Author Archives: erasingborders
“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people must unite, or they will perish.” J.Robert Oppenheimer spoke these words soon after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The chief of the Los Alamos team that produced the first nuclear weapons joined many other atomic scientists in calling for international oversight of future development of atomic weapons and atomic energy.
The scientists’ anguish over the cataclysmic potential of nuclear bombs led to the creation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists of Los Alamos. Their December 1945 newsletter editorialized, “the preservation of…secrecy on a purely national basis would represent the defeat of any adequate program of international control.”
At the same time, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded in 1945 by Los Alamos and Manhattan Project team members who “could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work.” Several of them also contributed essays to the best selling book of 1946 titled One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb.
Oppenheimer continued to call for international control of atomic weapons in the 1960’s. At a series of lectures at Oxford in 1962 he declared, “[…] We think of this as our contribution to the making of a world which is varied and cherishes variety, which is free and cherishes freedom, and which is freely
changing to adapt to the inevitable needs of change in the twentieth century and all centuries to come, but a world which, with all its variety, freedom, and change, is without nation states armed for war and above all, a world without war.”
Albert Einstein was among the leading scientists who hoped the United Nations would provide the institutional framework for control of atomic weapons and atomic energy. He began his appeal to the Second General Assembly of the UN in 1947 lamenting: “Since the victory over the Axis powers – no appreciable progress has been made either toward the prevention of war or toward agreement in specific fields such as control of atomic energy”. Anticipating the argument that the U.S. or any other nation’s hegemony in nuclear weapons would guarantee security and peace, Einstein declared, “However, strong national armaments may be they do not create military security for any nation nor do they guarantee the maintenance of peace.”
Einstein’s appeal to the U.N. warned against the idolatry of national sovereignty as hampering progress toward international peace and security. “There can never be complete agreement on international control and the administration of atomic energy or on general disarmament until there is a modification of the traditional concept of national sovereignty…. Security is indivisible. It can be reached only when necessary guarantees of law and enforcement obtain everywhere, so that military security is no longer the problem of any single state.”
The hope for a world order without armed forces and weapons deployed by individual nation states soon gave way to the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The 1946 founding of the United Nations represented for Einstein and many others a departure from and repudiation of the logic of nationalism and national sovereignty. Expectations that progress in creating a world system of law and order would follow soon gave way to a new scramble to maintain control of the resources in the former colonies of Europe. It is the devotion to the defense of national sovereignty, a conception of world order most developed in the 19th Century, that drives opposition to “open borders” today.
Our “national sovereignty” is referred to as threatened by immigration to the U.S. Migrants today constitute an “invasion” of the country. Such language leads to further militarization of the 1,933 mile southern border of the U.S. Building a wall to ensure long term security ignores ample evidence that what hasn’t worked in the past won’t work in our time. The push for building a wall contributes to the hysteria surrounding immigration without contributing to the defense of the nation or clearing a path for progress in immigration reform.
Responding to increases in the number of migrants by building a wall does illuminate for us the dangers of clinging to outmoded, archaic thinking behind public policies based on defense of “national sovereignty”. Defense of our people in this nation from the potential consequences of atomic warfare, of global climate change and of mass migration from impoverished regions most affected requires the U.S. to rethink its posture and politics of “America First”. What must happen before we commit to international cooperation and control in this “one world or none”? What degree of catastrophe in the U.S. must occur before we open our minds to “open borders”?
A friend recently asked me, “Our immigration system is a mess but are you really for ‘open borders’?” The last serious discussion about immigration reform in the U.S. Congress got nowhere largely because Tea Party members and other Republicans loudly voiced opposition to any form of “amnesty” for immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for years without legal immigration status documentation. Now the tactic of anti-immigration reform activists seems to be to attack any reform-minded politician by accusing them of being for “open borders”.
This is an appropriate time then to consider what those have said who have looked at our earth and its conflicts from the perspective of outer space. So in this year of the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, l respond to my friend’s inquiring if I am for “open borders” with the following comments from those who have looked at earth and our controversies from space.
“Now I know why I’m here. Not for a closer look at the moon, but to look back at our home the Earth.”
