This originally appeared on I Fry Mine in Butter.
In thinking about the anti-immigrant it’s-okay-to-use-racial-profiling law that passed in Arizona last week, my mind flashed back to V, all the way back to 1983. Knowing that it’s only a matter of time before the Gestapo, I mean, the Visitors, come to take them away for being illegal, I mean, scientists, they ask their former landscaper, Sancho, to get them over the border. Though this storyline and plot moment is fraught with all kinds of stereotypes about Latinos, Jews, police, and the power dynamics between these, it’s still written from the point of view of the smuggler as hero. Of the Latino smuggler as hero, no less. I can wrack my brain (okay, I have wracked my brain, through a nasty course of stomach flu, in fact) and I cannot come up with another instance in the last 40 years in which a mainstream television show or movie depicted illegal immigration by Latinos in this way. (To see the clip, start watching about a minute into the segment below.)
I can, however, come up with dozens of positive depictions of other people fleeing across borders illegally and/or without proper documentation, including, but certainly not limited to:
The Sound of Music
Holocaust (American mini series, 1978)
There are also films too numerous to count with positive depictions of legal Latino immigrants in the United States. So why the gap? Wasn’t the U.S. founded by . . . uh, wait a minute. I suppose the U.S. was invaded, after all, over a course of hundreds of years, mostly by Europeans. So perhaps it doesn’t bother us to cheer for people who are emigrates from say, Austria to Switzerland. We can identify with wanting to leave the Continent, is that it? Those countries are so small anyway, it’s like you could sneeze from one sovereign nation to another, so it’s okay if you know, you happen to be on one side of the border, because it’s so likely it would like, be a total accident. Sure. We can get behind that.
Many of these positive narratives spend quality time explaining the circumstances that drove the characters to seek refuge in another country without proper paperwork, in fact, they justify why documentation wasn’t possible under the circumstances. Hell, Clan of the Von Trapps don’t skirt across the Alps until the last 20 seconds of the movie, and that shit is 3 hours long. So, for fascist governments, real or pretend, fleeing is okay. Emphasis on fleeing, as in leaving. Neither the Von Trapps nor the scientists in V are entering the USA.
The Arizona law also fascinates me because we’ve just passed the 10th anniversary of the Elian Gonzalez fiasco, in which his mother and he set out for the US, leaving behind Cuba and his father. His mother died en route, his relatives in Miami laid claim to him, as he was, after all, fleeing a Communist nation we would accept him once he set foot on U.S. soil. He was 6 at the time. The legal battle that ensued, the taking of Elian by gunpoint from his quiet Florida bedroom, those were shocking images at the time. But we were happy to have him here, even though he didn’t have a stitch of paperwork on him. He was fleeing from forces that weren’t his own making. He was running to a better life.
I think perhaps that’s where we all get caught up. It’s this idea of a better life that is possible here, and not in say, Canada. Mind you, tons of people immigrate to Canada every year, but we don’t pay that much heed. We’ve got the damn melting pot. Those Canucks, as they told us last Olympic Games, have the tapestry. Whatever. My point is, we’re not paying attention to the circumstances of immigrants—legal or otherwise—when we talk about neo-fascist laws like this one in Arizona. We’re only debating the effects of the law. Immigrants in this polarized, often reductive debate get reduced merely to some monolithic infiltrator: they’re coming here, they want something from us. Maybe we don’t have enough melting pot goodness to go around, and they are looking hungry for s’mores.
It doesn’t suit hegemonic ideas about what the U.S. stands for to say this immigrant is not equal to my grandparents who were immigrants, because every new wave and new region of immigrants has received its due course of stigma in this country. But culturally speaking, as narratives go, the idea that new bodies are in our midst who want our jobs gets a lot more air time, and with the fear that Latinos will be in majority in just the next 20 years, well, that gets some English-only speakers a bit nervous, perhaps. Here, of course, jobs are watered-down as well, not the focus of the conversation, because once you get into which jobs we’re talking about, the hate-mongering around undocumented workers makes no sense. Are we really afraid that there won’t be enough migrant farm worker jobs? Or other poorly paid, under-the-minimum-wage jobs?
Maybe we could use some more narratives, some more instances to humanize the humans who are here with us. It would have to be better than nothing. I’m not suggesting that art and narrative changes culture, but I think the time has passed where we can continue to frame immigration from Latin America as a wave of less-than people coming to take something that isn’t theirs, when that isn’t the case and when that wasn’t the criteria for our Founding Fathers.