Dark tales from the border

December 19, 2003

As the Modern Language Association prepares for its annual convention in San Diego, December -30, The THES looks at key themes and contributors

In his films, Paul Espinosa documents the uneasy relationship between the mighty economy of the US and the southern neighbour on which it depends for cheap labour. Stephen Phillips reports

Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, got the red carpet treatment the last time he visited Washington DC. The former Coca-Cola executive who broke the 71-year political stranglehold of the anti-American Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2000 was invited to address Congress. Fox pressed his vision of legal status for the estimated 5 million illegal Mexican immigrants whose labour is indispensable to the world's largest economy.

US President George W. Bush hailed the economic contribution of Mexican migrant workers and pledged support for a joint goal of closer cross-border ties - he even intimated giving support for some measure of immigration reform.

That was on September 6 2001. Hopes for an accord on the notoriously thorny topic expired in the smouldering rubble left by the 9/11 attacks on the US five days later.

Since then, the relationship between the two nations has chilled somewhat.

Last month, Fox fired Mexico's United Nations envoy for speaking out of turn. But Adolfo Aguilar Zinser was only venting the frustration that many people south of the border feel towards their northern neighbour. America wants a "relationship of convenience and subordination" with Mexico, the ambassador complained. "It sees us as a backyard."

This tortured relationship is one that has been explored from all angles in Paul Espinosa's award-winning series of documentaries and dramas, and it will be at the heart of the film-maker's address at the Modern Language Association convention.

Fifty-three-year-old Espinosa, who veered into film-making from a PhD in cultural anthropology at Stanford University and still lectures widely on university campuses, is a fitting key speaker for the world's largest gathering of modern languages and literature faculty, taking place this year in San Diego, close to the border, or La Frontera .

Mexico and the US share one of the longest international borders in the world, stretching 2,000 miles from the Gulf coast to the Pacific Ocean. "It stops things going back and forth, but it is exceedingly porous," notes Espinosa, whose productions have garnered eight Emmy awards. Although the border has been a feature for 150 years or so, patrols were pretty perfunctory until the late 1960s, he says. "The border is more than a line - it's a region defined by the interpenetration of two cultures, languages and economies."

It is a definition that could have come straight from outgoing MLA president Mary Louise Pratt's influential 1992 study, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation . In it, Pratt talks about "contact zones", places where "peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, racial inequality and intractable conflict".

Espinosa, who grew up in New Mexico but didn't learn Spanish until he was an adult, recorded this first-hand "contact" experience in a 1990 documentary. Uneasy Neighbors charts the tensions between wealthy San Diego residents and the teeming camps of itinerant Mexican workers springing up on their doorsteps.

His earlier work, 1988's In the Shadow of the Law , examined the lot of undocumented Mexican workers - typically in menial, poorly paid jobs without access to healthcare and other amenities or protection from minimum-wage legislation - through the stories of four families living in Southern California.

His most recent film, The Border (2000), focuses on people's lives either side of La Frontera to illuminate shifting US-Mexican relations, and his current project, Beyond the Dream , looks at California, where Los Angeles now ranks as the world's second-largest Mexican settlement outside Mexico City. It is a vigorous hybrid culture, Espinosa says, although he warns that having such a large-scale presence of undocumented people "is unhealthy for any society".

For Espinosa, La Frontera is much more than a physical thing. "It's a state of mind. Its origins are in a state of place, but a lot of its characteristics are no longer geographically bound."

The Mexican presence in New York is nearing 750,000 and threatening to oust the Puerto Ricans as the largest Hispanic minority there.

Moreover, those filing north tend not to be upwardly mobile members of the Mexican middle class bent on living the American dream, but economic refugees from grindingly poor central and southern Mexico.

They are often indigenous people, for whom Spanish may be their second language after their own Indian dialect, says Espinosa, and they may also be hardened to discrimination from class-ridden Mexico where descendants of European settlers monopolise power.

Intermingling between Mexicans and longer-standing residents challenges conventional notions of American identity, Espinosa says. "People try to keep definitions hard and fast, but there are other groups for whom this identity doesn't function anymore."

Capturing this Zeitgeist , sessions on the literature of different cultures in the US and beyond are among the highlights picked out by MLA executive president Rosemary Feal from next week's programme of 750 presentations.

Overall, the event promises to be more reflective than last year's, which was held close to Ground Zero in New York, where many sessions grappled with the repercussions of a post-9/11 world, Feal says. "That's given way to a wider historical, cultural and literary analysis of the past."

Espinosa, whose films form part of university and museum collections around the US, has certainly mined a rich cinematic vein exploring US-Mexican history on film. His 1993 film, The Hunt for Pancho Villa: American Experience , for example, revisits the Mexican revolutionary outlaw's audacious 1916 raid inside the US. General Pershing led a 10,000-troop manhunt across the Rio Grande, but Villa evaded capture, vanishing into the Sierra Madre and burnishing his folk-hero reputation.

Away from such epic territory, Espinosa has highlighted overlooked episodes of US-Mexican history. Many will be familiar with Rosa Parkes' refusal to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger in 1960s Alabama. But Espinosa's 1986 docu-drama The Lemon Grove Incident looks at the first successful legal challenge to racial segregation in schools, mounted by Mexican immigrants in the 1930s.

Espinosa's approach of using personal narratives to illustrate profound themes perhaps owes something to his unconventional anthropological training.

"When you do anthropology, you go to the South Sea Islands to study the natives. I went to Hollywood to see what the natives there do," he says of his PhD, which involved a study of the 1970s drama series Lou Grant . It was this that convinced him to ditch academe for film-making. He says: "I was interested in reaching a larger public. Academics have tremendous insights, but too often these don't leave the academy."

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