– Alfred Worden,
Apollo 15, 1971, USA
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” — Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
“The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”
– Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud,
Discovery 5, Saudi Arabia
“From space I saw Earth – indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone.”
– Muhammad Amhad Faris,
Soyuz TM-3, Syria
“The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”
– James Irwin,
Apollo 15, USA
The scientist who is most widely known for his contributions to U.S. advances in space travel, Carl Sagan, wrote in his 1980 best seller Cosmos ,
“National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.”
Based on the wisdom gained by those who have experienced space travel, proponents of immigration reform might say we need not fear to join the rest of the universe in advocating for “open borders” on our planet. Our science has enabled us to overcome human ignorance about the extraordinary nature of human beings and our earth in the cosmos but our ethics and our politics have bound us to human weakness and error in managing our responsibilities on earth.
Wendy Garcia, a Honduran mother of seven, joined others in her rural community to protest pollution of their primary source of water. While many U.S. immigrants fear reprisals for their political protest, we need to remember that there are many other Honduran immigrants who silently resist by fleeing from the desperate poverty and violence resulting from what the U.S. has claimed is “foreign aid” in their country.
Policies of aid that favor dictatorships either led by or beholden to the country’s military have sown seeds of violence and civil war throughout Central and South America for many years. Our policies consistently have been guided by the interests of U.S. based international corporations and call for limiting government social services and support for foreign investors who export most of the profits to off shore bank accounts.
These policies need to be taken into account in any discussion of U.S. immigration policies. They have created the conditions of deprivation and desperation that lead so many to leave home in order to sustain their families’ health and well being. The following account of Wendy Garcia’s resistance to pollution of her community’s water source establishes her application for asylum status as a political refugee. We must however remember those other immigrants from the south who have silently resisted their governments’ brutal repression and corporate exploitation of their communities’ resources by marching north.
Mrs. Garcia’s story below has been shortened. For the full account, go to:
“I am seeking asylum in the US because of a hydroelectric dam. I fled Honduras fearing for my life after being tear gassed by police and arrested when our community resisted a dam which contaminated the water we rely on for drinking, cooking and washing.
I come from a small community where our water flows from the mountains into the River Mezapa. The communities who rely on the river organised many years ago to install a water system which stores and distributes water to people’s houses.
Every household paid a monthly contribution to ensure the riverbanks stayed clean, and the system functioned well. We had enough water, and it was crystal clear – clean enough to drink.
The problems started as soon as construction began: the dam company chopped down lots of trees on the river bank. The water turned browny yellow and tasted like iron, so we couldn’t use it any more.
In early 2017, a roadblock was set up in the Pajuiles community to stop the heavy machinery getting past. At first I didn’t want to get involved: I was scared because there are powerful people behind the dam.
But as our clean water turned to mud, I realised that if we didn’t stop the dam we could all die from thirst.
Early in the morning of 15 August 2017, we were coming to the end of the night shift at the roadblock when we heard that the police were on their way. It was only my third or fourth time at the roadblock.
Suddenly, there were armed police and Swat teams everywhere, throwing teargas into people’s houses. There was so much smoke we could barely see, and I’ve suffered from blurry vision ever since.
I ran into a house but went back out to look for my son – and that’s when they arrested me. Ten of us were arrested, including several elderly neighbours and a pregnant woman. We were held from 10am to 1am the next day.
Our camp was destroyed, and the police escorted the company’s machinery to the river. We were charged with trespass for blocking a public road. The police took our photos – and this really frightened me because in Honduras the police kill ordinary people.
I became even more scared when a few months later in January 2018, a colleague in the community struggle, Geovanni , was murdered by police who dragged him into the street and shot him dead.
If they did that to him, they could kill me too, and then who would support my children? In Honduras, money is power, and we, the poor people, don’t have access to justice.
That’s why I left Honduras. That’s why I’m seeking asylum in the US.”
The House of Broken Angels is a novel that seems destined to further build Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea’s international reputation and readership. Published in 2018, Urrea’s novel was glowingly reviewed by the Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen in the New York Times and is the Times-PBS “Now Read This” July Book of the Month selection.
Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother and went to college in San Diego. Though identified as a “border writer” his website quotes him saying, “I am more interested in bridges than borders”. Like the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón with the Academy Award winning “Roma”, Urrea’s work represents a clear window through which Mexican culture and family life can be viewed and a “bridge” is built between the U.S. and Mexico. It was inspired by the death of his older brother from cancer. He says on the Times book review podcast that his family threw a 70th birthday party for his brother, “his last birthday party on earth”, as the de la Cruz family does for the family patriarch in the book.
Another strong motivation in writing the book was political – particularly the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump 2016 campaign. “The subtitle of the book should be ‘Go to Hell, Donald,’” the author told an interviewer. He went on to say, “I couldn’t any longer take all the rhetoric, I couldn’t any longer take all the ‘build-the-wall’ propaganda or the ‘bad hombres’ and all of the damage and harm and heartbreak this course in American politics is taking in people’s lives on a daily basis.” It is the author’s humor and love for all kinds of people that stand out and stay with Urrea’s readers. He says that after his public readings from the book, “I’m hugging a lot of people. Every night, my jacket smells like 14 perfumes and seven after-shaves. People want hugs.”
New York Times review in March 2018 of The House of Broken Angels :
“Now Read This” NYTimes-PBS Facebook group discussion of The House of Broken Angels :
Urrea talks about why he wrote the book with Pamela Paul on the New York Times Book Review podcast:
Speaking of higher tariffs on Mexican imports and the wisdom of closing the border with our neighbor to the south, I want to share a favorite piece of Mexican folk music. “Ya viene el tren de Durango” sings a Mexican migrant farm laborer who leaves his home in rural Mexixo to work in the fields of “el norte”, across the U.S. border. The song was inspired by the experience of migrant “bracero” farm laborers in the U.S. fields of the early 1940’s to the early 1960’s.
These primarily Mexican farmworkers replaced the labor force conscripted for WW II and, with the increase in U.S. population and demand, now provide most of the cultivators, weeders and pickers of U.S. crops. To call essential migrant farmworkers “illegal” is one of the many grotesque consequences of the lack of a comprehensive update of U.S. immigration laws since the Reagan administration.
You may listen to the song “Ya Viene el Tren de Durango” as sung by folk musicians of Northern Mexico, including Jose Ignacio Cardenas Alvarado, the song’s composer. Its lovely melody, simplicity of language, and the singer’s clear enunciation make it ideal for Spanish language learning.
“Here comes the train from Durango,
I must say good bye now, here in the Goma station,
to seek my future.
From Torreon to the City of Juarez
I’ll take yet another train
and then cross the border
so I don’t know when I’ll return.
I know how to make the cuts on alfalfa
I know how to pick cotton
I know how to grow tomatoes, watermelon and squash.
But I leave as a poor fellow
and the money I take isn’t enough
when I’m on the other side
and run out of dough.
So look my pretty old lady
the dollars we told our children
I’d bring with me
let’s not mention again.
Now is also a good time to remember how the U.S. has for years depended on fruit and vegetables from Mexico to feed its families. Mexico supplied 29 % of the tomatoes eaten in the U.S. in 2016. In that same year, Mexico produced 91 % of the avocadoes consumed in “el norte”.
The effect of increased tariffs on prices of Mexican food imports to the U.S. would of course be dramatic and onerous for millions. Prices of produce would rise from 20 to 40 % an April 3, 2019 Time Magazine article estimated. The same article noted that many large U.S. agriculture firms, Driscoll’s berries is one, now produce food in Mexico with Mexican labor.
U.S. poet Carolyn Forché has written the book of her lifetime and that of many other young U.S. citizens who left their homeland in the sixties and seventies and returned as changed persons to their homeland like “strangers in a strange land”. In Forche’s life, it was El Salvador in the late 1970’s that left the indelible marks on her consciousness that she has since interpreted with her poetry and the poetry of other witnesses to resistance and courage. It took her forty years but we can now celebrate her devotion to the truth and her craft that compelled her to write the story of her expanding awareness of what it was like to be a Salvadoran shortly before the 12 years of Civil War in the country.
