Diversity & Radical Inclusion: Alba Roland Mejia on Race, Film, and Dust

This is the eighth entry in a long-form series designed to spark conversation about diversity, Radical Inclusion, and differences in the global Burning Man community.

Alba Roland Mejia is an Oakland-based filmmaker. She visited Black Rock City for the first time in 2022 and shot a short film, I Can Do Anything — A Letter to the Burning Man Community from a Black Man, on Super 8mm film. 

Transcript edited for clarity.

Dominique: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like? Who are you, where do you come from? What’s your family background? 

Alba: I was born and raised in Salinas, California. That’s in the Central Coast, right next to Monterey. I was born to an immigrant Guatemalan mother and a Black American father. I grew up in a mixed household and it was a little unique because growing up in East Salinas you kind of grow up in the Mexican culture, which I love and adore. It was kind of mixed all over the place. I got Guatemala in me, Mexican, Black of course, and first generation United States American in me. So it was somewhat of a unique upbringing. It was interesting ‘cause I was kind of exploring this territory, this earth, this world alongside my mother because it was a new world to her as well.

Would you say that being born and raised on the West Coast is a part of your identity? And if so, what makes growing up on the West Coast unique, or what about it has been unique for you? 

I would say growing up on the West Coast has a lot to do with my identity. My father was from the East Coast, from Pennsylvania. When I go over there and visit my family, it’s funny, something that they say is, “You reek of the West Coast!” And I’m like, “What does that mean?” I didn’t understand at first. But yeah, I think growing up on the West Coast, you’re somewhat more free-spirited. Diversity is normal here. I’m used to seeing different cultures and backgrounds, and spending my time with different age groups. With that brings a wider understanding and acceptance. So in that sense, you feel a bit freer to be yourself and to dive deeper into who you are as a person. I think also with the amount of space that we have, our day-to-day growing up can be a lot different than people from the East Coast. Out here we travel a lot. We’re doing road trips, we’re camping, we’re playing with the materials that we have around us and creating art. I would say we have a more outdoorsy, earth-centered mindset. 

As a Person of Color and also as a person from the West Coast, how did that all play into you becoming the artist and filmmaker you are now? What was your spiritual or emotional path? 

My filmmaking is therapeutic for me. What I’m trying to do is to dive deep into myself and dive deep into the loved ones around me. I want my films to reflect, of course, me and the people that I love. So my filmmaking is focused on the African diaspora and a lot of it — honestly thank you for bringing up the West Coast — does have to do with growing up on the West Coast and being around so many different cultures. I didn’t grow up in a Black neighborhood. Like I said earlier, I grew up in a Mexican neighborhood and that has such a huge impact on me. So yeah, I really want to focus on my identity and growing up, and what that effect has had on me — not necessarily fitting in fully to my Black side and not necessarily fully fitting into my Latina side and not having either of those two worlds fully accepting me, having to pave my own path and find my identity within myself as opposed to relating to others.

One of my films, Blackness Is Everything, explores that a little bit in showing how diverse we are as a people and how the stereotypical Black identity portrayed in the media is not all we are. That’s a small fraction. We come from vast backgrounds. We come from all over the world in different cultures and we eat different foods and speak different languages. That’s something that’s super important to me to show in my work because it was a struggle growing up and not fully being accepted into any one culture. I want to make something I wish I had seen when I was younger, something that helps me feel more comfortable in my own skin and helps me feel seen and accepted. So I want to create films that show Black people doing “non-Black shit.” And I say that in quotes, please put that in quotes, ‘cause there’s no such thing as “non-Black shit.”

How would you verbalize what Alba’s identity is? 

Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Cause honestly, I’m 31 years old right now and I have just recently come to that answer. It’s taken me a long while to get there because of this push and pull from different cultures and different sides and feelings, wanting to feel accepted and never quite finding that. So I identify as an Afro-Latina queer woman but I went through a journey to get to that point. I didn’t know if I was just fully Latina. I didn’t know Afro-Latina was a thing until I got older. And then I started diving into my Black half because I didn’t grow up in a Black community. So by the time I got to college, I was introduced to more people, more cultures, and I was able to find that and find how proud I am of that and how beautiful that is and how much I love being a part of that community, whether some people accept it or not. It’s kind of a little dance in between the two and then creating a new unique dance that includes both of them. But it really wasn’t until within the past two years that I’ve proudly stated I am a queer Afro-Latina.

I’m curious to know when film became important to you. How old were you? What was the context? How did that happen? 

