It's a good week to take in the movie A Better Life, an earnest story about an undocumented immigrant father, his Americanized and troubled son, and a pick-up truck. The reason the truck plays such a large roll in the movie is that it is so meaningful. The truck is a source of transportation and livelihood, a symbol of pride and independence. It is also a source of trouble. Luis, the father in the film, is undocumented and therefore not licensed to drive. One misstep and your life and family are transformed - and not for the better.
It's a particularly good week to see this movie as Governor Jerry Brown signed the first part of the California Dream Act, a bill that gives undocumented students the right to apply for and receive higher education financial aid. (Full disclosure - I have been documenting on film the organizing and passing of this bill for the past year as a consultant to the bill's author Assemblyman Gil Cedillo)
A Better Life is about ethnicity and class (It seems to be noisier in working-class and poor neighborhoods judging from the opening of the film) and about the often arbitrary but historically dense creation of our borders and laws.
The great virtue of the film is that it portrays the lives of people who literally live on the margins of our society and in an increasing number of states are social pariahs and political scapegoats. While immigrants are involved in some of the most intimate aspects of our lives - taking care of our children (particularly in upper-middle class neighborhoods) cooking our food and doing the heavy lifting of low-skilled labor - their stories are not often the center of commercial films.
Luis, the son in the movie, is a teenager caught in transition as all teenagers are. Tatted-up gang-bangers compete with his father for his loyalty. His high school looks more like a prison than a place of learning. And the values he has assimilated through the flotsam of American consumer culture are not ennobling.
A Better Life is about individuals making individual choices. In this respect it is a requirement for dramatic tension. But these individual choices take place within a broader context of course. For a fascinating account of the forces that drive immigration purchase Jeffrey Kaye's book Moving Millions - How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration.
Kaye points out that today, one in thirty-five people in the world live in a country that is not the country of their birth. Why this is the case is the subject of his book. This global phenomena is often regarded as a local issue, providing a wedge for political debate. Kaye points to the more complex nature of the dynamics that impact and drive migrant workers.
They are caught up (and "caught" is the correct word as they have no power over the economic reality that impacts them) in global labor supply chains, trade policies, trans-national business decisions and overall inequality. While politicians advocate for higher border-fences, multi-national corporations and their political hired-hands make the decisions that structure and determine the lives of millions. The young man parking your car at a downtown restaurant, is doing so because the price of Mexican corn dropped due to provisions of NAFTA.
The next time someone suggests to you that "You can do anything you want if you try hard enough," suggest that they pick up Kaye's book. He thinks and writes historically, sociologically, politically and economically - the way that good journalists should - detailing the ways in which most people in the world are not masters of their own fate.
And for some interesting facts about the lives of day laborers in Los Angeles check here:
While it is not necessarily troubling for this film - all films require some central and personal focus - there is no recognition in A Better Life that there is a thriving Latino Middle-Class in Los Angeles - or that there is a Latino Mayor for that matter. We see the barrios and taco trucks but not La Serenata, a high end Mexican Restaurant in East Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
And Peter Schrag, another journalist who has written thoughtfully about immigration, outlines a potentially redemptive economic future driven largely by immigrants.
With the Federal Government in a political stalemate, there is not much hope for comprehensive immigration reform. If they can't agree on extending the debt ceiling, can anyone imagine a sensible approach to immigration? So we default to the state level. And this week's move by Governor Brown is one success that opens up the political space for others.
Lets work towards an environment where losing one's truck does not lead to deportation, economic devastation and the sundering of families.
Jeffrey Kaye - Moving Millions - How Coyote Capitalism Fuels Global Immigration
Peter Schrag - Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America