Destination America: The People and Cultures That Created a Nation

Michael Buening (Rating: 6; Extras: 4)

The series emphasizes how admirable immigration policies have made the U.S. prosperous and intellectually robust. Unfortunately, this sometimes has the effect of glossing over history's complications.

Destination America

Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Blair Brown
MPAA rating: Not Rated
Subtitle: The People and Cultures That Created a Nation
Network: David Grubin Productions
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2006-04-18
Amazon affiliate

A thousand documentaries about immigration have been created for museum exhibits, classrooms, and PBS pledge drives. They usually tell the same story: America is a melting pot. We all descend from immigrant families (cough, except Native Americans and slaves). It wasn't easy, but our plucky forefathers found ways to reap the bounties of this great land.

Destination America takes a different approach. Each hour-long segment is devoted to a motive for coming to America: money, artistic freedom, religious tolerance, and women's rights. And each interweaves the plight of a present-day person attempting to immigrate or seek asylum. These live subjects emphasize how admirable immigration policies have made the U.S. prosperous and intellectually robust. Unfortunately, this sometimes has the effect of glossing over history's complications.

The first section, "The Golden Door," combines a portrait of Manuel, a Mexican laborer who repeatedly crosses the border to earn money for his family, with an examination of Mexican migrant culture and border patrols, as well as a brief history of 19th-century Norwegian and Irish settlers. Guess what? All the histories are remarkably similar.

Historically, narrator Blair Brown says, "Most were young men, poor, single, and uneducated." "They have found themselves both welcomed and reviled." They are exploited for cheap labor. Periodically, politicians raise a fuss about how they threaten our way of life and propose simple-minded solutions to complex problems. There's usually the stink of racism behind this fuss.

The use of multiple narratives is fresh and engaging, drawing comparison between three historical situations that inspired emigration to the U.S., but this segment emphasizes hardships in each subject's homeland at the expense of discussing the process of assimilation and adjustment. While "The Golden Door" refers to streets paved with gold and other myths of instant prosperity, some immigrants come poor and stay poor, and others trade old problems for new ones. Typically, the documentary addresses any such awkward truths with a caveat: the conditions for Irish girls working in Boston textile plants were bad, admits Brown, "But it was a safe haven compared to the catastrophe that was raging in their native land." True, but being a lesser evil doesn't justify the exploitation of immigration labor.

"The Golden Door" succeeds at highlighting the common American experience of three nationalities. The least compelling segment, "The Art of Departure," fails because, by overemphasizing its subjects' pre-migration experiences, no connections are made. Conductor Arturo Toscanini and painter Ilya Kabakov famously fled Fascist and Soviet repressions. But in the contemporary example, Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Shui moves to New York to join the Martha Graham Dance Company and I'm not sure how her story is like the others, except that all are artists. It's also not clear what the U.S. offered all three that other countries (say, France or Sweden) haven't also offered artists. And it is not mentioned that many artists, like black writers and musicians, have left the United States to escape oppression. The segment evokes another tired cliché, America as the world's shining beacon of freedom.

There is one area where America has offered a brand of asylum rare in many other countries: religious persecution. The third episode, "The Earth is the Lord's," details the remarkable tradition of self-segregating religious communities in the United States, highlighted by the Amish, Mennonites, and Hasidic Jews. Ex-Hasidic author Joshua Halberstam says, "You can choose what you want here and one of those choices is not to become a part of the mass culture." But Tibetan Buddhist Tsering, fleeing harassment and torture in China, is different in that she is not attempting to create an insulated community for her faith. The episode does a wonderful job showing her dilemma: caught in a legal limbo, she experiences the loneliness of a refugee in a foreign land, writing to her daughters in India, feeling homesick, and struggling through the U.S. system to get asylum status.

The legal intricacies of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, specifically its incorporation into the Department of Homeland Security and related post-9/11 convolutions, is a fascinating subject raised in nearly every segment. "Breaking Free: A Women's Journey" not only addresses these issues, but also highlights the attempts of a Guatemalan trying to set a legal precedent for political asylum based on sexual oppression. Rodi Alvarado fled her country after husband beat and repeatedly threatened to kill her. The local legal system -- in a country where six of 10 women murdered are killed by their husbands -- refused to help her. Immigration attorney Karen Musalo lucidly explains the refugee-status process and institutional barriers that discourage Rodi from claiming spousal abuse.

The episode closes with Rodi's legal situation still highly uncertain; still, she has created a support group to assist women in similar situations. Rodi is one of many people in Destination America, including a Mexican social club leader and an Iranian political activist, who have used the opportunities afforded by America to enrich the lives of others. The effects can be simple but profound. As Rosa Cavalleri, a turn-of-the-century Italian immigrant, is quoted as saying, "Now I'm not afraid any more. This is what America taught me."

This is a fine but familiar sentiment, and throughout, the series doesn't illuminate much beyond what we already know about immigration experiences. Fang-Yi does not want to become an America citizen; Manuel will return to Mexico; Tsering has lived in countries other than the U.S. and China. How do these amorphous national loyalties affect "national identity"? How have changing immigration policies, particularly quota crackdowns in the early 20th century, produced the current fearful moment? Destination America leaves such questions unasked.





'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.