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Behind-the-Scenes with Erika Beras


Why did you choose Bartolo as the main subject/character of this story? What did he think of being the subject of a documentary?

I didn’t set out to tell Bartolo's particular story or even report a piece about an unaccompanied minor. Actually, I'd received a grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation to fund my reporting on wealth inequality in Pittsburgh and I was following a story about immigrant wage theft. Then I learned about Bartolo, and the more I reported, the more interesting his story became.

And on a very basic level too, I picked Bartolo because he let me! You can’t fully tell a story like this without access - and I had full access to him, the people in his life, records, etc.

However, Bartolo wasn’t initially down with all of this attention. The first few interviews were hard because he was so guarded… but he wasn’t outright opposed to my interviewing him so I kept coming around. I kept interviewing people around him. It took a while to get him to open up and that was mostly by logging hours by just hanging around and showing up when I said I would. The adults in his life trusted me so that helped.

When did this story begin to take shape, and how did it evolve? And did your time at the Third Coast Residency impact how you made the piece?

Before I attended the Third Coast Residency, I had done about half of the reporting for this story and planned to write it as a longform print piece, but I also thought it would be a good challenge to tell a story like this with audio. I think what helped the most was talking it through with fellow Residents and Residency mentor Nishat Kurwa. As it turned out, some parts of the story that I thought were fascinating, they weren’t wild about. And it made me realize what I needed to focus on - for example, they wanted me to explain why Bartolo wasn't just sent back at the border.

The home I found for the story was PRI's The World . And because of the show’s format it had to run in installments. But also, I had been essentially writing it as a three-act play. So breaking it up wasn’t so hard. The hard part was that the stories had to work separately and alone. I worked with an awesome editor on this – Jeb Sharp - she put in so many hours and she really got into the story as well. And we ended up with three stories: the story of his journey, his trials and tribulations and then assimilation. But also the stories of how this boy became a man. Became an American. And then became a boy again.

What were the biggest storytelling challenges you faced in making the piece?

It was tough to explain immigration policy... its confusing & convoluted. Explaining U.S. policy without listing a dozen government agencies and policies and slogging down the story was difficult. The other big challenge was that most of the drama happened before I entered the picture. So I had to tell the stories of Bartolo's border crossing, his work at the Chinese restaurant, the hospital, the orphanage, the courtroom… without having the sound or scenes.

How did you figure out how to tell these stories - the border crossing, the Chinese restaurant, etc. - without any scene tape?

In the end, I just let the people who witnessed these events tell the story. And I realized that if it had felt so dramatic and evocative for me during my interviews with them… it would be the same for a listener.

And writing! There was a lot of rewriting of those stories. I’ve done a lot of previous stories that rely on events that occurred in the past – and usually for those stories I can find archival tape of some kind. Sometimes its phone tape someone recorded or news footage and sometimes its recording off of reel to reel tape from the 50s or 60’s. In this case, this wasn’t an “event” so to speak. There were no recordings of any of this. That forced me to think more creatively about writing.

So how is Bartolo doing now? And will you do a follow-up?

He’s good! He’s essentially done with his medical treatment. He just finished his sophomore year of high school.

But with all the attention and pressure on immigration issues right now, it’s unclear what will happen next. Bartolo is still waiting for his Green Card, and I think the obvious follow-up is when he gets it. In two years, he should graduate from high school – that too would be an interesting turning point/story. And if he decides to go back to his hometown to see his family, I’d love to go along. He’s changed so much in the time he’s been in the U.S. I’ve been following his story for a year now, and I’m eager to see where it goes next.