Tag Archives: immigration

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.

Parroquia Santa Cecilia “Mexican Fish Fry”

I finally got off my rear and did something last night that I’ve been meaning to do for a couple of years now: attend the famous “Mexican Fish Fry” at St. Cecilia’s Church (Parroquia Santa Cecilia) in South St. Louis City. And I made it just in time…it was the last one of the year!

In the last few years St. Louis has been catching up with all the other urban centers in the United States by attracting a large influx of hispanic and latino immigrants. This new population has centered its spiritual life around St. Cecilia’s Church, a once dying parish that is now thriving again because of this new membership. So a couple of years ago the church decided to revive its defunct Friday Lenten fish fry…only with a Mexican twist. Yes, you can get fried fish, shrimp, and the like…but the menu also features handmade chiles rellenos, tostadas, and quesadillas with a side of rice and beans. There are also Latin American dancers, a trio of Mexican musicians, and lots of Cerveza Tecate.

I had heard that the wait for food could be long—and they weren’t kidding! Exactly two hours and seventeen minutes passed between the moment my friends and I first got into line and the time two fresh-faced school children set our plates down in front of us. But no worries…there are plenty of chips and salsa, tamales, and beer stands, as well as aural and visual delights, to savor while slowly snaking through the school’s gym to place your dinner order.

Quesadilla frita, tostada, refried beans, and rice.

A lot of love and preparation for the event clearly came from the Latino community—Spanish menus were plastered to the walls and adornments of Mexican and Latin American culture were everywhere. However, gringos easily outnumbered Latinos at the event by at least a 10 to 1 margin. I hope that’s a sign that my little city is growing up and finally embracing diversity…but I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to practice my language skills with anyone or anything other than the menu and deciphering the romantic lyrics of the singers.

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.

30 Days of Immigration

With the insanity surrounding SB 1070 in Arizona (and now the talk is that the state will try to deny citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants), I was inspired to go back and watch the episode “Immigration” from Morgan Spurlock’s TV show 30 Days. If you’re not familiar with the program, it’s a reality show that has someone living 30 days out of their element or in someone else’s shoes: straight man living with a gay man, an able-bodied athlete living 30 days in a wheelchair, a heavy energy consumer living 30 days off the grid, and so on.

(Not the greatest interview, but it gives you a sense for the show in general.)

In this particular episode, Frank George, a member of the Minutemen border patrol group, lives for 30 days with a Mexican family living illegally in East LA. The twist in this particular situation is that George is a fluent Spanish speaker and was once known as Francisco Jorge. He was born in Cuba and immigrated legally to the United States with his family during the rise of Communism on the island. He actually came to the US at the same age Armida is during the filming of the episode. Armida is one of the family’s five children, and it’s Armida who turns out to be a handful for the dedicated activist. She’s smart, hardworking, and stubborn in debate. Her relationship with George makes for great television.

Frank George is in the center. Armida is on his left.

One of the things I like most about the episode is that all of the participants are very human and approach each other on good faith. George, for instance, is not a people hater. He’s respectful and gracious with the family from the moment he enters their home. He makes himself incredibly vulnerable and goes as far as to even travel to family’s native village in Mexico in order to see where the family came from…and experience some of the reasons why they were so desperate to leave. And the family is very open with George as well. They give him a comfortable bed in their cramped house and share their dinner table with him, even though if he had it his way INS would be at their door in minutes. George gets a human face for a debate that usually involves faceless images of invading hordes, and the family gets some diatribes on law and order from a man who loves his country (and who is rather delusional on more than one point, in the opinion of this dilettante). Again, it makes for great television.

But it just got me started thinking about Arizona again. Recently I read an interesting article in Newsweek by Arian Campo-Flores called “Don’t Fence Them In.” Campo-Flores writes that folks are getting riled up about Mexicans flooding into the US during a time when birthrates in Mexico are actually dropping rapidly and historically. And the piece ends with at a jab at the shortsightedness of Arizona’s government. While the state is trying to push immigrants out, boomers are just about to retire and fill retirement homes there. Because of this, Dowell Myers, a professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California, states in the article, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona starts pleading for Mexican workers.”

