Engaging With The Future

Natalie Robles (Trinity ’14) shares her ongoing journey of curricular studies, civic engagement and personal priorities.

East Campus, 2010
East Campus, 2010

It’s one year after my graduation, and the rush I got when I told people I went to Duke has begun to lose its luster. This is not to say that my four years at Duke weren’t spectacular – because they certainly were – but my time at Duke involved many distinct shifts, and I’m not the same bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Natalie who first stepped onto East Campus in the summer of 2010. I remember being in awe. I remember being excited to tell people I went to Duke, mainly because I was just as intimidated by Duke as they were. I was in awe, yes, but I was also insecure and frightened.

The sole reason I came to Duke was because I loved the arts. As a classically trained clarinet player, I wanted to find out how I could benefit from Duke’s music program – and how it could benefit from me. I admired the pre-med and engineering students who were also first-chair musicians in Duke ensembles. They were committed to playing their instruments, and they did it for the love of music, not to achieve a robotic, perfectionist execution of music. But I wanted to make music my major, not just an extracurricular.

The major required the completion of three core music theory courses, which eventually consumed my life. Dr. Anthony Kelley, my professor and personal hero, pushed me to take classical music as seriously as my roommate took her chemistry problem sets. My classmates and I worked an average of six to eight hours every night on chord progressions and music compositions. It was do-or-die in the classroom, and it ignited a ravenous fire within us all. The work ethic we came to Duke with never faltered, but it evened itself out in ways that made us feel assured of our passions and dreams.

It was a small step towards finding our home at Duke. A place where we felt safe enough and confident enough to begin shaping our own future.

It was in that newfound comfort zone that I experienced a drastic shift – one that I’m grateful for to this day – and I transitioned from one art to another almost overnight.

It all happened when I went to Medellín, Colombia, as part of a DukeEngage service group. Before I decided to apply to the program, Townsend Middleton, the fantastic anthropology professor who taught my freshman writing 101 class, gave my class an assignment to write ethnographies on social groups at Duke. I’m half-Colombian, so I decided to write on the Latino community at Duke and how acculturation manifested itself amongst first-generation students versus non first-generation students.

It was an emotional roller coaster to write about a community with which I was not very comfortable. I was not a fluent speaker, which had a lot to do with the fact that my Colombian father and I were estranged from one another. While I conducted research and attended events, I felt ostracized. Latinos and Latinas would openly ask, “If you don’t speak Spanish, are you even Latino?” I struggled with this question, since the very acculturation my Colombian family faced was to do the exact opposite: make sure your children speak English in an English-speaking country.

The ethnography distanced me from my Colombian heritage further, and I didn’t like it. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I applied to the two-month DukeEngage program in Medellín, Colombia, dedicated to allowing local citizens to share their stories. And I was accepted.

For several decades, Medellín was the largest drug capital in the world, and while the drug violence and murders weren’t completely eradicated from the city when I applied to the DukeEngage program, los paisanos of Medellín had built massive apartment buildings for displaced families to get back on their feet. Our DukeEngage group supported the social workers from Medellín Solidaria who took us into these families’ homes to hear and film their stories.

Medellín, 2011

Essentially, our films were part of a “peace project” designed to represent Medellín as a changed, safer community with a bright future. Inside the families’ homes, as I filmed their timid conversations on a small Flipcam, I was keenly aware of the “other-ing” relationship I was creating by putting a camera in between me and the interviewee. Their stories were fascinating, and, although I was uncomfortable, I was a respectful, meticulous videographer. Filming these vulnerable stories intrigued me, and I wanted to see where else I could take it. I could feel a spark igniting in me.

I left Medellín feeling incredibly connected to a culture I’d felt distant from for so long. I had become comfortable with my host family and established relationships with the Colombian locals. I even got to see a distant cousin for dinner on Colombian Independence Day. I knew I wanted to return again some day to Medellín, and maybe live there permanently for a year, but something else was taking priority in my mind and heart: I wanted to delve into documentary filmmaking immediately upon my return to the United States.

I went to New York and completed the Duke Arts and Media Program. I decided to apply for a documentary production internship instead of the music internships I’d sought out originally. From then on, there was no stopping me. While music was and still is an incredibly important facet of my life, filmmaking was an extension of my creativity that I wanted take seriously.

I came back to Duke, switched my major to Cultural Anthropology and enrolled in the Documentary Studies certificate program. Although I continued to minor in Music, my passion for filmmaking flourished. I was taught by one of NPR’s finest, John Biewen, and whilst in his intro audio documentary class, Ira Glass came and critiqued all of our work. I collaborated with the Music Maker Foundation in Chris Sims’ multimedia documentary class, in which we interviewed and filmed older African-American blues musicians about their craft. Ironing Board Sam was our subject, and he once played his unique keyboard, or “ironing board,” with a young Jimi Hendrix. Alex Harris, a renowned photographer, helped me hone in on my ideas on gentrification and economic revitalization when I made a documentary about Mother Earth Brewery in Kinston, NC, my very own hometown.

I was shaped by those at the Center for Documentary Studies not because they taught me what to do, but because they believed I could create great works of art whether their guidance was there or not. They believed in me, and that made me believe in me.

Now I produce, edit, and direct documentary films because I want to and because I need to. I need to, because my voice is not as loud or respected in the filmmaking world not only as a woman, but also a biracial woman. Diane Nelson, an astounding cultural anthropology professor and U.S.-Latino relations connoisseur, reminded me that there are not a lot of Latinos nor a lot of women in powerful positions in this world, and if there are, their voices are compromised a majority of the time.

Remember when you were a kid and you looked up to people because you saw the potential to be just like them when you grew up? For a while, I lost that. I lost sight of that because I was consumed with comparing myself to others. When I witnessed the great humility of my professors at the Center for Documentary Studies and within the Cultural Anthropology department, I realized that achieving my goals didn’t mean reaching some ideal comparative status. It meant serving others – be they your film subjects, your peers, or your students. An engagement with others guarantees a healthy engagement with oneself.

Smith Warehouse film shoot, 2015
Smith Warehouse film shoot, 2015

I’m working as a multimedia intern for the Duke Office of Civic Engagement, and I’m seeing the inner workings of the Duke bureaucracy in a new and fascinating light. Duke is full of engaged and passionate students, and I’m taken aback at how this university maintains itself and organizes these students. I continue to remain just as invested in my Durham community, happily and assuredly, and I’m proud to say I have Duke to thank for that.

I film events at Duke on a regular basis, and I see students clamoring into auditoriums for social entrepreneurship lectures to find out how they can make their big break. I zoom in and set the focus on the lecture speaker: the founder of PayPal, an esteemed venture capitalist or a renowned scholar. I send a nod of acknowledgement to the faculty who taught me as I click the record button on my camera. I hear the speakers’ stories, as I sit, thoughtfully shaping my own.