Category Archives: film

The ups and downs of a bittersweet and lonely harvest

Yesterday I made my way down to the Missouri History Museum in order to take in the exhibit Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964/Cosecha Amarga Cosecha Dulce: El Programa Bracero 1942-1962 and a special screening of the film Harvest of Loneliness. I’d had the date circled for weeks on my calendar because I was ecstatic that the museum had put together a program about such an important but not-well-known part of American history.

The Bracero Program was a guest worker program that brought millions of Mexican agricultural laborers into the United States in order to do field work for US companies. Initially this meant harvesting sugar beets in California, but eventually it meant just about any backbreaking job that food producers wanted done for as little pay as possible. During World War II, there was also a parallel railroad bracero program that provided Mexican labor for train track maintenance.

Braceros were supposed to receive decent wages, healthcare, and housing. In reality, most got ripped off and were forced to live in squalor and labor under dangerous conditions. Employers essentially had their way with them. They’d pay them whatever they wanted and made them sleep on planks, work in the burning summer temperatures of the US Southwest with no breaks or water, and would dump them back across the border if they got sick or died. In 1959 alone, at the height of the program, almost 450,000 Mexicans were brought to work in United States through the program.

Bittersweet Harvest (on display in St. Louis until July 31) brings together pieces from oral histories from former bracero workers and historic images from the time. The braceros’ experiences are culled from the Bracero History Archive, which is a truly awesome collection of oral histories, artifacts, and resources related to the Bracero Program. However, (*SIGH*) the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum isn’t very good. And my experience with the show even started out on a sour note because I couldn’t find it at first. When I asked an attendant at the information desk where it was, the person didn’t even know what I was talking about until I pointed to a reference to the show on a handbill. “Oh, that. It’s through there…all the way in the back.” And in the back it was. Located in a small gallery that’s connected to a room richly filled with artifacts from the World’s Fair (related to the braceros how?), fifteen banners with short quotes and a couple images each surround the walls of the room. And that’s it. No listening station. No objects. No books. No videos. For a brief moment I even thought to myself, “My goodness, they haven’t finished putting the show up yet.” You see, the exhibit is a traveling show put together with the help of the Smithsonian, and for that reason I was expecting more…much more. Below, for example, is what part of the show looked like when it was at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.

But there was one huge saving grace to my day out at the museum…and that was the screening of Harvest of Loneliness. The film was made by Vivian Price and Gilbert Gonzalez and uses a combination of archival footage and recent interviews with former braceros to deftly tell the story of what the program was like—from the worker selection process in Mexico to the effect on Mexican families to the conditions in the field and the reactions of organized labor in the US to the program. The film is not apolitical, however. It clearly makes the argument that the Bracero Program was a lose-lose situation: both Mexican and US workers suffered because of it. It also argues that the Bracero Program institutionalized the exploitation of agriculture workers in the US and the naive expectations of Mexican migrants, which was only made worse by NAFTA—a formula that has led us to our current immigration situation. This point of view was reinforced after the screening by co-director Gonzalez during a Skype-based Q & A (Gonzalez is a Chicano Latino Studies Professor at UC Irvine). The following is the trailer for the film.

There was one disappointing thing about the movie though. Including me, there were only about eight museum patrons there—along with a handful of museum workers. Ugh, St. Louis! Seriously? We can’t even get a couple of dozen people out to see a free movie at the history museum? No wonder they didn’t feel the need to jazz up the exhibit.

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Los Isleños in Louisiana

I gave a presentation in Spanish class today about the Isleños community in Saint Bernard Parish, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I told my fellow classmates this morning.

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Los Isleños are the descendants of Canary Islanders (Canarians) who came to the New World in the 18th century. Many settled in parts of the Caribbean and Venezuela, as well as Mississippi and Texas. They were instrumental in founding San Antonio, for example. But between 1778-1783 about 3,000 hardy Canarians (called “Isleños” or “islanders,” as opposed to “Penisulares,” which are people from the Spanish mainland) made the trek to Louisiana in order to build four colonies for the King of Spain in attempt to secure Spanish territory against possible British incursions into the region. The population grew from there and mostly in Saint Bernard Parish. Amazingly, they were able to maintain many of their cultural traditions, as well as their form of the Spanish language, throughout the next couple hundred years.

Perhaps the most important part of Isleños culture is their music. In particular, los Isleños sing songs called “décimas,” which were originally ten-lines long—hence the name. The singers, of course, are called “decimeros.” Décimas are about Canarian and Isleños history, interesting characters in the community, and the day-to-day working life of the people. The most famous decimero of late was Irván Pérez (he passed away in 2008), a fierce protector and promoter of Isleños history and traditions. (You can hear Pérez singing the décima “El trabajo de Welfare” here, and that’s a picture of him below.)
Every March Saint Bernard Parish throws a Los Isleños Festival that attracts visitors from all over, including quite a few musicians and other attendees from the Canary Islands, as well as other Spanish dignitaries…even the King and Queen of Spain if it is a particularly good year. Los Isleños Heritage and Cultural Society, along with other Isleños groups, has done a good job maintaining strong bonds between the community in Louisiana and all the other places in the world touched by immigration from the Canary Islands. Though a bit dated, there is interesting documentary about los Isleños called Mosquitos and High Water: El mosco y el agua alta that you can watch for free here. The following is a trailer for the film, and it starts with Irván Pérez again!
Unfortunately, los Isleños have had a rough time of it over the past half decade. First, Hurricane Katrina ruined large portions of Saint Bernard Parish, and many feared that the population was going to have to effectively flee the area. Then, just as things were beginning to look up, the BP oil disaster last year contaminated much of the traditional fishing and hunting grounds of los Isleños. Historically the community has consisted primarily of trappers and fishermen, and they are particularly well known for the skills in hunting and trapping ducks, muskrats, and mink. With all the environmental destruction of the area, however, a lot of young Isleños have left. So, will the Isleños form of the Spanish language and the cultural traditions of the community live on during this new diaspora?