Before the poet’s first visit to El Salvador in 1978, she might have read that the life expectancy of a Salvadoran male was 47, that of a female slightly longer. Eighty per cent of the population lived without running water, sanitation or electricity and one out of five children died before age five. Forché might also have read the 1931 dispatch of a U.S. military attaché that still held true after fifty years of dictatorship backed by the military: “30 or 40 families own nearly everything in the country. They live in almost regal style……The rest of the population has practically nothing.” Her empathy and her heart compelled her to learn the truth behind the facts and communicate what she learned with this book.
Explaining why she went, she wrote, “Although I had a college education, I knew very little about the rest of the world.” Her translation of a revolutionary Salvadoran female poet had brought her to the attention of the man who drove hundreds of miles to issue the invitation to learn about his country and the world. In many ways the main character and driving force of the book, Leonel Gómez Vides, describes her task during her first experience of rural El Salvador, “You could use your time here to learn what it is to be Salvadoran, to become that young woman over there who bore her first child at 13 and who spends all her days sorting tobacco leaves according to their size.”
Her host, guide, protector, mentor Leonel is a well connected, highly accomplished member of the Salvadoran elite whose coffee plantation and wealth allow him access to all sides in the country’s looming conflict. The movement to break “the silence of misery endured” is growing and Leonel tells her, “The Civil War is three years ahead, five at the most”. In persuading her to accept his invitation he avers it will be “like visiting Vietnam before the War there”.
There are indeed many disturbing parallels with the horror Americans became accustomed to hearing about during the prolonged U.S. War in Southeast Asia. On her 7 “extended” stays in El Salvador between her first visit in January 1978 and the outbreak of the guerrilla fighting in mid 1980, Forché is a witness to the torture, intimidation and dismembering of the poor and those who side with them. She meets with leaders of those carrying out the gruesome repression, the Salvadoran intelligence and military men who are “trained by U.S. advisors”, the unsettling refrain we have become accustomed to reading and hearing since the early 1960’s. Before she reaches age 30, Forche is taken inside a prison on the Guatemalan border where captives are held in wooden boxes the size of washing machines, reminiscent of the “tiger cages” used for political prisoners in Vietnam.
Three times Forché is herself pursued by “death squads” responsible for “disappearing” suspected opponents of the ruling elite. That she continues to return to a country threatening terror and death is powerful testimony to the conviction and courage of those serving the Salvadoran poor and to the impact of what the poet is learning from them. Describing herself as a “fallen Catholic”, she finds herself interacting with priests and church servants as the leading defenders of the poor. She meets a priest in a rural “Christian base community” who tells her, “To be with God now is to choose the fate of the poor, to be with them, to see through their eyes and feel through their hearts, and if this means torture and death, we accept. We are already in the grave.”
Without polemic or any socio economic analysis of the historical background or U.S. economic interests in El Salvador, Forché simply and directly relates the nature of U.S. involvement in the country. It is apparent that the involvement prioritizes a heightened military repression of the people and organizations dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Salvadoran poor. The official at the U.S. Embassy responsible for U.S. health aid to the country explains she doesn’t have time to visit the clinics and hospitals the U.S. aid intends to support. “I have plenty of work to do right here at my desk” she responds pointing to a pile of papers. In spite of the Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights, the new U.S. Ambassador tells Forché that the truth about the U.S. citizen dropped from a Salvadoran army helicopter during the previous Ambassador’s term will not be pursued. Forché later learns that most of the plastic latrines distributed in the health official’s “latrinization program” were dismantled for housing construction.
In taking the land and the suffering of the people to heart, the poet finds it hard to return home as the armed conflict nears. Among the book’s homages to Archbishop Oscar Romero is her account of how “the voice of the poor” encourages her to return home and tell the truth about the conflict in his country. When she expresses doubt she can do that “he assured me that the time would come for me to speak and that I must prepare myself and I could do that best through prayer.” She last speaks with the saintly Archbishop days before his assassination in the capital’s cathedral, not long before the outbreak of Civil War.
During 12 years of armed conflict, 100,000 lives are taken, 8,000 “disappear”, 500,000 citizens are displaced and 500,000 flee the country, thereby beginning the tide of Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. Concluding the book’s masterful portrayal of the elusive character of Leonel Gómes Vides, Forché describes his leading role in bringing about the peace accord. The mysterious stranger who appears on her San Diego doorstep at the book’s outset is revealed in the end as the heroic reconciler of the factions.
