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June 12, 2023

Art, family and a bakery inspire this Boston animator’s refugee advocacy

Growing up in her parent's bakery in East Boston, Jen Sanchez, daughter of Colombian immigrants, was surrounded by the stories of refugees and immigrants. These childhood experiences would inspire her to create art that lifts the voices and stories of newly arrived families in the United States.

“I love hearing people's stories or concerns and creating something around that, creating a narrative that has their voice,” says Jen.

 

Today, Jen is the lead animator and Art Director at Planet Nutshell, a creative studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts that uses animated storytelling to help people understand difficult subjects and inspire them to take action.

Jen’s most recent project, Azúcar, is an animated short film about Ana and Marcelo, mother and son, who are forced to flee gang violence in their hometown in Honduras. In the final scene of Azúcar, the family is faced with the difficult decision to cross the southern border of the U.S. with no guarantee of the future. The story was inspired by interviews with refugees, migrants and others with lived experiences of forced displacement. 

“[Ana and Marcelo] were forced out of their country, forced to abandon their family and their lives in hope of safety, in hope of a better life for her child, just in hope to survive,” explains Jen.

Ana and Marcelo of Azúcar

Azúcar is both timely and personal — Jen’s parents left Colombia in the 1980s, escaping crime and violence hoping to build a safer future for their family in the U.S. Her parents struggled and persevered for years before they were able to save enough money to open La Sultana, a bakery in East Boston that for the last 30 years, has been a landmark for Colombians and newly arrived Latinos to the Boston area.

“I grew up in the bakery,” shares Jen. “So this is the world that inspired me to create art in the service of the immigrant and refugee experience.”

For decades, La Sultana has operated as a community support system for the immigrant and refugee community, providing vital connections for new arrivals. As one of the only people in the bakery who spoke English, Jen often was tasked with translating documents and interpreting. 

 

Jen learned the value of helping others from her mother. 

“My mom is the sweetest person. If she could give the shirt off her back, she would and I've always aspired to be like my mom,” Jen shares proudly.

For Jen’s mother, La Sultana is a place to have a taste of Colombia in East Boston and has always been a community of support, care and inclusion. 

“We always wanted to help people at the bakery who would come looking for work or for help finding a place to live,” Jen's mother, Amelia, explains. She shares the struggle she and her husband endured to build their life in the U.S. — and after more than 30 years, the emotions are still raw and painful. She never wants anyone to experience what she did all those years ago.

Inspired by her parent's selflessness, and the stories of struggle and triumph she heard at the bakery, Jen continues to pursue work that lifts the stories of people around the world who have been forced to flee their homes. Azúcar is the first episode in a series of stories about global migration and forced displacement.

For Josh Gunn, Planet Nutshell Founder and Creative Director, Jen’s personal experience and her allyship with displaced communities are at the heart of Azúcar. 

“We couldn’t have made Azúcar without Jen,” shares Josh. “Who she is and where she comes from is a vital component of the film… and as a result, the film is authentic and comes from a place of really knowing a community,” he continues.

“My personal goal for Azúcar was to give a voice to those who would otherwise not have any,” explains Jen. 

“When I showed my mom one of the first cuts [of Azúcar] she started crying and she said, ‘I feel for the mother in the film.’” 

“So for me, I'm like, okay, I feel like in some way I did the story some justice.”

 

How can you help

Are you inspired by Jen’s art and advocacy? Find out how you can join USA for UNHCR to support refugees in your community and around the globe.

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