PhD alumni profile: Researcher and filmmaker Sonia De La Cruz explores intersections and margins

Sonia De La Cruz
Sonia De La Cruz

Oregon’s home health care workers are in the midst of a revolution, and filmmaker Sonia De La Cruz, PhD '14, is helping to bring their struggles to light.

In the film “The Care Revolution: The Transformation of Home Health Care in Oregon,” the UO School of Journalism and Communication media studies Ph.D. alum documents the culture and changes within the home-care industry, including how union representation has strengthened the profession and improved the quality of care for those who need it. The film has resonated with many audiences as an educational tool, and its creation was supported by Oregon’s Service Employees International Union Local 503, which represents over 11,000 home caregivers in the state.

“The film was intended to be put in the hands of the workers themselves so that they can use it as a tool for advocacy and be able to mobilize around their different goals,” De La Cruz said. “They have been effective in doing so.”

De La Cruz’s drive to pursue documentary filmmaking grew out of her interest in the synergy between working with people in the field and understanding the influence of the media. Her work centers on communities at the margins, including people of color, women, immigrants and refugees.

As a Latina woman, she has been on a quest to bolster the narratives of the Latinx community by telling stories that don’t always feed into mainstream ideologies. Through her films, she has strived to frame the contributions of the Latinx community to battle negative stereotypes and show the diversity of experience that exists in the community.

As a doctoral student in the SOJC’s media studies program, she drew on her personal interests, past work as a labor organizer and academic pursuits to create the unique lens through which she now explores the communities she identifies with.

“I think that uncovering and making those stories more visible has always been something very personal,” De La Cruz said. “I feel directly affected by the ways in which certain portrayals or ideas of Latinos are out there in the world that don't necessarily speak to who I am.”

Under the mentorship of her SOJC advisor, Gabriela Martínez, De La Cruz learned how to navigate and think strategically about both aspects of her career as an academic and filmmaker. Without this support, she believes she would not have been as productive in both areas — and would not be where she is today.

“I felt that the [media studies doctoral] program was incredibly unique,” she said. “There is such a great wealth of knowledge.”

While making documentary films is De La Cruz’s main creative passion, it isn’t her full-time job. As a tenure-track assistant professor in the communication department at University of Washington Tacoma, she lives at the intersection of traditional research and creative work.

Her creative and professional journey began to take shape during her time as a graduate student at San Francisco State University, where she studied broadcast electronic and communication arts. For her thesis project, De La Cruz documented the working and living conditions of migrant farm workers in California’s Central Valley to see if there had been any improvements to the treatment of farm workers since the 1960 release of Edward R. Murrow’s T.V. documentary “Harvest of Shame.”

As she listened to the experiences of this farm-working community, which tends to be working-poor, immigrant and multilingual, she began to understand how telling stories through film has the power to engender change. She learned that elevating traditionally marginalized voices not only helps create awareness of experiences that are typically not discussed in mainstream media, but also allows people to feel like their experiences are validated.

“I always questioned why the media didn’t cover those stories,” she said. “Why aren't we hearing about the struggles of people who live in our communities? Why are their stories not being represented?”

Collaboration has been the key to telling these types of stories. Many of De La Cruz’s projects — from addressing migrant farm workers, women in academia, and refugees in Bangladesh to the video advocacy work she has done with local nonprofits and international NGOs — have been possible due to collaboration with like-minded people who share her desire to advance human rights and social change.

“I feel that each one of the films I have produced or have been a part of, to a certain degree, has served the purpose of advancing a particular dialogue or change,” she said.

Just don’t ask her to choose a favorite.

“It’s kind of like asking parents which is their favorite kid,” she said. “I love them all, but in different ways and for different reasons.”

De La Cruz’s advice to current SOJC students can be summed up in two words: build relationships. College students have the unique opportunity to connect with faculty, peers and people around campus who specialize in a wide range of disciplines. Cultivating good relationships has enriched her own development, both during her time at the SOJC and throughout her career.

As a teacher, she now has the opportunity to build relationships with students of her own.

“What I want students to take away and to feel during the time I spend with them in the classroom is a sense of belonging,” she said. “Building community and a good rapport with students fosters a classroom climate in which they can express themselves more freely.”

It’s a teaching philosophy based on her own experiences. A first-generation college student, De La Cruz has met people throughout her education who have created a space where she did not feel intimidated to speak up in the classroom. She wants to have that same impact on her students.

“This is my belief: If you feel like you belong, there is a lot of space to grow and learn,” she said, “because you feel you are part of a community.”

Kyra Hanson is a senior majoring in public relations within the SOJC. She is an account executive for Allen Hall Public Relations and vice president of the UO chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA). After graduating, she plans to pursue a career in strategic communication with a focus on the health sector. In her spare time, you can find her exploring with her pit bull Juni or frequenting coffee shops around town.