After the peace agreement is reached, Forché finally began to write her account of what she has seen and learned. Fifteen years later this important, lyrically written document was published not long after Leonel died in a hospital. Among his achievements was choosing Carolyn Forché to tell the truth about his country’s suffering. He told her early on, “I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing, this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.” Most readers will agree that Forché has succeeded on all three counts with this book. She has overcome all the difficulties of immersing us in the agony of contemporary El Salvador and making us and the Salvadoran people, some of our neighbors today, more human.
In a dramatic defense of the right of migrants to seek asylum when fleeing persecution and threats to their life, a Congolese-American U.S. citizen climbed the Statue of Liberty on 2018. U.S. Independence Day 2018. This year Patricia Okoumo continued her protest of the official U.S. response to migrants at the southern border by scaling the Austin, TX Southwest Key immigrant detention facility last month. Southwest Key is contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) to detain and/or keep tabs on migrants who have fled their violence-plagued homelands.
In interviews following her climb to the base of the Liberty statue, Okoumou highlighted the plight of hundreds of migrant families separated by ICE detention. Despite prior pledges to reunite the families, ICE reported there were still up to 3000 children who remained in children-only detention when the climb at the Statue took place. In one interview the 44 year old protestor stated, “I felt peaceful, that I was with those children in spirit. I could feel their isolation and their cries being answered only by four walls.” Buffeted by high winds for three hours before her arrest and descent from the Statue, Okoumou said, “I was thinking of Lady Liberty above me, you are so huge, you have always been a symbol of welcome to people arriving in America and right now, for me under this sandal, she is a shelter.”
For a decade now, both the Obama and Trump administrations have sought to discourage Central Americans seeking refuge in the U.S. from their countries’ rampant violence. Although El Salvador and Honduras both rank among the five most violent countries in the world today, the Trump administration has drastically reduced the number of asylum applicants admitted to this country. For the fiscal year 2018, there was a cap set of 45,000 asylees, but only 22,491 people were eventually accepted. Further discouraging migrants who might willfully submit to the U.S. immigration process, as of July 2018 the average wait time for an immigration hearing was 721 days. While funding of ICE apprehension and detention of migrants increased substantially during the Obama years and has continued to rise under Trump, allocations for hiring more immigration judges has not kept up.
Under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed by the U.S. and more than 140 other countries, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. A study by the UN High Commission for Refugees found that 80 per cent of the women from Central America and Mexico applying for asylum at the U.S. southern border were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.” In practice, the U.S. denied 89 per cent of the asylum applications in 2016. Among those deported to their countries of origin, there are well documented cases of asylum seekers being attacked and killed on their return.
The right to seek refuge from potential persecution and violence in one’s home country is a well established principle of internationally recognized human rights. The UN Declaration of Human Rights upheld the right which dates back at least to the time of Ancient Greece. More recently, the U.S. joined 145 other countries in ratifying the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1967.
Following her arrest in Texas, the New York City court ordered Patricia Okoumou to wear an ankle bracelet to enable monitoring of her movements until her sentencing on March 19. Meanwhile, the group Rise and Resist, to which she belongs, calls for the abolition of ICE by the U.S. “We stand on the right side of history,” Okoumou said after she was found guilty by the judge in New York. “I am not … discouraged” she continued. “Today our laws sometimes lack morality and this is a perfect example of that.” In summing up the motives for her dramatic protests she declared while choking up, “I wanted to send a strong statement that children do not belong in cages”.
Zorba in Zorba the Greek , Auda abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia, Paul Gauguin in Lust for Life, Zampano in Fellini’s La Strada – Anthony Quinn was Mexican-American. He was born to a Mexican mother and an Irish father in the Mexican State of Chihuahua during the Mexican Revolution.
Working in East Los Angeles, I was surprised to learn Quinn grew up as a Mexican immigrant in the Eastmont Community Center neighborhood. The Anthony Quinn Public Library on East Third Street is located on the corner where Quinn’s childhood home stood. But Quinn paid little attention to his Mexican heritage in his life or his acting career. His 1952 Oscar-winning role as Emiliano Zapata’s brother in Viva Zapata was one of the very few he took playing a Mexican.
