[6 July 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Politics is never about the people. It’s about power. It’s about policy and flawed personal opinion. As officials argue over law and its application, as wannabes wage war with the dueling parties who will ultimately provide them with an avenue in, the individual gets lost in the mean-spirited mix. Abortion is not about fetuses or women’s rights. It’s about control. Taxes are taken to task for being too high and too intrusive, and yet citizens demand more services and more security. And then there’s illegal immigration. As the tourist wakes up in their spit spot and sanitized hotel room, as the shopper samples fruits and vegetables fresh from the farm and always in season, few consider how such services came about. A film like Alambrista! understands…and it makes its point in passionate, realistic terms.
Roberto (Domingo Ambriz) lives a life of poverty in Michoacan, Mexico. Desperate to make things better for his wife and newborn daughter, he decides to cross the border and look for work in America. He soon discovers that jobs are easier to come by - if one doesn’t mind back breaking labor and criminal rates of pay. Befriending fellow illegal Joe (Trinidad Silva Jr.), he begins to learn the harsh lessons of migrant farm work. Barely keeping ahead of the police and sleeping in a chicken coop, he travels from area to area, picking various fruits and vegetables. When a tragedy finds him on his own again, Roberto meets up with pleasant diner waitress (Linda Gillin) who shows him some much needed kindness. Eventually, Roberto must decide if he should stay in the US, or travel back to his home and the safetry (and strife) it offers.
As contemporary as any film today and yet steeped in the still experimental neo-realism of the previous decades, 1977’s Alambrista! (slang for illegals, though it literally means “tightrope walker”) is a revelation. It’s heart is situated in the truths of terrible immigration policies circa the Me Decade and yet everything it argues is as applicable today as it was back when Nixon was vacating the White House. For anyone whose lived in a heavily agricultural state (say, yours truly and Florida), the plight of migrant workers has been a constant source of sour exploitation by both the media and the masses. Arguments over fences and border patrols, leniency and amnesty have circulated like the truck routes that carry these sad individuals from field to field. The result is a standoff that sees human beings bartered like goods for the sake of corporate outfits who could afford to pay minimum wage, but don’t have to.
First time feature filmmaker Robert Young (a documentarian by trade) does the right thing by his story. Instead of allowing it to fall into meaningless melodramatics or firebrand prostylitizing, he turns the camera inward and lets Roberto’s situation do all the talking. Within this man’s struggles are the entire sum of immigration - the good, the bad, the flawed and the fascinatingly misguided. We see how everyday people treat the migrant, how the fields and hot sun reflect their obsession to escape. We even witness how the language barrier can be breached (Joe teaches his buddy a simple phrase - “eggs, coffee, ham” - to cover his basic needs) as well as pushed aside for pure human interaction. We also understand the direct dead end most of these people face once they enter the United States.
By using a vignette oriented approach, Young emphasizes his various themes. Each individual scene is meant to showcase some element of the migrants plight - with danger always front and center. Crossing the border brings its own, almost immediate capture, and the land is overflowing with men willing to abuse these souls for their own means. Now famous faces like Edward James Olmos and Ned Beatty play both sides of the pitch, providing insight and narrative clarity as to what is happened and what will be. We also have the linger note of a father absent. Roberto has left behind his family in a manner similar to how his dad left him as a boy. The lure of America may be great, but the pain such a journey instills acts like a catalyst for the conclusions our hero comes to.
As part of the new DVD release from Criterion, Young takes time to defend his artistic choices. He argues for his “guerilla” style, suggesting that he paralleled the narrative with how he filmed said story. He also discusses the situation in the ‘70s and how it compares to now. We also get Olmos doing his best bit of celluloid support, as well as a PBS presentation by Young entitled Children of the Fields. Focusing on the offspring of migrant labor, this short suggests that normalcy can occur within the most extreme of circumstances. In fact, both films seem to argue for the everyday ennui of living such a life. After all, if all you’ve known is struggle, struggle becomes the standard.
The most telling aspect of Alambrista!, however, is how real it feels in a 2012 context. We are assaulted on a regular basis by political pundits who devolve every position into a series of strategic talking points, masking potential value in volume and vileness. Immigrants are turned into the arch nemesis of our society, never seen as the foundation by filling jobs citizens don’t want, but clogging up our corrupt welfare system with their demands and bartered perks. The reality, however, sits squarely in the middle of a field, sweat pouring off their brow and beleaguered by a circumstance that will crush them before it cares. Politics may make men wealthy and indirectly worthwhile, but it does not deem them compassionate. People are the truth behind Alambrista!, not ideology. Oddly enough, it’s several decades later and we still haven’t learned that lesson.