American Dreams/Border Realities A day of Latino cinema
AMERICAN DREAMS / BORDER REALITIES
Manhattan slumbers, tens of thousands of immigrants spend the night shift cleaning the floors, windows, and counters of banks and retail stores. They scrub down the lobbies of luxury hotels, hose off sidewalks in front of cafés, and leave the surfaces of corporate offices sparkling for the day staff, most of whom never stop to think about how their environs stay pristine. Before dawn, before the city has fully awakened, thousands more lowwage workers roll out dough for bagels and pastries, brew coffee, and pack to-go sandwiches and salads for commuters on their rush to the subway.
For years at the Hot & Crusty Bakery Café, at 63rd Street and Second Avenue, on the Upper East Side, dedicated, long-term employees chatted cheer-sales fully with the public and rang up with a smile despite poor working conditions. They were paid below minimum wage, mostly in cash, off the books. Overtime was uncompensated. Deli machinery was in disrepair, putting them at risk of injury, and managers were known to berate workers, sometimes in front of customers, and fire them for calling in sick.
“These are the working conditions that coal and steel miners had in the late 19th century,” said Lois Rudnick, former chair of the American studies depart Massachusetts, ment at the University of in Boston, and curator of American Dreams/Border Realities, a film festival to support Somos Un Pueblo Unido on Saturday, Nov. 7, at the Center for Contemporary Arts. Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe-based statewide grassroots organization established in 1995, organizes, agitates, and lobbies for immigrant rights.
In 2012 Mahoma López, a Hot & Crusty sandwich maker, decided the situation was unjust and illegal. The Hand That Feeds, a documentary written and directed by Robin Blotnik and Rachel Lears, follows a small group of Hot & Crusty workers, led by López and supported by a group of young activists and labor lawyers, as they risk unemployment and deportation to fight for their rights. They are told they have no leverage to negotiate with owners because they aren’t unionized, so the workers form an independent union.
The Hand That Feeds is the first of three films in the one-day festival at CCA; it is followed by a questionand-answer session, via Skype, with the directors. Two more films, El Norte and Kingdom of Shadows, are followed by in-person Q&A sessions with their directors. There is also a benefit reception and talk,
“Lessons from the Border,” at which some of the filmmakers elucidate the themes and lessons of the movies.
Though Santa Fe is much smaller than Manhattan, immigrant labor keeps it humming just the same. If all undocumented immigrants were deported overnight, so many seemingly minor jobs would be left undone that cities across the country would grind to a halt. Santa Fe recognizes this reality in the form of a higher-than-average minimum wage, currently $10.84 per hour, more than $3 above the federally mandated rate of $7.25, so that everyone in town has half a chance to aspire to the dream of adequate food and shelter.
“I don’t think it’s a delicate assertion at all to say that this economy would collapse without immigrant workers, as is the case with New York City,” said Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido. NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, along with Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, formed Cities United for Immigration Action, a national coalition of mayors urging immediate implementation of federal deferred action programs, which provide temporary relief from deportation for some undocumented immigrants, mostly young people. The legislation is currently being held up by legal challenges. Santa Fe mayor Javier Gonzales is a member of the coalition, following in what Diaz describes as a long tradition of pro-immigrant policies in Santa Fe and New Mexico. In 1986, as thousands were fleeing the civil wars in Central America, Gov. Toney Anaya declared New Mexico a sanctuary for the refugees. In 1999, under Mayor Larry Delgado, Santa Fe became the sixth city in the nation to become a sanctuary city, which means city resources cannot be used to identify and assist in the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Somos, and its members and allies, build off these policies to continue to address immigrant rights. They were instrumental in passing the New Mexico law that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers licenses, and they have established worker centers so that people can organize for protections on the job outside of options like unionization.
Working conditions for immigrants are also explored in the Academy Award-nominated El Norte, a sweeping dramatic epic directed by Gregory Nava. Twenty years after its 1983 release, Roger Ebert called the film a Grapes of Wrath for our time. “As far as I know, it’s the first Hollywood movie to ever look at the Latin American immigrant experience from the immigrants’ point of view,” Rudnick said. She has used the film throughout the years in classes about immigration. The three-part story follows Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) on their journey to Los Angeles after their father is killed and their mother is disappeared in war-torn Guatemala. After getting ripped off in Tijuana and crawling through rat-infested sewer tunnels to reach California, the brother and sister find work as a waiter and house cleaner, respectively, and it seems as though life will soon improve, but danger always lurks when you have no green card and very little money.
In the documentary Kingdom of Shadows, directed by Bernardo Ruiz, the harsh realities of Latin American drug cartels are exposed via three characters: a Catholic nun who advocates for families whose relatives have been disappeared by drug dealers or police; a Texan who was a marijuana mule in the 1980s, before the trade turned deadly; and a man from a Mexican immigrant family who now fights the cartels for Homeland Security. It’s a small, personal view of the drug war and its casualties — thousands of missing loved ones, children lured into criminal activity under threat of violence, and copious jail time handed out for relatively small crimes when the kingpins go free.
“The U.S. was deeply complicit in the civil wars that created the conditions that people fled and continue to flee,” Rudnick said. “And it’s the demand in the United States for cocaine and heroin that has created the drug problem. We’ve militarized police forces in these states that then use the weapons against their own citizens, and we do nothing to acknowledge the fact that we, as a people, are driving this.”
She hopes that after viewing the films and taking part in the talk at the reception, audience members come away with a much more nuanced understanding of Latin American immigration issues. “The fleeing of 300,000 refugees from Nicaragua and Guatemala in the 1980s was the worst refugee crisis since World War II,” she said. “We have now met and matched that since the start of the 21st century. Its roots are in El Norte. The best of it is in the organizing in the deli in The Hand That Feeds. And some of the realities we need to face about what’s happening now across the border are in the fabulous final film, Kingdom of Shadows.”
Director Bernardo Ruiz
Kingdom of Shadows
Director Rachel Lears
Director Gregory Nava
Director Robin Blotnik
The Hand That Feeds