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Month of January, 2008
On Tuesday December 4th Made in L.A. screened at Columbia University as the closing film of a series on Latino Migration at Columbia's Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. Curated by filmmaker and Columbia professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the series included five of the best films documenting the immigration experiences of Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans to the U.S. The series' hope was to contribute to the on-going debate on immigration, citizenship, and globalization, and it was indeed an interesting debate on these and other topics.
One student questioned current assumptions about immigrants' upward mobility, and the frequent omission of the root causes that force people to come to the US in discussions about immigration. It was a serious conversation and I have to say that, like that student, I don't believe in the universality of the "American Dream" narrative, i.e. that everyone has an opportunity to "make it" here as long as they work hard and have the necessary determination. I believe it to be a myth -sustained, like other myths, by reinforcement and repetition. Of course there are many cases where that narrative applies. But what I have seen in the five years of making this film is that great sacrifices are made by each new generation of immigrants in the hopes that they can provide a better future for their children, often giving up everything - their happiness, their country, their loved ones - for that promised future. And that even for their children that better future is only sometimes achieved. Many of these children will see themselves absorbed into the same cycle of poverty and low wage work Some will get out, especially if they find ways to access to a good education, fulfilling the dreams that their parents once had for them...
One of the most fascinating parts of the evening came after the class - my long conversation with Frances Negrón-Muntaner, in a Cuban restaurant near the University. Frances is an amazing storyteller (and an extraordinary writer and filmmaker) and I, who love to talk and tell stories, could only listen and listen. We stayed there in front of our Pollo con Arroz, our Camarones al Ajillo and Frances' Negra Modelo until midnight, when the restaurant closed and pushed us outside into the cold.
It is beautiful to see people being moved at each presentation of the film, and equally beautiful to be able to discuss this work and to learn from friends and colleagues who share this path.
Check out the article by Frances Negrón-Muntaner at New York's El Diario La Prensa (In Spanish)
Yet visiting the museum again I felt that the film shows only the tip of the iceberg of what this extraordinary institution has to offer. Bai Tan, an educator and museum guide, led us through the cramped, poorly ventilated and dimly lit rowhouses which the museum has carefully researched and restored to recreate the lives of the immigrants who lived here from the end of the 19th to the mid 20th century. Personal details of their lives help us understand not just how these immigrants lived and worked, but also who they were and what they felt. (The museum features an amazing virtual tour on their website, and even though you cannot feel the humidity, the dust and the darkness of the rooms, it is an amazing experience --click on the big photos below to see the tour.)
Inside the Gumpertz' home, we see where Natalie worked, sewing and caring for 4 children after her husband tragically disappeared after the economic depression of 1890, which had resulted in bank and business failures and had caused many to lose everything. Our guide described it as a desperate time when there were no social "safety net" programs to keep people from the depths of despair. Even worse, German immigrants like the Gumpertzes faced Germanophobia: a fear that Germans would colonize the US with their language, their songs, their culture. (Check out the wikipedia). Any resemblance with the current backslash on Latino immigration and the fears of Mexican "reconquista"?
Last summer, the New York Times published an interesting op-ed that drew parallels between modern anti-immigrant sentiment and previous backlashes against previous newcomers to this country. It was called "The Founding Immigrants". It began with a quote:
"Few of their children in the country learn English... The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages ... Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious."
A recent proponent of the border fence? No, actually this quote is from Benjamin Franklin, written more than 300 years ago and refers to the Pennsylvania Dutch. The parallels are striking and the Gumpertz' home brought that all home.
As we continued our tour, I was even more deeply moved by the story of the Baldizzi family, who arrived from Italy in the 1920's. Unlike the European immigrants who had arrived just 30 years earlier and lived next door, the Baldizzis' had a harder time coming to the US. Immigration was starting to be "illegal" and quotas had been established. The Museum documents their story: the Baldizzi wife obtained fake papers, traveled to France, boarded a boat to Canada and lived there long enough to get papers and come to the US, where she joined her husband who was living here "undocumented".
In the kitchen the museum plays a recording of the Baldizzi's daughter exploring a litany of memories: the "ice coins" they used to put in the gas to warm the water without paying, the sink/bathtub where they would bathe once a week, the board games they played with their father at night after the world quieted down. And the radio, that old radio that kept her mother company, playing soap operas that made her cry and cry, remembering the family she left behind -mother, father, brothers, friends that she knew she would not see again. And there I was with tears in my eyes, too.
To close 2007, Maria, Lupe and Maura reunited at Lupe's house to celebrate the 3-year anniversary of their settlement agreement with Forever 21. Organizer Joann Lo, Lupe's sister Esperanza, and attorney Julia Figueira McDonough (one of the attorneys who represented the workers, also featured in the film) were also there, and we all caught up and shared tamales and ice cream.
Afterwards, amidst laughter and cheers, we sat on the floor and signed copies of our new posters. We're sending signed copies of the poster to our outreach partners in recognition of their support (find out how to become an outreach partner!). We're also planning to put some of these posters for sale on-line! Check back soon for more info.
|Joann Lo signs the poster|
It was a beautiful moment to come together and bid farewell to 2007, which saw the long-awaited birth of Made in L.A., and to welcome in 2008, a year where we hope this little film will keep traveling the world. It's also an election year in the United States and we hope that Made in L.A. will help to provide a voice for the thousands of immigrants who toil here everyday. Perhaps we can even get candidates to see it as they develop policies that will shape immigration policy in the years to come...
The report was released at the beginning of the national conference, "Claiming Our Rights, Envisioning Our Future: Communities Organizing for Justice," that just brought together over 500 participants from across the country, and where Made in L.A. screened.
According to Catherine Tactaquin, NNIRR Executive Director, "Over-Raided, Under Siege" plainly demonstrates that systematic abuses are being perpetrated against immigrant and refugee families and workers by the U.S. government, including the Department of Homeland Security, as well as by the local and state police." "These abuses and anti-immigrant government policies are a form of 'collective punishment' that undermine our rights and make our communities even more vulnerable to abuse by unscrupulous employers, elected officials and anti-immigrant hate groups."
To read or download an executive summary of Over-Raided, Under Siege, go here.
To read the full report, Over-Raided, Under Siege, go here.
To view or download NNIRR's immigration raids chronology, go here.