A Filmmaker Exploring Identity
Walking around campus, it’s easy to spot Helena Burgueño ’19. She is, after all, almost always impeccably dressed. When I asked her friend Rojas Olivia ’19 to describe Burgueño he said, “Majestic, in all ways.” And indeed she is.
During our interview, Burgeuño recounted a time when a drunk woman in a bathroom told her she was “power clashing.”
“This woman probably has no memory of telling me I was power clashing, but I feel like she gave me this great gift with this term,” Burgueño said. “I don’t think of myself as following fashion as an industry, but clothing has become something that I really love as just another way of bringing some sort of color to my world.”
The day we talked in Frost Cafe, she was wearing a maroon skirt and a yellow corduroy shirt sealed at the base of her neck with a chicken brooch.
I met Burgueño for the first time during my first year at Amherst when I joined the Amherst Symphony Orchestra. Burgueño has been playing the French horn since she was in fourth grade and has played an active role in the music community at Amherst throughout her time here.
“I don’t think anyone expected me to play [the horn] for more than a week and now I’ve been playing it for 12 years, which is crazy,” she said. Burgueño’s dedication, whether it’s to her instrument, her academics, her friends or her community, shines through whenever you talk to her.
Exploring Music Burgueño grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, just an hour and a half away from Amherst. While she knew that she wanted to go to college, she said that she was nervous to actually begin the college process.
“My mom is this person who plans years in advance for things, so she was playing it cool, but I think it was stressing her out,” Burgueño said. “I didn’t go on any college tours, and then I remember one day, we were driving through western Massachusetts, I’m not sure why, but she sort of just ambushed me with an Amherst tour and was like ‘Oh look, this school is touring right now, we should stop by.’”
After touring Amherst, Burgueño knew that she wanted to apply and sent in her early decision application. She was deferred and sent out applications to some other schools. It wasn’t until after she was accepted to Amherst in the spring that she found out why she was deferred.
“When I got here for Admitted Students’ Weekend, I was informed that the reason I had gotten deferred was because my high school never sent my transcript, so they just didn’t have my grades,” Burgueño said. “I’m really glad that I was able to come here because if I wasn’t here, I would be at this engineering school on the border of Canada and I don’t think that would have been as good of a fit for me.”
Once Burgueño arrived at Amherst in the fall of 2015, she began to get involved with a variety of extracurricular activities.
“When I got here, I felt like I had to recreate what I was doing in high school and be the same person, so I started working in the theater, I did badminton club, I did orchestra,” Burgueño said. “I did rugby my sophomore year, which was so much fun, but I found that I was doing all these extracurriculars, but I was really only invested in some of them.”
“It was hard for me to allow myself to quit or stop doing them because in high school we were living in this four-year increment and in college you’re also living in this four-year increment,” she continued. “In high school I was like, ‘I’ll see it to the end of high school,’ but here, going into my junior year, I decided to leave a lot of things behind. So, I focused on orchestra, and giving myself that time was really helpful.”
Although she’s not a major, Burgueño has deeply ingrained herself in the music and arts community at Amherst.
As we talked about the music community’s eclectic people, she emphasized the way music brings together people from a variety of backgrounds and areas of campus.
“One of the things about Amherst that I think is so amazing is when you see someone that you have pegged in your mind as being in a certain group, whether it’s ‘This person is an athlete’ [or] ‘This person is in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics],’ and then you see them in a different context,” Burgueño said. “You see them in a student recital being amazing at the piano or you see them singing in an a capella group — you add nuance to your definition of people. The music department is a place where I see that happen a lot because there are so many people involved in things besides music.”
Filming Her Life While Burgueño will be graduating as a film and media studies (FAMS) major with a Five-College Certificate in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino studies, she’s made use of Amherst’s open curriculum, especially during her first year. “I think I took eight different classes in eight different department and I love that,” she said.
Although she dabbled in a variety of departments, Burgueño knew that she was interested in film production.
“I came into Amherst thinking I might want to do FAMS because I really love working with my hands and making things, but I have very little talent as a studio artist, so the idea that I could study film production and be making things in that way was really exciting for me.”
With her desired focus clear, Burgueño began taking production classes. Her first one was with Adam Levine, a professor in both the art and the history of art and FAMS departments, who ended up advising her thesis this year.
“Going into that class from the very first stupid project that I shot, which was somebody slipping out of a shower — it was 30 seconds long, we didn’t even have to edit it, but he treated that stupid film as though I was a filmmaker and as though it was my art and engaged with it critically,” she said. “That was really important to me as somebody who wouldn’t have conceptualized myself as a filmmaker.”