Oh gosh. Okay. So there’s different layers to this. Film was first introduced into my life, I would say when I was one or two years old. I saw my dad with his really big VHS camcorder that was the size of a car, and he would hold it on his shoulder and get all of our home videos and record all of our biggest family moments. That’s something me and my dad had shared that was a bonding tool for us. We would go to the movies often. And coming from a small town, it’s kind of what you do is you go to the movies. My brother minored in film in college. He went to UC Davis, and my brothers and I would all act in his little films and we would joke around. It was a little family bonding experience. Eventually, I got into college myself. I was like, “Oh, I can actually make a living out of this.” Coming from a small town of East Salinas in particular we’re kind of bred and molded to get into the world of agriculture or the world of small business ownership — which is dope, too. But filmmaking, media, cinema, entertainment in general is just nothing that’s realistically on our radar. So it was really seeing my father with a camera and my oldest brother doing it as a major. It was seeing that it’s something we can create, not just something we consume. 

I know 2022 was your first year in Black Rock City, but how had you heard of it before? What is the story of how Burning Man came into your life, and how did you end up out there? 

I’ve always kind of known about Burning Man growing up on the West Coast. Something funny that we say is that the freaks come out at night in Santa Cruz. If you’ve been to Santa Cruz, California, on a weekend you know what I’m talking about. People I knew in Santa Cruz were talking about Burning Man, so it was something that always hovered in my life. But it was always something like, “Oh, Black people don’t go to that so I’m not going to go to that. How can I afford to go? That’s not something realistically that I can do.” The people I thought went were typically white, typically male, typically either they were a doctor and could afford to go, or they were a full-time roadie and they’re going to get there one way or another. But they didn’t look like me. They didn’t live like me, and I didn’t know if I could fit that mold or if I needed to fit that mold to get the acceptance to go to a place like Burning Man. It stopped me from trying and it stopped me from looking further.

Then when I moved to the Bay Area, I ran into this Black woman, this queen, and she had this really cool house in West Oakland. She was mentioning something about how one of the creatives of Burning Man used to live there and how she goes. 

And I was just like, “Wait, what do you mean you go to Burning Man? Tell me about that. How does it feel to go to Burning Man as a Black woman?” She was like, “Oh yeah, there’s a lot of us actually, there’s this group called the Black Burner Project.” I’m like, “Wait, what? Please show me.” So she showed me their Instagram page while we were talking, and that’s when I learned about Erin Douglas and everything that she’s doing with the Black Burner Project and learned that there’s been Black Burners going since far before that, and this is just naturally a part of the culture as well. I was blown away. I didn’t know that was a thing for us. I didn’t know it was something we do, something that we talk about. 

I think that was in 2019, I contacted Erin and said, “Hey, what you’re doing is really inspiring. If you ever want somebody to document your process, please let me know.” Burning Man 2020 didn’t happen but we stayed friends on social media and eventually she reached back out once we found out Burning Man 2022 was going to happen. Erin reached back out, she said, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing a build and I would love for you to document it.” That’s what kind of put the fire under my ass, like, this is something for the past few years I’ve been considering going to, but okay, now it’s going to happen. And then I was introduced to the process of getting to Burning Man, which is a whole other story. But yeah, it was really the introduction of the Black Burner Project and everything Erin was doing that got me truly inspired and really wanting to go. 

How did burning in general compare to what you thought it would be like? Was it easier? Was it harder? 

People I was going with said it was going to be hot, it’s going to be dusty, don’t even try to get clean because it’s not going to happen. They gave me a lot of really good tips. So luckily by the time I was ready to go out there, I kind of knew the things I needed. I didn’t have a trailer. I did the best I could. So when I got out there I was pretty much camping on the outer [part of the city]. I was pretty far out and I was there alone. But luckily I knew some of the people who were camping nearby. I had two 10′ x 10′ pop-ups and I kind of just joined them together to make one 20′ x 10′. I had my car tucked underneath there and I would just sleep in my car, which was super hot. I don’t think I would recommend that. I had a table and a changing tent in there as well, so I could change and shower. I just showered with a water bottle every other day and would immediately get dirty again. I had my little coffee set up and I had my little camper stove and was able to cook for myself every day. I was able to grab dinner with homies every other night, but I had a decent little setup. 

It was way hotter than I expected. I can handle heat for two, three days, but a whole week — that tore me up. I remember getting caught in multiple [dust] tornadoes. There was one day in particular I was hiding in my tent thinking, “Okay, this is only going to last about 45 minutes.” It was seven hours. I was hiding in my tent for seven hours waiting for this dust storm to pass, and it just wouldn’t pass. 

Another thing that I didn’t expect that was horrible was riding my bike from that far out to get to the playa, and the road was so bumpy that my bike seat, I’m just going to be honest, it was digging up my ass. When they tell you fat tires, fat seat, big bike, do whatever you can and get that.

Your beautiful short film “I Can Do Anything — A Letter to the Burning Man Community from a Black Man” brings together a few things. It brings together the experience of People of Color on playa. It brings together great visuals of the experience of Burning Man. It’s a thoughtful narration from Black Rock Smitty. Tell me about the experience of shooting this piece out there, and also what it means to you. 

