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Arts & Culture

Truly CA: Stable Life

Dionicia Martinez tending to a thoroughbred racehorse.
Courtesy of John Russo
Dionicia Martinez tending to a thoroughbred racehorse.

"Stable Life" follows the remarkable story of an immigrant family chasing a better life in the stables of California racetracks. Dionicia Martinez lives with her family in a room on a Northern California racetrack and works long hours tending horses.

Dionicia Martinez tending a thoroughbred horse.
Courtesy of John Russo
Dionicia Martinez tending a thoroughbred horse.
Dionicia Martinez and her husband in their room at the racetrack.
Courtesy of John Russo
Dionicia Martinez and her husband in their room at the racetrack.
Apprentice jockey José Luis Campos wins a race at Santa Anita Racetrack.
Courtesy of Benoit Photography
Apprentice jockey José Luis Campos wins a race at Santa Anita Racetrack.
Mario Muñoz grooms a horse in the stables of the Bay Meadows racetrack.
Courtesy of John Russo
Mario Muñoz grooms a horse in the stables of the Bay Meadows racetrack.

Despite her humble surroundings, Dionicia is optimistic about her prospects: she likes her job, her two U.S. citizen boys are in school, and her oldest son José Luis is turning heads as a hot-shot apprentice jockey in California. Although she is undocumented, Dionicia dreams of bringing her two sons who remain in Mexico to join her in the United States.

Horse racing in its heyday was a glamorous sport--the Sport of Kings. Wealthy owners, colorful jockeys and elegant thoroughbreds were once the dominant images of the racetrack and Triple Crown races have been cause for national celebration.

Today, however, horse racing faces hard times. Competition from televised sports and expanded gambling opportunities have reduced the fan base and racetracks across the country are closing their doors.

Moreover, the high-profile deaths and doping of champion horses have led the public to question the sport's treatment of thoroughbred horses. Yet there remains a racetrack story even more hidden: that of the immigrant workers who live and work on the backside of the racetrack.

At the racetrack, gamblers make long-shot bets in the hopes of winning big. This high-risk, high-intensity environment mirrors the situation faced by many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America: with no possibility of getting legal work visas, these immigrants gamble on improving their lives by working and living clandestinely.

These gambles often result in suffering as immigrants face isolation, extended separation from loved ones, and constant uncertainty and fear.

Indeed, Dionicia’s gamble soon appears lost. The racetrack where she works and lives closes down, and immigration crackdowns threaten her family. Undeterred, Dionicia will double down her on her bet in a surprising way. Will she achieve the stable life of her dreams, or will her luck run out?

"Stable Life" is on Facebook, and you can follow @stablelifemovie on Twitter.

KQED's TRULY CA: OUR STATE, OUR STORIES is an exciting showcase for the best documentary films about California made by independent filmmakers.

Stable Life Trailer