I also learned that children in the schools Quinn attended had been punished for speaking Spanish in the classroom. Anthony Rodolfo Quinn (paternal surname) Oaxaca (maternal surname) was taught that to get ahead in the U.S. you had to assimilate, leave behind your culture of origin and become “American”.
Having financed Roma with his own production company, Alfonso Cuaron left no doubt it was a Mexican film. “It doesn’t exist without Mexico” Cuaron emphasized on Oscar night. The same could be said of other enduring films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Night of the Iguana , and The Wild Bunch. But Roma uniquely was made in Mexico with a Mexican cast and crew speaking Spanish and Mixtec.
The film also was made first and foremost for Mexican audiences. Alfonso Cuaron implied as much when in the post-awards press conference, he stated that he was most gratified by how the film had generated a national conversation about the rights of domestic workers and racism in his Mexican homeland. He also mentioned that he was proud to have strengthened the organizing and outreach of two groups, one in the U.S. and the other in Mexico, who are working on behalf of domestic workers like the protagonist of his film.
All the heralded immigrant Hollywood filmmakers – Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock – helped U.S. audiences understand the U.S. better and, in some cases, revealed for us what others don’t want us to see, as Cuaron put it on Oscar night. But the director of Roma is the first immigrant filmmaker to focus on his childhood homeland for his setting, his themes and inspiration and for the audience he wanted to reach above all. There is no doubt that Roma belonged in the Oscars’ Foreign Film category.
Roma has now raised the question of when the top award at the Oscars will go to a foreign film. Hollywood insiders have said Cuaron’s film came very close this year. With movies making more money overseas and some even premiering outside the U.S., this Mexican film signals an important, new advance in the globalization of the U.S. film and television industry. When a foreign film finally wins the Best Picture award, Oscar voters will be highlighting and celebrating movies’ potential to communicate with audiences all over the world as well as the domestic U.S. audience.
For those of us who have experienced a film’s potential to deepen our understanding and appreciation of other cultures, Roma’s success isvery good news. But it could also be said that the Netflix’s huge investment in distributing and promoting Cuaron’s film is not the first instance of Hollywood money scoring a hit financially and among critics with a “foreign” made film. The first major star of Hollywood movies was the English immigrant Charles Chaplin whose character The Tramp was recognized and loved worldwide. U.S. film historian Andrew Sarris called Chaplin’s character “cinema’s most universal icon”. There is a street in Belgrade named for Charlie Chaplin and no other film star has had as many commemorative postal stamps issued in their honor by countries on six continents.
During the era of silent movies, Chaplin’s Tramp succeeded in communicating powerfully with audiences around the world. It is worth mentioning here that the first couple of minutes of Cuaron’s motion picture is silent. By filming the chores of a domestic worker, Cuaron was able to touch audiences in a way that even surprised the filmmaker. “I least expected it (Oscar recognition) for this movie” Cuaron said in the post-awards press room. We all can attest that a kind of mysterious magic is at work in the best films. At the 1972 Oscars when Chaplin made his first U.S. appearance after a 25 year exile abroad the audience stood and applauded for eleven minutes. They stood in awe of Chaplin and in awe of movies’ potential to move us and remind us of what makes us all human.
In 1951 when I began elementary school less than 100 miles from the California border with Mexico most of the migrant farmworker children – the “second language learners”- occupied trailers next to the back fence. The only contact with the Mexican children I now recall was with a boy whose English proficiency gained him a seat in my class. His family had found year end employment and settled in the town’s barrio, a step up from the migrant families whose children were assigned to the school trailers.
A declining number of children in the United States raised in lower middle class and middle class families have much contact with children or adults who are poor. Our communities, our schools, our cities are designed to prevent interaction with the poor. The “security” industry sells us on a lifestyle and an outlook that disdains, when it does not fear, a relationship with someone of the “lower class”. In Mexico, as the middle class has grown with industrialization and urban growth, it has become customary for families to contract with the poor for domestic help who live with the family.