Burgueño says it is these film production experiences that have helped her shape her identity both within and outside of Amherst.
“Some of those classes have been super informative, and it sounds very dramatic, but have actually changed my life in a lot of ways,” Burgueño said. “I think it’s because I started thinking about myself as a person very differently and engaging with my various identities differently since coming to Amherst. Film production has been something that’s become very intertwined with that, and I use a lot of my film projects to think through these questions of identity.”
Her interest in these questions culminated in her thesis, a short documentary that explores her identity as a Mexican-American woman and her relationship with her father. When she began the project, however, she had different ideas in mind.
“I started building towards this thesis and originally was going to do a project focusing on conversations about masculinity and expectations of masculinity in Mexican culture, specifically machismo, through the lens of my dad, who I really view as not conforming to a lot of the views of Mexican masculinity, and his friend who worked in Mexico City as a drag queen. It was mostly going to be like drag queens, Mexico City, masculinity.”
She travelled to Mexico City over the summer to film, but as she went through the process, she realized that the focus of her thesis was shifting more towards her father.
“Fortunately, my advisors saw that and said, ‘This project wants to be something else. You should let it be something else.’ It became this really long and confusing process,” Burgueño said. “Even now when I watch it, I have these very mixed emotions about it. My dad and I have always been really close, but it’s given us a new language for engaging with each other and it’s been really transformative.”
Levine commended Burgueño and her thesis for exemplifying the way that being a “creative maker and critical thinker” can go hand in hand.
“[Making and thinking] kind of integrate and merge and become one practice,” Levine said. “Helena has really achieved that with this film. It’s a film where the form of the film is the form of someone thinking. Rather than there be a story that drives the film, the film behaves as thoughts behave, making connections, working through things. That seems significant to me and it’s the kind of thing we’re hoping our students do.”
Burgueño explained that she found it helpful to view the thesis not as a final project, but rather as a process that has the fluidity to change as it goes along.
“There’s this idea of a thesis being something that’s supposed to be really polished and final, as though it’s your last thing, the culmination of your entire academic experience,” she said. “For me, it took a real shifting in my thinking about it as a thesis project, and something that was handed in, to thinking of it more as a thesis process … Once I started shifting my mind in that direction, it was really helpful.”
Burgueño, pictured here with her dog Buster, created a short documentary for her senior thesis that explores identity and her relationship with her father. Photo courtesy of Helena Burgueño ’19.
Olivia had the chance to see Burgueño’s thesis before it was complete.
“Her thesis is just one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time. She invited me to a rough early cut of it and I sent her this ridiculously long email about all the different things it made me feel. That was a moment when I realized that underneath our friendship, we each had a lot in common in terms of life experiences and where we come from in the world.”
In the City of Angels On Commencement Day, Burgueño will give the student speech after being chosen by her peers in the class of 2019. Her speech will focus on both the good and the bad at Amherst. Burgueño acknowledged that while her time at Amherst has shaped her, it has also caused lots of stress. “One of the things I’m interested in discussing in that is that just because we’re graduating here doesn’t mean you have to pretend that this whole experience has been wonderful or this ray of sunshine and rainbows,” she said. “The sunshine and rainbows parts and the horrible parts, both of those together, make it significant. I can’t imagine being here without being challenged in that way.”
After graduation (and her speech), Burgueño will head to Paris for three weeks as part of a Hampshire study abroad program focused on Super 8 filmmaking. She’ll spend the rest of her summer in Madrid, working as a nanny before heading back to Connecticut to begin on a road trip across the country. Her final destination? Los Angeles, where she will pursue work in the film industry.
“I will hopefully try to get more experience working on sets as a production assistant, which is a total grunt job,” Burgueño said. “You just get people coffee and sweep and things like that, but I also learn so much more watching people and being on sets. I also really want to work as a diner waitress because that’s been my life-long dream and I’m going to need a steady paycheck. Might as well kill two birds with one stone.”
Several years down the line, Burgueño hopes to find success in her life, especially in increasing representation in media, but still live it in the grounded, dedicated and kind way she always has.
“When I think about the type of life I want to be living in the future, I think something that I’ve realized since coming to Amherst is that I have no aspirations for fame,” Burgueño said. “I want to be able to do my grocery shopping by myself in the future, but whatever community that I’m inhabiting, I want to be known as being good at what I do, dependable and just a kind person … I don’t mind having a quiet existence, but I just want to be present in whatever small bubble that I find.”