Pictures and Unchained Stories. Her award-winning feature films include Walk With Me (2012), Fly by Light (2014), Brave Girls (2018), and La Manplesa: An Uprising Remembered (2022), which is the winner of the 2023 Media for a Just Society Award in film. La Manplesa will be shown on September 28, 2023, on America ReFramed on WORLD Channel/PBS. Visit the WORLD website for more information.