Las mujeres de Almodóvar : Chus Lampreave

I was going to start this post off by saying that I’ve been in a real Almodóvar-watching mood recently, but that would be a ridiculous thing to say because I’m always in the mood for watching his films.

More accurately, I’ve been in the mood for rewatching some of my favorite films by him, including Volver, Oscar winner Hable con ella (Talk to Her), and Oscar nominee Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown). And if you haven’t seen any of those, please rush out and do so immediately.

Almodóvar’s films always have a few elements in common: humor, passion, bright colors, Madrid, men who make bad decisions, and women who have to deal with the repercussions of those bad decisions. But it’s not just themes that pop up over and over in his work. Actors also often appear regularly in his productions—he started the careers of Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas after all. But one of my favorite character actors who appears in almost every Almodóvar film, including the three I’ve rewatched most recently, is Chus Lampreave.

Lampreave is a veteran Spanish actress whose career dates back to the 1950s, including extensive work in Spanish television, and who usually shows up in an Almodóvar film as some batty landlord or crazed relative. I first saw her in Mujeres al borde 10 years ago; she plays a stubborn Jehovah’s Witness who refuses to lie for the philandering Iván in that movie. I’ve kept a keen eye out for her ever since. And in my opinion, one of her best roles is as tía Paula in Volver.

Lola Dueñas, Penélope Cruz, Yohana Cobo, and Chus Lampreave in "Volver"

Paula is a nutty old aunt to sisters Penélope Cruz and Lola Dueñas (another Almodóvar regular who kills it in everything she does) who lives in a small village in La Mancha—a town whose inhabitants suffer from chronic insanity caused by strong winds. It’s a classic Lampreave role in a Almodóvar picture: old, stubborn woman who is out of her mind. Paula has been talking to the ghost of the sisters’ mother lately. It’s probably just the wind, but of course…you should see the movie yourself! Lampreave’s character isn’t in much of the movie, but for the few scenes she has, she absolutely steals the show. That’s saying a lot when she’s sharing the screen with Penélope Cruz, an actress who garnered an Oscar nomination for her role in the film.

“Casa de mi padre” with Will Ferrell

YouTube will probably remove this trailer, so watch it while you can (Will Ferrell in a Spanish-speaking role!).

Nuestro superhéroe…¡El Dorado!

I could pay my mortgage with the money I’d make if got $1 for every cheap attempt at diversity made in television. One of my favorite blatant attempts at courting a specific demographic is from my childhood when the Hanna-Barbera television program Super Friends added the Latino character El Dorado to the show.

Super Friends was basically an all-star team of superheroes from DC Comics banded together to fight crime, evil scientists, etc. It included Batman, Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman at its core, and some version of the show ran on Saturday morning television between 1973-1986 (the title changed a few times along the way, and the superhero line up varied as well).

In order to spice up (ha! ha!) the formula the geniuses at Hanna-Barbera decided to add a character of their own making in 1981 that had never appeared in any DC Comics publications—the mysterious El Dorado. Now there are several wonderfully awful things about this character:

1. He spoke a heavily accented form of English and punctuated most of his lines with “sí,” “amigo,” rápido,” or “muy bien.” Similarly, I have a habit of injecting words like “yes” and “friend” into sentences when I’m speaking Spanish with someone. It’s only natural.

2. He seemed to appear only when the Super Friends needed help in a Latin American country or they were dealing with some piece of Latin American culture…say a stolen Mayan artifact from Metropolis’ anthropology museum. However, El Dorado himself seemed fairly ignorant of Latin American culture and history. Often he would say something like, “this is a mysterious artifact of my people,” when explaining to the rest of the gang what something was.

3. His powers were ambiguous and never clearly defined. And the ones that were apparent sucked. His most used skill was transporting himself through space, along with anything else wrapped inside of his cape. We knew he was teleporting because little speckles of light appeared where his body once was. He also had some sort of ability to create illusions. I mean, I’d love to be able to create illusions myself, but when you compare that with Superman’s strength and X-ray vision, it’s pretty weak.

4. His name. El Dorado? Give me a break.

Here’s his first appearance on the show. You’ll quickly see what I mean about the lack of cultural understanding—keep an ear out for the phrase “these are the mysterious ruins of my people.”

Despite the shallow character development (or perhaps because of it), El Dorado has become a bit of a cult favorite, even though he has never appeared in any DC Comics. Later this year, Mattel is releasing an El Dorado figure in its DC Universe Classics line of toys. And like the original animated character, he has NO nipples! ¡Muy bien, amigo!

Ron English on the border

Ron English is deliciously subversive with his art. He throws billboard-sized bombs at advertising design and brand culture through public (often illegal) art that twists images of Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse, and Joe Camel into cancerous agents of obesity, disease, and brand subservience. If you’ve seen Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me, then you’ve seen his work.

Here’s a short film about the man:

Recently English decided to play an April Fool’s prank related to the immigration debate through a series of works that popped up at the US-Mexico border. Below is my favorite…though I fear that some in the US will take it seriously and want this sign permanently installed at all border crossings.

Soviet Zombies

I’m not a Metallica fan, but their new video is a great piece of short sf filmmaking.