Maybe I’m just naive, but hasn’t immigrant—illegal or otherwise—always been an economic and cultural engine in this country? I’ve seen it in my hometown of La Porte, Indiana. When I moved away in the 90s, the downtown was filled with abandoned buildings. Retail had moved to malls outside of the town center, and there was a depressed, post-industrial feel to the place. Now when I go back to visit my parents, I see a downtown filled with restaurants and shops opened by and frequented by immigrants from Mexico. There is a exciting new life in those old buildings and spaces that wouldn’t exist without their presence.

Los Hermanos Oritz : Superman es ilegal

Here is the original version of the song I discovered through La misma luna. Good stuff!

¡Es un pájaro! ¡Es un avión!
No, hombre, ¡es un mojado!

Llegó del cielo y no es un avión.
Venía en su nave, desde Criptón,
y por lo visto, no es un Americano
sino otro igual como yo, indocumentado.
Así es que migra, él no debe de trabajar
porque aunque duela, Superman es ilegal.

Es periodista, también yo soy
y no fue el Army, a que camión.
Y aquel es güero, ojos azules, bien formado
y yo prietito, gordiflón y muy chaparro.
Pero yo al menos en mi patria ya marché
con el coyote que pagué cuando cruzé.

No cumplió con el servicio militar,
no paga impuestos y le hace al judicial.
No tiene mica ni permiso pa’ volar.
Y les apuesto que ni seguro social.

Hay que hechar a Superman se esta región
y si se puede, regresarlo pa’ Criptón.
¿Dónde está esa autoridad de emigración?
¿Qué hay de nuevo, don Racismo, en la nación?

De que yo sepa no lo multan por volar
sino al contrario, lo declaran Superman.
No cumplió con el servicio militar,
no paga impuestos y le hace al judicial.
No tiene mica ni permiso pa’ volar.
Y les apuesto que ni seguro social.

Hay que hechar a Superman se esta región
y si se puede, regresarlo pa’ Criptón.
¿Dónde está esa autoridad de emigración?
¿Qué hay de nuevo, don Racismo, en la nación?

La misma luna : a film by Patricia Riggen

Since we took our written final last week, we finished up this semester of Spanish by watching La misma luna (English title: Under the Same Moon) today. The film is mostly in Spanish, but has a fair bit of English dialogue. It follows the story of a young Mexican boy crossing the border in order to look for his mother who works illegally as a housekeeper in Los Angeles.

Surprisingly, since most of the film takes place in the US, it only had a limited release here, and I don’t believe it ever made it to my little nook in the Midwest. But it was a great film to show to a Spanish class. Much of the dialogue isn’t too difficult for students to understand (especially with the English subtitles turned on–ja!). However, the movie is at times overly dramatic and there are a couple of unbelievable coincidences. But Adrian Alonso, the young actor who plays the lead—little Carlos Reyes—is captivating in his role. Even this jaded viewer was on the edge of tears a couple of times when Carlitos got himself into a difficult situation or would get emotional over his mother.

Like any good drama though, there were several moments of delightful comic relief … such as this cameo appearance by the Mexican norteño superstars Los Tigres del Norte.

I also enjoyed the use of Kinky’s cover of Los Hermanos Ortiz’ song “Superman es ilegal” (Superman is an illegal) as the background for this scene about migrant labor. ¡Es un pájaro! ¡Es un avión! No, hombre, ¡es un mojado! (It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, man, it’s a wetback!)

Obviously the issue of illegal immigrants—particularly Spanish-speaking ones—gets lots of folks worked up in this country (I’m looking at you, Jan Brewer). But I think this film does a decent job of suggesting what the risks of crossing over are, what challenges face illegals once here, and how the issue affects families south of the US border. The movie is certainly not neutral on the issue, however. I don’t think I’d sit down to watch it with Glenn Beck anytime soon … unless he brings the popcorn and promises not to talk or send text messages during the film.

Read Me a Rhyme in Spanish and English

I found Rose Zertuche Treviño’s Read Me a Rhyme in Spanish and English/Léame una rima en español e inglés mixed in with a stack of books at the library recently. Immediately curious, I flipped the book open and landed on a song called “Hola, Bebé.”