By the time I got out there, I really just wanted to shoot and I wanted to show my experience and the true experience of the people that I was around. Luckily, I was camping by these really dope Black Burners and I just got lucky. Through everything I was saying before, the dust storms and the heat, people were really enjoying themselves and they were at peace. It was pretty easy to capture the folks I did. I wanted to show the genuine, personal experiences people were having, and in particular the experiences Black Burners were having. 

Smitty does such a great job with this letter. I was introduced to him early on before I even got to Burning Man. I got a chance to read his letter and it spoke to me — I loved how raw it was and how real he is inside and outside. He’s such a cool dude and was very accepting and welcoming of me. I just thought his vibe, his voice, his personality was the perfect match to layer on top of the visuals. I really wanted to not only show Black Burners and their experience at Burning Man, but show where they come from and why Burning Man is so important to them. It was an honor to be able to shoot Smitty outside of his home in the Bronx. That’s where he is from. That’s his love, that’s his heart. It was great to be able to connect with him in both of his homes.

In my six years of working at Burning Man, we have had hundreds of media projects come through. Lots of people say they’re going to come out, and they get out there and the cameras don’t work. The story doesn’t play out the way they imagined it. They can’t get their interviews together. So delivering a finished product from Black Rock City is a really tough task, and you put together something really beautiful. What was the most challenging part of filming out there? 

I would say keeping my camera safe. Not only is there dust in the air all the time, but it’s also hot. And yeah, I’m shooting analog. I’m shooting on film. I actually shot this on super eight millimeter film. So every morning I had to go and get ice to keep my film cool. Otherwise it would melt. In the final piece, you can still see how hot it was out there and how the yellows, the oranges, and the browns really come out and that’s just heat damage on the film itself. The weight of the gear on your shoulder in the heat, when you’re trying to be as minimal as possible, that’s tough.

So just maintaining gear out there is hard, but that doesn’t even go into the actual shooting or trying to find anybody out on the playa. That’s a mission in itself. Smitty, for instance. I wasn’t able to find him. I really wanted to get some shots of him out there and I just wasn’t able to. Luckily we got enough beautiful footage to be able to pull something together, but you know, you just have to accept that if you go out there with a plan, it may not happen the way you want it to. You may not get the shots that you envision and you kind of just have to go with the flow and be fluid. You have to accept that when you’re shooting something that is based off of the human experience, it’s going to look like the human experience, which is all over the place. 

How did you keep your focus?

I’m not going to lie — I wanted to quit every day. I don’t know though, I have a natural addiction to filmmaking. It’s my fuel and I knew that I would be so heartbroken if I wasn’t able to finish my mission, which was to share what I was seeing about people who look like me and who grew up like me. I think my mission was bigger than the experience I personally wanted to have.

So with one Burn under your belt, what would you say Burning Man has to offer the world? Why is Burning Man relevant? What can people take from it?

I think people are going to be able to find whatever it is that they’re seeking there. When I got home, people would ask me, “What is it? What’s so special about this thing?” My answer is that you’ll find what you seek. That’s the best way I can put it. But in particular with my project and with me and with my journey or with my mission, I really want to show individuals back home who are Black, who are mixed, who don’t truly feel like they fit in or that they belong, that we have access to anything. We can do anything, and it sounds super hokey and cheesy, but with determination we are capable of doing whatever — dressing, thinking, loving, feeling, whatever the fuck we want. Burning Man was my outlet to be able to share that message in this way. 

Cover image of Alba in Black Rock City, 2022 (Photo by Mauro Martignoni)

About the author: Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley

Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley

Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley is Burning Man Project’s Associate Director of Communications. Dom manages press/media relations, external communications strategies, and social media, to name a few things. On playa, he helps run Media Mecca with a team of amazing volunteers. Burning since 2013, Dom’s playa name seems to change every year. Prior to joining the Burning Man staff, Dom spent almost six years on the breaking news desk at CNN in New York.

2 Comments on “Diversity & Radical Inclusion: Alba Roland Mejia on Race, Film, and Dust

  • Delmer Buddy Totten says:

    Totally blown away. I love the super 8! Just to keep that film from melting away is a huge undertaking let alone all the other stuff that can go wacky with analog film in that kind of environment. Such a great piece. I’m so glad Alba came out and made this! See y’all this year!

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  • Geomom says:

    Hi Alba,

    I bow to your audacity to shoot 8 mm out there! 2022 was a notch above the norm on the dust/heat side. Great work with the footage and the absence of footage that you sought. Larry’s offhand remark: “I guess they don’t like camping.” was more reflective of the white community than we cared to admit. We have BIPOC friends! We are inclusive! But true/radical inclusion doesn’t mean subverting one’s own identity to conform to the largely white Burner identity, which has its own tribal brittleness, strictures and narrowness of vision. Well done.

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