Hispanic Heritage and Making America Great

By Madison Filzer

Madison is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include Civil Rights activism in Cleveland, Ohio and Black women’s activism in the United States.

Let me take you back to 1942, only a few years after the Great Depression, in the midst of World War II. In many ways, the United States was struggling on the homefront. With no one to work the jobs that were too low paying to sustain the American dream, there was no way to meet the demands of consumers. In a quick fix to the lack of able-bodied laborers here in the states, millions of migrant workers from Mexico were welcomed with open arms to ensure that our agriculture industry continued despite feeling the effects of war. At that moment, the Bracero Program was born. Bracero in this context, which literally translates to “laborer” in Spanish, meant one who works with their hands.

On August 4, 1942, the United States entered into the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement in order to sustain the large farm industry in the United States. Over the course of twenty-two years, it’s estimated that over two million Mexican immigrants signed contracts to work on American farms and railroads on a temporary basis for wages lower than Americans not fighting in the war were willing to work for. This program was later enacted into law as an amendment to the Migrant Labor Agreement of 1951. The extension of this agreement repeatedly brought Mexican workers back to the states to work in return for housing, low wages, and “humane treatment.” 

As one could imagine, the housing was poor, the job came with risks, and the workers were not treated humanely. But that isn’t why I wrote this piece … I want to talk about the immigration rhetoric we currently hear from the most recent occupant of the White House. The fact of the matter is that at one point, we were welcoming Latinx immigrants to the United States because we were in need of help. Now, only four decades later, there are people advocating for a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. By ignoring this history, we allow a false narrative of the “bad hombre” to be perpetuated. 

Yes, this was a bilateral deal that was beneficial to both parties in some way, but the logic that follows this history is the notion that there are jobs in America that Americans simply won’t do. We outsourced laborers to fill our needs and we still do. Imagine if every immigrant worker left right now … do we have enough people left to sustain the economy? I don’t know but I don’t think we want to find out. 

In case you didn’t know, September 15th through October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage Month, and I feel compelled to write this in honor of LatinX immigrant history. When I first heard of the Bracero Program a quick Google search returned few results. I feel like if more people knew about the program,  they would have the same questions about immigration that I have. How can we turn our backs on people in search of opportunity when that’s what brought European immigrants here? How would we sustain life as we know it in the United States without people willing to do the hard labor that others shy away from? I might not have the answers to any of the above questions, but as an aspiring historian who has ample access to historical resources, I felt obligated to share information that I believe has the power to change the way people look at immigration. 

Taking Control of the Lens: Julie Dash and Leslie Harris

“I grew up at a time when it was an anomaly to see people who looked like me on TV. When you don’t feel seen or heard, you don’t feel validated or valued.” – Shonda Rhimes

          Space is what defines our bodies, fashion, style, dress, hair, mannerisms, and skin color. Depending on where a person resides, space determines an environment’s specific ethnic and aesthetic makeup. Black women filmmakers negotiate and utilize space differently than their male counterparts. Black male directors generally tell stories of the black male experience, masculinity, manhood, and urban experiences. These are themes seen in films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song. Black women filmmakers, on the other hand, use space to explore black womanhood, gender relations, and class through the black woman protagonist(s) in film. The 1990s was an especially revolutionary period for black women filmmakers because they produced films that engaged women spectators around the world.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1992) was the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust opens with the line,

“I am the first and the last. I am the honored one and the scorned one. I am the whore and the holy one. I am the wife and the virgin. I am the barren one and many of my daughters. I am the silence you cannot understand. I am the utterance of my name.”

The powerful lyrical prose transitions beautifully into first scene when the Gullah Islands enter on screen with the presence of a boat treading through water. The audience is immediately immersed into a distinctive African culture that is defined and narrated by women. The voiceover invites us into the filmic space to experience the Sea Gullah Islands, home of the Peazant family, the members of whom have sought to sustain a unique, imaginative, original African culture. When the boat enters the on screen, we assume the boat is representative to the boats that crossed the middle passage to bring slaves to America. However, when the camera zooms in on the boat, the audience sees a regal woman who is soon to be revealed as Yellow Mary standing starkly in the boat, upright, and prideful. Her position is not a position of powerlessness. She is powerful and the women who will be unveiled in the film, following Yellow Mary’s entrance, have the same power and agency granted on screen.

Dash strategically time stamps the film, situating the setting in 1902, an important historical period for Blacks living in America. By doing so, the audience is able to enter into culturally specific space where blacks survive, exists, preserve, and remember their ancestors at Ibo Landing. Ibo Landing is a symbolic space because it serves as a canvas to glance back to slavery, the Middle Passage, African religions, Christianity, Islam, print media, photography, moving pictures, and African-American folkways, as elements with which black people must come to terms in order to glance forward as citizens of the United States. It serves as a space where the Peazant family can articulate their family history without the intrusion of whiteness. Whiteness is completely marginalized in Ibo Landing. Dash does this to show the audience a true authentic black culture where decisions are made and life is experienced on their own time and in their own space.

1002004012415809On the other hand, space in Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. functions differently than Daughters of the Dust because the film is situated in a city rather than a rural environment. The opening scene shows a young black man with a garbage bag in his hand, walking

slowly in the dark. He anxiously scans the area and places the bag next to a trashcan and walks away. This image is taken from second to final scene of the movie where Chantel, the protagonist, gives birth to her child in her boyfriend’s bedroom and frantically asks her boyfriend to dispose of the child. The media often frames the story as an unfortunate mishap that only happens in underprivileged spaces, such as low-income neighborhoods. The subjects are not granted a voice in the media to tell the story from their perspective. Leslie Harris revises the narrative and inserts the voice of 17-year-old Chantel Harris to tell the story.

In the first few seconds, Harris places the narrative in Chantel’s hands and her voice over is directed to the audience. Chantel states “You know tomorrow you might be reading about this in papers or you might even see it on TV. Y’all might shake your heads and think and say somebody was real bugged out or was on crack or something. Some people hear about my neighborhood and assume some real fucked up things. But I am going to tell y’all the real deal.” Instead of whiteness defining Chantel’s lived experiences, Chantel uses space to give an authentic voice to young black women living in urban environments.

Brooklyn, like Ibo Landing, is a symbolic space because it serves a foundation to build Chantel’s story. After the opening scene, Harris brings Chantel’s voice to the foreground and shows her standing at the Park Place subway stop in Brooklyn waiting on the Manhattan-bound train to take her to Midtown where she works at a local grocery store.

While Chantel is on the platform Harris cuts to the sign above the subway stop, which is covered in graffiti. Behind it are the tall high-rise buildings that make up low-income housing. Chantel boards the train and Harris makes it a point to briefly display the passing subway stops signs. Each sign along the ride is more clean then the last, each subway station nicer than the one before it.

The mis-en-scene of this shot is important because it shows how Chantel moves into spaces of familiarity to spaces of unfamiliarity. It also represents the social circumstances that Chantel experiences daily. Before she enters the store, Chantel abruptly turns to the camera and openly states,

“I’m a Brooklyn girl. Lots of people think Brooklyn girls are tough. I guess that’s true. I don’t let nobody mess with me.  I do what I want, when I want.”

Despite the drastic change in environment, moving from grimy to affluent in only a couple of minutes, Chantel doesn’t change her attitude but declares Brooklyn as her identity. Brooklyn defines Chantel’s experience and how she interacts in other spaces unfamiliar to her.

These stories of black women navigating restricted or granted spaces would not have been explored if it wasn’t for black women filmmakers creating these films. These films are critical to explore how the various types of black woman navigate their worlds whether in Ibo Landing or Brooklyn.