Roberto discusses the fight against human trafficking, life growing up in New York City, and the need for increased activism.
My name is Roberto Monticello. I was born in Cuba on June 7, 1964. My father was Italian, and my mother was from Spain. My father's family fought against Mussolini and went to Cuba. My mother's family fought against Franco. Since I've come from a family of activists, I've always been an activist. All my life. I fight for different causes.
What specific areas of activism do you concentrate on?
Well, right now I'm doing a project about pro-immigration. I'm filming immigrants that are being deported even if they have no criminal record and have been good citizens. We are also hiding them from immigration. I'm also doing my third documentary about the human trafficking of children in the Tri-state area. We also rescue these children.
How do you handle all of these projects at once?
I would like for other people to take leadership with some of these things, but I end up being the leader, not by choice. I would much rather other people do it. Everyone comes to me saying "We need to do this or that," but what they mean is that I should do something about this. So I end up on the front line. For example, I would like to stop the development in the Meatpacking District and try to declare the area an arts district and keep it a landmark. There were ten people that came to me with this, and I ended up being the one in front. That is why all over the internet they call me the "Mayor of the Meatpacking District." I would much rather others take leadership, but if nobody does, I do. Everybody complains, but very few do. I do. That's what my life is about.
Have you started seeing changes so far in the Meatpacking District?
Yes. We currently have a petition going around about turning the area into an arts district. Of course, I make a lot of enemies because I'm preventing a lot of real estate people from making millions. I've even been threatened by one specific company. I could be killed for doing this.
So you're basically fighting gentrification by doing this.
I'm fighting big buildings and glass towers coming into the area. The only area that can be an arts district would be the Meatpacking District because it's the only area which is commercial only, meaning no one can live here. Chelsea's not going to work out because they're going to be building glass towers for rich people to live in. It has to be Meatpacking. This is only the beginning to try and reclaim New York and to reclaim the character of New York. We're not fighting the Meatpacking District. We're fighting for the soul of New York.
How did you get into the specific topic of sex trafficking?
I did a film about sex trafficking of Eastern Europe women being sent to Western Europe to be sold. After that, I did another one in Tanzania about the trafficking of orphans after the war. These two guys Richard and Phillip saw both of the films, and they contacted me to talk about the problem of child sex trafficking in the Tri-state area, meaning New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. When they told me that, I thought that they were only talking about a couple of dozen children, but it's actually in the hundreds. I didn't know that it was an organized crime where people bring them here and sell them to pedophiles and pimps and also kill them for their organs. There's a big market for children's organs in the United States. There are 14,000 children in the United States waiting for transplants. Children don't die, and the few that die do not donate their organs.
So are these children coming from mostly Europe?
They are coming mostly from Asia and Central America. Those are the main two groups, but they are coming from everywhere. Some of them are stolen in the United States. For example, they might be stolen from Oregon and sent to Miami, or they might be stolen from Arizona and brought to New York and so on. It's very organized crime, and they make a lot of money. People that used to be drug dealers and steal cars are now doing human trafficking. It's very big money, but it's also very hard to prove. Traffickers are able to get these adoption papers to buy them. So when we rescue these children from these people, we are the kidnappers! Of course, the FBI knows, and they are giving us some support to prevent us from being arrested all the time. They also send police officers whenever we go rescue so that we don't get shot on the spot.
Can you tell us about one incident when you conducted a rescue?
Yea, we went to a place called Camden, New Jersey. I went with five guys. I walked in first after we made a connection. They put a gun to my head and asked me for my name.
What were you feeling? What was that experience like?
Well, it's happened before. Not in this specific kind of situation, but in other things that have happened in my life. I'm kind of used to it. I figure that I'm lucky to be alive today because of the kind of work that I've been doing for many, many years. So whatever happens, happens. I don't want to change. If I change, then I really die. This is what I do, and this is what I'll be doing for forever.
What are your thoughts on immigrants who come to America illegally versus legally?
If they've been here for a while and they do the right things, don't get in trouble with the police, and they don't have a criminal record, then I think they should have an opportunity to become citizens. Maybe they'll have to pay a little money or wait longer, but there should definitely be a path to citizenship. You have to remember that the only ones who have a right to America were the Native Americans. This land that we are on right now was stolen from them by force so no one can tell me, "Oh! I'm an American, and I don't want anyone else to come in," because the Native Americans are the only ones who can say that.
What was your journey to the United States like?