(Sung to the tune of Frere Jacques)

Hola, bebé. Hola, bebé
¿Cómo estás? ¿Cómo estás?
Muy bien, gracias.
Muy bien, gracias.
¿Y usted? ¿Y usted?

Not exactly pure lyrical gold or anything, but I got that darn song stick in my head right quick. So I decided to cart the book home and have a look through it.

In my Spanish class last year I had a middle-aged woman for a classmate who had adopted a baby girl from Guatemala and wanted to learn Spanish so she could teach her daughter the language as well. I had assumed at first glance that this book was aimed at a reader like her—one of the countless folks in the US who has a child adopted from Latin America or has a child with a Latino partner…or who just wants to teach their kid Spanish. But once I sat down with it, I quickly found out that this book is intended for librarians putting together reading programs for children from Spanish-speaking households. Neat!

Each chapter is set up as a program for a specific age group: babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age children. The programs have songs, activities, games, and lots of recommendations for further reading. But for this particular reader, I was mostly interested in trying to mine the book for vocabulary. Unfortunately, there was nothing too interesting or new for me in the end, but my inner dork enjoyed singing the book’s songs nonetheless.

I don’t know if the book has much value for your average Spanish student, but if you’re thinking of going into library science or working with young children in a bilingual environment, I think it would certainly come in handy. As well, the folks I had originally thought were the intended audience would do well to seek this book out. It would be a really easy way to pick up some Spanish while having fun with your kid.

Bread and Roses : a film by Ken Loach

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!
–James Oppenheim, 1911

Ken Loach’s 2000 film Bread and Roses takes its inspiration from the 1980s Justice for Janitors campaign in California that was run by the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). In the film, a young union organizer (Adrien Brody) tries to organize a group of janitors in an LA office building that houses suites for many high-profile organizations and lawyers, including some Hollywood firms (expect one or two cameos—Ron Perlman!). Apart from the organizer, the story focuses primarily on two Mexican-born sisters, Maya (Pilar Padilla) and Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who work for the building’s cleaning company. Rosa is legal and the older of the two. She’s also married to a man severely suffering the effects of diabetes. They desperately need health insurance. Maya, on the other hand, is newly arrived and undocumented. She’s also the more feisty of the two and the first to be charmed by the zealous union representative, as you’ll see in the following clip.

Most of the janitorial workers at the building are from Mexico and Central America. They’re overseen by a tightfisted, union-busting boss, and they’re mostly in the dark about the fact that janitors in Los Angeles made more and had full benefits just ten years ago (i.e., wages went down and benefits were lost during the course of just ten years). Brody’s union organizer quickly causes a spark of revolt for many of the workers, but several of them are also scared witless—with reason—about the repercussions of even talking to a union official: firings, deportation, and beyond.

As you can probably guess, the film is strongly pro union and paints a relatively black-and-white picture of the situation. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, right? It’s not like there are an overwhelming number of pro-union films floating around out there.

The film’s title is taken from the James Oppenheim poem at the beginning of the post, and the phrase was also used as a slogan in the 1912 Lawrence, Massachusetts textile strike. That strike, which was organized by the Wobblies, is directly referred to in Loach’s film by Brody’s character more than once. For example, during rallies he has a tendency to say, “we want bread, but we want roses, too.” That’s a line rumored to have been plastered on signs during the 1912 strike.  But does all this make for an excellent film? Honestly, I’ve seen better. However, the movie is good at igniting a little working-class anger, and it provides more than one opportunity to shed a tear. So I’d encourage you to see it. Plus, there’s quite a bit of dialogue in Spanish—practice those listening skills, people!

