Friday, October 23, 2009

La Ciudad

I have been so busy with school lately that I haven't been able to post anything for a while. Just to keep up I thought I'd share something that I wrote for my class: Race, Class, and Gender in American Film. The following paper is a response to screening La Ciudad, a 1997 film by director David Riker.

Loss, frustration, hope, and the promise of a new life in the land of opportunity are just some of the components of the stories that unfold in the four chapters of La Ciudad. Each chapter starts its journey from the central location of a photography shop that advertises visa applications and passport photos. Inside la photgrafia, false backdrops are put in place to help create the artifice that accompanies the smiles of these people who are ever-present but rarely seen. A montage of black and white portraits give us glimpses into the faces of Latin American immigrants longing for opportunity. These are faces worn away by poverty and suffering, yet filled with hope; these portraits provide a chance for us to see those who are otherwise invisible, and the photographs themselves are proof of their existence.

Riker’s searing depiction of Latin American Immigrant life is especially hard hitting. It is an unrelenting and often unpleasant, gut punch of reality to a nation founded by forefathers who fled their own homelands to create greater opportunity for future generations. The same manner of hardships and social injustices that were so difficult to overcome for the Irish, Italian, Eastern European, and Jewish immigrants of the last century, continue to impede Latin American immigrants today. It is ironic that Riker’s stories take place in New York City, the home of Ellis Island, historically the first major point of entry for immigrants, a city nicknamed ‘the melting pot’ to describe its densely populated immigrant neighborhoods, and a city that boasts and celebrates its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural diversity.

The quartet of challenging and heartbreaking stories in La Ciudad brings to the surface an abundance of critical issues. As the agonizing lives of these new Americans unfold with an increasing sense of urgency, each segment is strung together, and floats atop the curious choice of romantic woodwind, chamber music. The plaintive call of an oboe leads the viewer from one chapter to the next, and perhaps this choice of a melancholy wind ensemble is meant to echo the sustained motifs of being lost, faith, disassociation from family, and the concept of ‘home.' Where is home? What is home? The answers to these questions about home are never answered directly, but it is revealed that home may be a station wagon in an abandoned lot, a housing project, faraway places in cherished letters, or more consequential, but certainly less tangible; the love of a child and family.

I was very interested to read about the casting of non-actors in the film, the challenges that that involved, and the various improvisation exercises that were used to help create a trusting and safe environment for the players to express their inner emotional life; intimate and painful emotions that were expressed and captured so vividly in the film. Especially moving to me was the description of the improvisation exercise in the church where the women were crawling under tables and chairs, remembering what it was like crossing the border at night. During the exercise one woman pulled off her earrings and put them in her bra to protect herself from being robbed, the other women saw this gesture, remembered the same experience, and began to cry.

La Ciudad examines illegal immigration, health care, and education; all vital issues that always carry weight and urgency but, in the current political climate these issues are perhaps more relevant than ever. Just this past September, South Carolina House Representative Joe Wilson interrupted a Presidential address shouting, “You lie!” when the President mentioned Illegal immigrants not being covered in the current healthcare bill. Xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment is so high that this kind of unwarranted, ignorant eruption should hardly seem shocking. The white, patriarchal, capitalist ideal is being threatened and its protectors will vociferously object, no matter how inappropriate or sophomoric.

I lived in San Francisco for ten years and during that time I worked in a number of restaurants. From my experience working in the food service industry I saw that behind the scenes, or in ‘the back of the house’, a number of the people who contribute to the successful operation of a restaurant are undocumented workers. It being California, most of these workers were Mexican. At one of the restaurants, where I worked for a number of years, there were several young Mexican men who washed dishes, bussed tables, cleaned the restaurant after hours, and a few eventually worked their way to kitchen staff. They lived together in an apartment with several other young Mexican men, they worked as many shifts as they could, and they sent most of their money home to help support their families in Mexico. These men, boys really, were always pleasant, good spirited, friendly, helpful, and sometimes worked twelve or fourteen-hour shifts. I can only recount my own experience in the food industry where the undocumented workers that I worked with were being paid and fed regularly, I have no personal familiarity to relate anything of the experience of the migrant workers who maintain farms all over the nation, or of the day laborers that I would see waiting for work in front of the lumber yards in San Francisco’s Mission district, or of the unfair and exploitative conditions of the many other undocumented workers, like those shown in the film.

I am baffled and infuriated by claims that Mexicans are crossing the borders and taking American jobs. I do not believe that an American is losing their job because an undocumented Mexican is willing to work fourteen hours a day as a dishwasher, or sewing bridesmaid’s dresses in a sweatshop, or picking lettuce. No one is losing employment because immigrants are being used, however illegally, to continue to grease the wheels of capitalism. Behind these misleading claims that immigrants are corrupting the nation and the economy is a world of ignorance. Those who champion these opinions may perhaps not recognize that many of the components that contribute to their own entitled lives may very well have passed through immigrant hands; the bricks that hold up their walls, the vegetables on their dining room tables, the dishes they eat off of in restaurants, or the take-out dinners being delivered to their front doors.

These same imprudent voices call for building walls at the border. Building walls at the border will only force immigrants to find other ways to enter the country. Workers will go where there is work and no wall will prevent this from happening. The continued misdirected anger at illegal immigrants in the name of patriotism is pointless and misguided. Migrant workers are driven by need and as long as there is work they will be there. Building bridges rather than walls is what we should be concentrating on. The United States is a market place and immigrants will be coming here whether it is legally sanctioned or not. Rather than continue this futile fight to protect our borders from the perceived enemy of an immigrant workforce, our nation might consider creating programs that will permit immigrants to work in this country and return home to their own countries to support their families.

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