I came to Cuba when I was seven years old. My parents were performers who traveled all over the United States. My father was in the circus - a trapeze flyer. They called him "The Flying Monticello." My mother was a Flamenco dancer. They were here all the time in New York. Even when New York was not so rich, I felt like I was a New Yorker. I saw the city and immediately felt like this was home. My uncle had a place in the Meatpacking District. It was a two bedroom apartment, and he asked me if I wanted to stay here for a while, and I said yes. At the time, I wasn't going to regular school. I was always tutored. That was when I was seven and a half.
I grew up here through my teen years. The Meatpacking District was one of the worst parts of the city. They would find bodies, and there were knife fights. Everything was going on. There were S&M clubs. When you're a teenager, you think that's all great. We would hear that they found a body here or there and we would ride our bikes to go see. We were 14 or 15! Then time went by, and the Meatpacking was still my home. By 16, I moved to Soho. I came back and never left.
How did you get into filmmaking even though you didn't go to school?
I was doing plays. I was in a company, and even though I was young, I quickly became a director because everybody wanted to act. I wanted to tell the whole story. I wanted to direct. I started writing out scenarios and then started doing plays. One day in Spain, I got hired to be the second A.D. in a film, which is the one who deals with all of the actors because I had good communication with them. I was there, and the director of the film had a nervous breakdown, and he actually walked into the desert. I guess he just couldn't handle the pressure.
Wait, he just walked into the desert?!
He walked right into the desert followed by the assistant in a jeep. He walked into the desert and then the producers came to me and said, "Roberto, you know how to do this." Of course, when you're twenty you say, "Yes, of course, I know how to do everything." I knew nothing. I went to the D.P., which was the director of photography, and I asked him to help me. He was an older fellow who took pity on me and after the film was made it received a few honorable mentions at some film festivals. That's how I got the start to my career.
That gives such a great message for those who are intimidated because they don't have the degree. People oftentimes wait until "they're ready."
No, go for it! Go for whatever you want to do. Whatever you do, some people are going to hate it, and some people are going to love it. You might as well do it, but that's how it happened. I'll never forget that guy. He helped me out. So now the good that he did for me, I do for other people.
So did the director ever come back from the desert? How did that story end?
Well, I've always said that he's probably still walking. By now he must be in Russia [laughs].
How do you handle the pressure when you don't know what you're doing, but you're performing as if you do?
I've learned that you do the most that you can do and when you are sure that you have done the most that is possible, then you go dancing.
What would you say is your greatest success and failure?
My biggest success would be the fact that I love who I am and I love what I do. My biggest failure is that I haven't been able to do enough. I haven't been able to stop the economic embargo of Cuba. I haven't been able to help enough immigrants in this country and other things like that. I would like to be able to more, but I'm limited. According to some, I do most than just about everybody, but it's not enough. We need more activism. We need people to get up and say, "This is what I believe in, and I'm going to fight for it."
What do you think it would take to increase activism?
People caring for each other. People saying that we are all together in this.
You would think that they would want to do that now that Trump is elected.
I think that people are still very selfish. When I wanted to start a group centered around hiding illegal aliens that are being persecuted in the United States or when I'd want to set up a gathering to talk about turning the Meatpacking District into an arts district lots of people would be gung-ho. Then, the day before people would make excuses for why they couldn't make it.
Do you think that people were more caring at an earlier time or does it just seem to be worse now?
I think that it's a little worse now, not much, but a little bit because survival has become such a big thing. When people are dealing with survival to pay rent or whatever, they lose track of caring. I believe that in my life I have to do something. Other people do not. They only want to survive. I don't question other people's lives, you know, but we need more people to stop complaining and actually do something. Sure with a protest, you walk up and down 20 blocks and carry a sign, but that doesn't do anything.
If you don't act on what you believe, why believe? You have to act on what you believe. That's the way I was brought up. My parents and most of my relatives were activists.
Where do you think that drive for social change comes from?
Well, some people would say that it's a chemical imbalance, but whatever it is, is what it is. I don't question why I do what I do, and I don't question anyone's actions. I just wish more people would be there. I'm hoping that time changes. I understand that there were periods like in the '30s where a lot of people became very active, but I don't count on it. I do what I can, and then I go dancing. What else can you do, you know?
Looking back on your life, what kind of legacy would you like to leave?
I would like for my legacy to be that I did the best that could for as many people as I could. That's it. Oh and that I went dancing.
For people who are interested in getting involved with activism of any kind, where would you suggest that they start?
Find out who is doing something that you're interested in and give them assistance.
Do you think that accepting who you are came with time?
No. This is who I am and who I am doesn't change with age. This is it. I don't want to change for anybody. This is what I will be doing until my last breath. If you come back in twenty years and nobody has killed me yet, I'll be doing exactly what I'm doing now.