In recent years, a number of films have documented the awful plight of child soldiers (cross-reference below). Now, thanks to director U. Roberto Romano’s portrait of three young migrant “workers,” the world can realize (pass the salad, please) that America’s fields of plenty can be just as brutal as international fields of battle.
Of course, it’s their own fault. If they’d only stay where they belong (even those born in the U.S. whose only crime is to look “brown”), get a proper education and stop being poor then everything would be peachy. Pathetically, many solid citizens actually believe the preceding sentence even as they look for specials in the produce section of their supermarkets. One of the film’s many ironies comes when Victor’s (one of the subjects, barely existing in Quincy, Florida) mother admits that she often cannot afford to purchase the backbreaking fruits of their seven-day-per-week labours.
There are also many echoes of John Steinbeck’s tales of migrant workers’ woes in California where the bosses did their best to pay starvation wages and keep the crop pickers from organizing (cross-reference below). Sad to report, very little seems to have improved since then.
Twelve-year-old Zulema and her kin are based in El Cenizo, Texas but must follow the harvest and plantings to eke out any sort of existence (the average wage for bona fide workers is $17,500 per year; the “kids” will often sign the name of a “legal” adult to their count slips then accept a cheque in that name before lax banking policies—it’s always so much easier to put money in than take it out—provide the means for the cash to finally be funnelled to the intended clan. With Dad in Florida it falls to her mom to organize the out-of-state trips, putting a huge dent in Zulema’s educational and social life. The rebel without a hope finally gets a chance to relocate and study in Florida (still, her father remains absent) only to bail after nine months: it was “a really bad experience.” Her stoic mother takes the blame: “I feel bad—I can’t give her a life I know she’d want.”
Meantime, in Quincy, Florida, Victor’s elder sisters are finally reunited with the family (all legally) only to discover the work they must do to survive (12-hour days, excruciating heat, pay for tomatoes: $1 per bucket which typically weighs 25 lbs.) is a veritable hell on earth. But at least they have each other’s company.
Fourteen-year-old Perla‘s home is Weslaco, Texas but since “you have to move to get work” the passionate girl spends inordinate amounts of time on the road. Tellingly, she dreams about becoming a lawyer to help migrant workers like herself; by film’s end, Zulema has given up on dreams and Victor knows that “money cannot buy happiness” and hopes just for a secure life with the basic necessities at hand. How can that resolve find its way into the psyche of urban gang members?
These despairing tales are artfully bound together thanks to Wendy Blackstone’s fine sense of orchestration and mood (the guitar-rich road sequences and thoughtful cello lines are at one with Romano’s point of view) coupled with the director's ever-inquisitive camera and Nick Clark's taut editing. All that’s missing are any interviews with the farm owners who ensure the continuance of this systemic slavery or the legions of fat cats who have no problem with “those people” risking their lives (over 300,000 workers per year suffer from the effects of pesticide poisoning) in order to improve their own.
While it’s cheering to have the closing credits interspersed with former migrant workers who have gone on to high-paying, responsible positions (from an astronaut to upper academia), some may smack their lips with glee and retort: “Ya see, once those poor buggers learnt what real work is they were soon on the road to success.”
Thank goodness none of that could happen here in Canada’s bread baskets. JWR