Having fled to the city, poor women, often of Indian heritage, work in these homes to help their families survive the harsh conditions typical of rural Mexico today. Forty years ago, in a middle-class Guadalajara neighborhood, I rented a two bedroom house with a room on the roof just large enough for doing laundry and housing a maid/housekeeper if we chose to hire one. We managed quite well without that luxury but we didn’t have four children and our mother living with us like the family in the new film “Roma”.
Alfonso Cuaron dedicates “Roma” to “Libo”, the Mixtec Indian woman Liboria Rodriguez, who served his family throughout his childhood in the Mexico City neighborhood still known as Roma. One reviewer has pointed out that Roma is “amor” – love in Spanish – spelled backwards. The film was conceived and shaped by the filmmaker’s gratitude for the heroic role of “Libo” (Cleo in the film) in caring for, watching after and ultimately saving Cuaron’s family members. By telling the story of his childhood from Cleo’s perspective the film’s script writer/director/cinematographer Cuaron enriches and deepens the viewer’s experience while revealing Mexico’s barriers and boundaries of class, ethnic origin, and language.
According to an extensive article by Marcela Valdes in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/13/magazine/alfonso-cuaron-roma-mexico-netflix.html) Cuaron spent long hours speaking with Liboria Rodriguez about her life serving as nanny/housekeeper in his childhood home. He wanted to depict her life of domestic labor accurately, but he also wanted to understand better the conditions in her village that drive so many to seek work in the city. In the article Cuaron is quoted as saying, “When I was a boy, she would tell me about her pueblo, and she told me about the terrible cold they suffered and the hunger they suffered. But for me as a boy, it’s the cold equivalent to ‘Shoot, I forgot my sweater to the movie,’ and the hunger is ‘[Expletive], they’re running two hours late with dinner,’ you know? I had no awareness.” Apart from the wizardry and beauty of Cuaron’s black and white imaging of his past, the triumph of the movie is the filmmaker’s coming to terms with his empathy for the humble woman who served as a second mother to him.
Having gained international recognition as a leading Hollywood film director, with “Roma” Cuaron has also come to terms with his identity as a Mexican film maker. He told the writer of the NYT article, “The film confronted me with the mystery of what I no longer am yet still am at the same time,” In his embrace of his Mexican homeland, Cuaron enthralls us with his love of the clever children’s toys, the cries of street vendors, the unrestrained lunacy and melodrama of Mexican television, the country’s fiesta traditions and much more. Applying the empathy encouraged by his relationship with Libo, the filmmaker also explores the forces which continue to divide and suppress people in Mexico – and elsewhere.
Cleo’s boyfriend in the film is seen in training and later as a member of the paramilitary mercenaries who beat and killed students and workers in the Corpus Christi Massacre on June 10, 1971 in Mexico City. Cuaron notes in his interviews with Valdes that the young man, like so many worldwide, find their adult identity as members of an undercover force who repress the aspirations of their own class. He comments, “They’re invisible, and they’re given a visibility. They’re given training. They’re given discipline, a feeling of belonging, a feeling of being needed. And what is this used for? Not to improve society, to improve social services. No.” The film also portrays members of the U.S. CIA who organize and oversee the training of the poor youth.
Few films aim to depict the social and political context operating behind the story but “Roma’s” creator paints a huge canvas. As the camera follows Cleo through a year and a half of her life we are immersed in Mexican life as lived by middle class professionals like Cuaron’s parents, hacienda owners, soldier and para military trainees, health workers, street vendors, television personalities and more. They are depicted responding to divorce, pregnancy, earthquake, forest fire, a mass political protest, death, near drowning and a lot of dog poop. By the end, I felt as though the soul of a person and a culture had been laid bare before me.
In the course of their long conversations recalling their life together nearly fifty years before, Cuaron asked his nanny Liboria if she would like to be paid for her help on the film. Her response, as reported to Valdes, was “How barbaric. I did it because he’s my child. It’s something done for love.” That also describes the filmmaker’s incentive for making this film: “something done for love”. The film tells the story of a life and a love that for many viewers will be easy to remember and hard to forget.
“For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears.” Ps 39:12b
We in the United States today are battling over what it means to be an American. The battle and the divide is taking place in many settings: in Congress, in the nation’s courts, at the airports, in the streets and most heatedly at our national borders. The conflict has been going on for many years but today with a President insisting on a narrow, exclusionary understanding of “American” the battle has intensified.
