A documentary narrated by Ruben Martinez, offers insights into what it means to be an “American” today in a vitiated atmosphere
On a crisp and sunny winter morning I found myself in a vast hall near the Federal Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, along with hundreds of other freshly minted United States citizens. We had assembled to take our oath of allegiance and pick up our naturalisation certificates. It was a heady feeling and a dream come true for many. A lady sitting next to me dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief as tears rolled down her face.
Walking out after the naturalisation ceremony, I observed a large group of people standing outside the federal building, holding placards that read: “We are all immigrants”, and waving American flags. They were petitioning for the passage of the ‘DREAM Act’, a bill that aimed to grant legal status to young immigrants (‘Dreamers’) brought to the US illegally by their parents. The vast majority of Dreamers happened to be from Mexico.
I had recently come across some disturbing statistics in the local newspaper. The undocumented student population was rapidly increasing; approximately 65,000 illegal immigrant students graduate from US high schools on a yearly basis, which meant that a growing pool of bright young people had to navigate their way through the system and through life without papers, a daunting if not defeating prospect.
These kids were as entitled as I was, perhaps more so, to the rights and privileges that came with citizenship but sadly would be relegated to living in the shadows for the rest of their lives. As Californians, we lived cheek-by-jowl with the teeming nation of Mexico. The bond between the two nations was as old as the hills. I had grown to appreciate the rich and vibrant Latino culture that permeated every aspect of life in this part of the country and honed my Spanish language skills during the year I lived in Mexico City, working at a television network.
According to The Center for Migration Studies, there were 11 million people in 2015 living in the U.S. illegally — comprising 3.5 per cent of the total population — of which approximately half were of Mexican origin. One of the major causes of the illegal immigration “problem” was the flooding of Mexican markets by heavily subsidised American produce that local farmers had no chance of competing against. It wiped out entire communities that depended on staples like corn, leaving them with no choice but to migrate north in search of better wages and living conditions.
The long arduous trek across the unforgiving desert was not for the fainthearted. Thousands of migrants lost their lives while trying to cross over to the other side and those who survived were preyed on by thieves and bandits.
I spent the next few months digging up whatever I could find on the subject and ended up making a film called Max Kennedy and the American Dream which explored the issue through the eyes of a self-appointed, anti-immigration vigilante, a “Minuteman”, interweaving his story with that of the migrants attempting to cross the border.
I’d encountered someone from whom I would learn more about the tortured soul of America than anyone else I had known thus far. Max Kennedy agreed to have a camera crew follow him, if we could endure the privations of life on the arid border. The nine months that followed were a social experiment infused with a strange irony: an anti-immigration activist and vigilante telling his story to an immigrant filmmaker.
The film was finally released in 2011, towards the end of Arnold Schwarzenneger’s second term as the governor of California and was broadcast all over the world and streamed on many digital platforms.
Fast forward six years to November 2016. Donald Trump is sworn in as President of the United States.
He had jumped to the front of the line through a campaign of relentless fear-mongering and by stoking the widespread feelings of disenfranchisement and resentment that lay simmering below the surface.
Dark skinned immigrants from “shithole countries” were ostensibly “stealing American jobs”, engaging in drug trafficking, sex crimes, and of course, terrorism. Vast numbers of working class white Americans, drawn to Trump’s brand of xenophobic nationalism, rallied in support of his proposed plan to build a ‘great wall’ along the 2000-mile-long border to stop Mexicans from entering the country.
Exploiting racial and ethnic fault lines and scapegoating of minorities to polarize the electorate has worked as a potent campaign strategy all over the world and India is no exception. Hindutva strongman Narendra Modi rode to power on a wave of majoritarian anti-Muslim sentiment only two years prior to the US election.
When 40 lakh residents of Assam, many of whom had lived in the state most of their lives, were excluded from the National Register of Citizens, ostensibly for living in the country illegally, it brought up striking parallels with the situation between the United States and Mexico. Both countries shared a porous border with nations — in this case Bangladesh — with whom they shared deep cultural and historical ties before an arbitrary line in the sand divided them, creating fault lines that continue to fester and have serious repercussions across the board.
More recently, close to 12,000 children were detained in hastily assembled refugee shelters, with 2,047 of those being children who had been separated from their parents. The rest — about 83 per cent — had crossed the US border without a parent or legal guardian. It got worse. Close to 2,000 children who had been separated from their guardians had gone missing and were currently untraceable.
When I looked at the raw footage I had originally shot for the film, I realised that I still had a ton of unused material that was perhaps more relevant now than at the time of filming. I decided to revisit the project and make a “sequel” of sorts. This time I wanted to tell the story purely from the immigrant’s point of view. I quickly sketched out an outline and called up my editor to help me put it all together. We updated the story with contemporary and archival footage of Donald Trump and named it Tijuana Dreams after the storeyed border town that is one of the main points of entry — both legal and illegal — into the United States.
The film is narrated, among others, by acclaimed author, journalist and Emmy award-winning host, Ruben Martinez, and features a cast of colorful and compelling characters both in California and in Mexico. It offers startling insights into what it means to be an “American” today, in an increasingly polarised and vitiated climate. As one of the characters in my film says, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”
We locked edit on the film last week and here we are with a completed film ready to hit the festival, broadcast and digital circuit. As we speak many countries are enacting legislation to disenfranchise their minorities or providing implicit support to forces that brutalise them. Hopefully this effort will shine a light on one of the most urgent crises of our times.