La Santa Muerte : a film by Eva S. Aridjis

La Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”) is easily one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in the last couple of years. Santa Muerte is kind of like the personification of death; she’s usually portrayed as a skeleton wearing fine robes and holding a scythe. But she’s a version of death that watches over believers and can intervene on their behalf. The film documents the devotion to this figure in her native Mexico. In particular, the movie focuses on the shrine of La Santísima Muerte (“Most Holy Death”), which a woman named Enriqueta Romero Romero made out of her home. As the shrine has grown, Enriqueta—a featured figure in the documentary—has added a shop that sells Santa Muerte figures, candles, religious tokens, and other items for reverence and worship. She and her family also take meticulous care of the saint, changing her clothes on the first of every month, purifying the shrine with smoke and perfume, and holding a large festival on the anniversary of the site’s founding, November 1. Upwards of 5,000 people crowd the street in front of the shrine on that day, and the movie ends with this festival. It is truly one of the most interesting and unusual events I’ve seen captured on film.

(The following is from a SBS Dateline piece, not the documentary.)

The shrine is located in the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City, which has a reputation for being one of the largest centers for crime and black market dealings in D.F. Not surprisingly then, the saint is known for being particularly favored by criminals, drug dealers, and the like. In the documentary, the filmmaker goes behind the bars of two prisons to show her popularity. Many of the prisoners in the film have shrines in their cells. One interviewee even paints large Santa Muerte murals for her fellow inmates in order to incur favors and to exchange for goods. But Santa Muerte’s popularity has spread beyond prisons and the criminal world. She’s also popular with the poor and destitute, with a particularly strong following among disenfranchised groups in Mexico such as homosexuals, transvestites, and sex workers. Generally, she’s seen as egalitarian in her favors, and the film makes a point of showing how such beliefs play out in worship. Go rent it.

Mark Sanchez : the dream is over…but only for this season

One of the more interesting stories to come out of the NFL this year is Mark Sanchez, the rookie quarterback for los Jets de Nueva York. After a few bumps in the middle of the season, he magically led his team to the AFC Championship game, only to fall to los Potros de Indianápolis Sunday. But if his success continues, he could be the thing the NFL has been looking for…an in with the “untapped” Latino market. (It’s always about money, no?)

The NFL has been champing at the bit for a while now to interest Latinos in their dominant sports and business brand. Early last decade, the league made a commitment to reaching Spanish-speakers in North America by hiring marketing firm Lumina Americas to help them penetrate this demographic that normally follows fútbol, boxing, and baseball. In their quest, they’ve created NFLatino and a plethora of Spanish-language commercials. They’ve also held several matches in Mexico, including a game in México, D.F. (Mexico City) in 2005 that drew over 100,000 attendees. But for all that, the league has generally lacked high-profile players with a Latino identity—the kind of thing that could ignite passion in the community for the game. But that could change because of the full-blooded Mexican-American Mark Sanchez, who—unlike some other Latino players in the past—proudly wears his heritage on his sleeve.

Sanchez first came to prominence as a player when he was the quarterback at the University of Southern California. As you probably know, USC is located in Los Angeles, which is home to more than 4 1/2 million Latinos, roughly 75% of whom are of Mexican decent. Mark’s good-boy charm and Mexican heritage made him an instant hit with LA Latinos, and his fame even spread south to parts of Mexico. Sanchez eagerly embraced his popularity with the Latino community there by acting as a role model to Latino youth in the area and even briefly wearing a mouthpiece colored with the stripes of the Mexican flag (it proved to be a controversial move). He also worked on boosting his Spanish-language skills while at USC so he could more easily participate in interviews with Spanish-language media.

Can Sanchez build a similar reputation in New York, and even the country as a whole, now that he’s playing with the Jets? Obviously New York also has a huge Latino population, but it’s mostly comprised of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—folks known mostly for their love of béisbol. It will be interesting to see if he tries to court them the way he did the Mexican community in Southern California. And while I should say at this point that I generally can’t stand the Jets, I have no problem rooting for Sanchez. He seems like a stand-up guy, and you have to respect his hardworking roots and interesting family story. His great-grandfather Nicholas Sánchez, for instance, came to the United States to perform backbreaking work as a fruit picker. His grandfather George settled in the Palo Verde section of Chávez Ravine, only to be displaced when the area was cleared to build Dodger Stadium. Mark’s father is a firefighter and trained his children to excel in everything they do. For instance, the elder Sanchez would practice Mark and his brothers well into the evening by pulling his truck up to the field and running them through drills by the illumination of headlights. Anyway, I wish him success. ¡Viva Sánchez!