We lament the suffering of individuals and families caused by the current Administration’s aggressive pursuit of the “undocumented” while deploring his Republican Party’s standing in the way of comprehensive reform of the nation’s immigration laws for over 30 years. In effect, their stonewalling has made millions living and working in the country for many years “illegal” by their definition of “American”. Immigrants living in this country for twenty years and more have been barred from a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
In a time of unprecedented migration of refugees worldwide, some politicians may reap short term gains from their position on immigration; the anti-immigrant sentiment has swept Europe and undoubtedly contributed to the Trump electoral victory. His party blocks the path to citizenship for immigrants while engaged in a nationwide campaign to restrict and suppress the right to vote of persons of color who are U.S. citizens. This is a short sighted political strategy doomed to fail because it ignores, disrespects and ultimately devalues the nation’s highest ideals.
There is no denying that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants from all over the world. Except for the natives the immigrants displaced, all citizens of this country are descendants of people bringing to this land hopes and dreams forged on the anvil of oppression elsewhere. Whether one lives in the Middle East, Central America or West Africa, yearning to breathe free of violent oppression is not just the story of persons immigrating to the U.S. It is the human story and is a component of the DNA of the human species.
We citizens today of these United States are descendants of Jews fleeing persecution and death in Germany, Irish survivors of spreading famine, Mexicans and Central Americans escaping violence and feudalistic exploitation, English, Scots and Irish seeking religious freedom. So for two hundred forty two years the U.S. has been living a national experiment to remain true to its identity, its self image as a refuge for those storm tossed and “yearning to be free”. As a result of earth’s inhabitants finding safe harbor over decades in this country, the name “America” took on sacred levels of meaning for the country’s citizenry. The origins of the name, however, remains another cause for dispute.
Whether or not the name “America” derives from the name of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, it is indisputable that the name originally applied to both North and South America. Vespucci himself never set foot on North American soil. A recent writer on the origins of the name “America” notes that the name came to apply solely to the United States after so many nationalities settled in the country and referred to the country in their language as their homeland. Jonathan Cohen writes, “to hear the African in the Mayan iq’ amaq’el; to hear the Scandinavian Ommerike, as well as Amteric, and the Algonquin Em-erika; to hear Saint Emeric of Hungary; to hear Amalrich, the Gothic lord of the work ethic; to hear Armorica, the ancient Gaulish name meaning place by the sea; and to hear the English official, Amerike — to hear such echoes in the name of our hemisphere is to hear ourselves”.
To hear the name one also hears echoes of the leaders who have shaped the values and self-image of this nation. Ted Widmer in a 2012 opinion piece titled “Last Best Hope” tells us it was Thomas Jefferson, drafter of our Declaration of Independence, who described America as the “world’s best hope”. Widmer then notes that “Like Jefferson (as Western as he was Southern), Lincoln believed that America’s ample interior spaces would invite millions of immigrants from around the world.”
For Lincoln, according to Widmer, the fact that immigrants continued to pour into the country during our Civil War, with many enlisting in the Federal Army, served as validation for Lincoln’s belief “that America, for all her problems, was still worth fighting for”. Lincoln concluded his first State of the Union message with words that link the freedom of the slave to the freedom sought by U.S. refugees and also speak to what is at stake for the country in his times – and in our own: “In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”
So in our national debate over immigration in these times we are not involved in just a policy discussion. For many of us seeking to defend the right of persons fleeing oppression by extreme economic exploitation and autocratic rulers we seek to defend the best of what this country has offered. We seek to preserve the essence of what enables its description as “a great nation”. We seek to preserve the country’s soul.
Extreme economic inequality, attacks on Muslims, imprisoning and deporting refugees, suppressing the right to vote of U.S. citizens, I could go on but we all recognize multiple ways the “American dream” is fading away in our time. For many of our citizens, there is doubt the dream for them and most others will ever be restored. In acting on behalf of refugees’ rights today, we are reminded and bolstered by the realization that it is not just an “American” dream to live free of persecution and exploitation. It is a human dream. And it is a dream that makes the U.S.A. – and any other people struggling for human freedom – “the last best hope on earth”.