Made in L.A.

At the protests, no one sees you as inferior.

— Lupe Hernandez

Partway through Made in L.A., a group of Latina garment workers travel to Ellis Island. Seeking a context for their current struggle, they listen carefully to the tour guide and take notes on the exhibits. “Everything remains the same,” sighs Lupe Hernandez. As she absorbs the history that so closely mirrors her own experience — the pictures of old-fashioned sewing machines, the stories of sweatshops — Lupe comes on a photo of women in shirtwaist dresses carrying protest placards. “Organize,” reads one.

“When you look at the boats, with people arriving,” Lupe says in voiceover, “You realize that the majority of people living here are immigrants.” Understanding this affiliation, with past labor abuses and protests, with other immigrants then and now, Lupe has something of a revelation. As she puts it, “Most immigrants come to this country and think there are lots of jobs, but they’re jobs of exploitation. Domestic work, garment work, day laborers, janitors: all jobs that are badly paid and strenuous that other people won’t do. But if you’re undocumented and don’t know English, you can’t do anything else. You basically don’t exist. And I tell you because for me, it was 13 years.”

Now, Lupe exists. In Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar’s rousing documentary (premiering tonight, airing on PBS’ P.O.V. series), Lupe’s story — from immigration to exploitation to organization — is at once singular and typical. As a teenager, she came from Mexico City and took a job in L.A.’s garment industry, alongside her sister. “Like that,” she says, “My life changed in a week.” Her hours were long, without breaks for meals or bathroom visits, she was expected to take work home, and her wages were below minimum wage. With no legal or political recourse, Lupe and her fellow workers came to assume this was the way life would be for them, without change or hope.

Made in L.A. shows the process by which Lupe and two coworkers — María Pineda and Maura Colorado — did change, by their own decision-making and their own commitment to a cause that was completely theirs, but was also, in the end, much more than their own. “When it started, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” one confesses, over images of the difficult conditions they faced daily. “We just knew what we had to do.” They come to this sense of common mission in the face of common hardships, though they come from different backgrounds. María grew up on a ranch in Mexico, met her husband at age 14, and was married by 18. They moved to the States, and immediately, she was working in a sweatshop. “I often felt,” she says, “like I was going crazy. I felt desperate.” As the film shows photos of María in her white wedding dress,” she remembers, “I thought it’d be different here. I’d study, have a career, I’d be happy. I was full of dreams.” The photo gives way to a sewing machine wheel.

Maura tells another story. She left behind her three young sons in El Salvador, she says, while watching an ancient video cassette of the boys and her parents. “It’s from 1987,” she explains. With her own country at war, she was unable to support her family; she and her sister, also working at the sweatshop, laugh as they recall “waiting like monkeys” for mangos to fall from trees, so they’d have something to eat. Maura’s parents paid a coyote to bring her over the border (“I did okay, but others lose parts of their bodies, or they die or they’re killed”), and, she notes tearfully, she hasn’t seen her children for 18 years. “The tape is failing,” she sighs, as the TV screen image of her kids, all giggles and knobby knees, dissolves into static.

While working in the garment industry seems the only option (“They didn’t ask for papers or experience”), it’s plainly horrific. The sheer exhaustion the women face each day is daunting enough, but the lack of respect they endure is horrifying. When they discover the Garment Worker Center (GWC), its handmade signage indistinguishable from a hundred other storefronts, the women not only find comfort in one another, but also that they have options in dealing with their low wages, long hours, and job-related injuries. Organizer Joann Lo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants and a Yale graduate, explains that the state of California actually protects workers’ rights — all workers. Some weeks later, the group decides to bring a lawsuit against the company benefiting directly from the exploitation of workers at their sweatshop, Forever 21.

As the film reports, Forever 21, at the time an “emerging powerhouse in the young woman’s fashion industry,” was profiting from a pyramid-like structure, allowing the company no direct contact or contracting with the people who actually made the clothing. When owner Do Won Chang claimed his retail business was not responsible for the garment workers, as he did not employ them directly, the GWC legal team sued anyway, hoping to make an example of this “groundbreaking” case, claiming, as labor attorney Julie Su puts it, that retail is “responsible for wages.”

In order to make this case as public as possible, the workers decide to boycott Forever 21, and begin picketing. Made in L.A. follows the lengthy course of the protest and the legal case: when the initial case is dismissed by a judge, the legal team mounts an appeal, and a settlement is only reached after some three years of work. The legalities occur in a kind of background, with various steps of the case brought to the attention of assembled workers at GWC, who make decisions along the way as to how to proceed. Still, the documentary remains focused on how Lupe, Maura, and María cope with the considerable strain of protesting, marching outside Forever 21 stores, appearing before audiences and telling their stories again and again. Though María is nervous before each presentation, Joann encourages her, “You’ll have more impact if you talk about your own experience.” When María remembers being fired after asking her boss “for my rights,” she cries. He “even spat on me,” she says, “It’s like they throw your dignity to the floor and you have to put up with it because of the need to earn even a little bit.”

As the film shows, the protesting process in itself helps the workers recover some sense of dignity: they travel to DC and New York to make their case more visible. And in seeing more of the world, they realize they are doing this work not only for themselves, not even only for their children, but also for workers all over the United States and the world. Near film’s end Lupe realizes the significance of the word “organize” for herself, and applies to become a Latina organizer. “Goodbye garment work,” she says, smiling ruefully, “For a while.” The new job grants her the chance to take a vacation — her first ever — and she travels back to Mexico. “It’s important to know your roots,” she says, so you know where you’re going. When her sister-in-law recalls that she was difficult as a youngster (“We couldn’t go outside because she’d start insulting people”), Lupe notes the changes in her outlook. “I’m not such a fighter anymore,” she asserts, somewhat ironically, given the very effective fighting in which she now engages. “I think about things more, I see the bigger picture.”

As Made in L.A. demonstrates, this “bigger picture” can be surprising and inspiring, even when it first looks intimidating. If it uses some familiar techniques — newspaper headlines to track events, lots of talking heads — the different, interrelated experiences of Lupe, Maura, and María underscore the importance of individual stories, as they make up the bigger picture.

RATING 7 / 10