I Was Born in Mexico, But…. Directed by Corey Ohama. Newburgh, NY: New Day Films, 2013. 12 minutes.

Two Americans: Fighting Deportation in Arizona. Directed by Daniel DeVivo and Valeria Fernández, 2016. 75 minutes.1

Reviewed by Anna Ochoa O’Leary

Voices from the Edge: Transcultural Narratives of Identity and Belonging

The films reviewed here encourage students to think about broader transcultural processes that come with immigration and potentially complement recent publications used for courses on immigration.2 For immigrant youth who were brought to the United States as children, although increasingly their story begins with the illegal border crossing experience, they are American in all ways but one: they are unlawfully present. Many only become aware of their legal status when they transition to adulthood and the end of protections for accessing K-12 public school education granted by the 1982 Supreme Court ruling Plyler v. Doe. However, citizen children of undocumented parents are similarly affected, also struggling with English-language competency, poverty, and discrimination.3 They have long been treated like foreigners and outsiders by US education systems.4 In some states, such as Arizona, conservative-leaning legislatures have eliminated English language learning programs, which impeded the educational progress for first- and second-generation immigrant students, marginalizing them further.5 In 2014, an estimated 3.9 million children in US K-12 schools had undocumented parents or guardians.6

I Was Born in Mexico elicits self-reflection about social disparities that come with undocumented status. Within the first minute, we are tasked with reconciling the reminiscences of a young “Dreamer” with 1950s-era film clips and images of carefree American middle-class youth of a bygone era.7 With some effort, our attention returns to our young narrator’s voice. She is “an American girl,” an identity she claims because she has lived and grown up American. Like other adolescents, she has endeavored to belong, to fit in. She entered public school, learned English, and embraced the promises of the American Dream: the expectation that that with hard work and education, the doors will open to opportunities, middle-class security, acceptance, dignity, and respect. It’s the path to “becoming somebody,” she explains. Still, she reveals the experiences of exclusion, of being othered, sharpening the disconnect between reality and the imagined. Her story is thus not limited to any one place but rather to wherever keeping the “other” on the edges persists in America today.

In Two Americans, we follow another American girl: nine-year-old Kathy Figueroa, a US citizen. Kathy’s undocumented immigrant parents are arrested in one of the infamous immigration enforcement raids orchestrated by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, so her immigrant story is enmeshed in a period bookended by the 2007 peak of undocumented immigration to the United States and the legal challenges in 2011 that largely dismantled Arizona’s infamous SB 1070.8 In 2011, Kathy and “Sherriff Joe” embodied the dueling perspectives on opposite sides of the immigration debate that have virtually torn the nation apart.

Arpaio frames immigrants as criminals—amplified by media attention—which resonates with elderly white audiences that go to hear him speak about chain gangs and prisoners wearing pink underwear. He relishes being given credit for the crackdown on immigration and the spike in deportations, dismissing investigations by the Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability (MCSA) that uncovered irregularities in his enforcement operations and showed how racial profiling hurt local business and drained public coffers to pay the rising costs of courtroom battles.

The counternarrative offered by Kathy is clear as we see her cheerfully involved in community efforts to raise money for attorney fees to help get her parents out of detention. She answers questions, moving seamlessly between Spanish and English, over footage of arrestees being cuffed and loaded into police cruisers. At a congressional hearing, she testifies emotionally about her trauma, and we can’t help but be reminded of other precocious social justice advocates of late, including Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai and Sweden’s Greta Thunberg. Kathy is part of this emerging cadre of articulate, transcultural, and resolute cultural warriors, speaking truth to power.9

Instructors can use these films to call attention to the complexities of the immigrant experience in America. The different narratives reflect multiple and often contentious perspectives that live in the transcultural spaces forged by history, emanating from one of America’s geographical edges: the approximately 1,954 miles of border between the United States and Mexico and a large swath of the American Southwest that was Mexico until 1848. For generations, Mexico has provided the United States a reliable and much needed labor force, and through migration, social connectedness between destination and sending communities has been maintained.10 The films offer students the opportunity to explore the resultant narratives of transcultural identity through the voices of those keenly impacted by the immigrant experience.

1 Two Americans is distributed by the filmmakers and can be purchased through the website http://www.twoamericans.com/.

2 William Pérez, Americans by Heart: Undocumented Latino Students and the Promise of Higher Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2012); Joanna Dreby, Divided by Borders: Mexican Migrants and Their Children (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

3 Douglas S. Massey, ed., New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008); Heide Castañeda, Borders of Belonging: Struggle and Solidarity in Mixed-Status Immigrant Families (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019). Samuel P. Huntington is credited with helping shape views of Latinos and Mexicans as essential threats to America’s cultural identity. In Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2004), he lambasts multiculturalism, arguing that it discourages Mexicans in the United States and Mexican Americans from abandoning their customs, language, and identities that would allow them to assimilate into America and lift them out of poverty.

4 Eugene E. Garcia, Hispanic Education in the United States: Raíces y Alas (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

5 Mary Carol Combs, Carol Evans, Todd Fletcher, Elena Parra, and Alicía Jiménez, "Bilingualism for the Children: Implementing a Dual-Language Program in an English-Only State," Educational Policy 19, no. 5 (2005): 701-28.

6 Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Children of Unauthorized Immigrants Represent Rising Share of K-12 Students,” Pew Research Center, November 17, 2016.

7 Students who may have qualified for relief from deportation are popularly referred to as “Dreamers,” after the failed DREAM Act (the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) that has been proposed in the US Congress several times since 2001 only to be defeated by conservatives’ opposition. Subsequently, several US states enacted their own version of this law that allows those who qualify to legally work, join the US military, apply for driver’s licenses, and in some cases be eligible for in-state tuition and student financial aid. An Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protects from deportation young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. This program is currently being challenged by the Trump administration.

8 This bill was passed by the Arizona Senate in 2010 and required state law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of any individual they stop or detain if they suspect the individual is an undocumented immigrant. See Lisa Magaña and Erik Lee, eds., Latino Politics and Arizona's Immigration Law SB 1070 (New York: Springer, 2013).

9 See Walter J. Nicholls, The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).

10 Rodolfo F. Acuña, Corridors of Migration: The Odyssey of Mexican Laborers, 1600-1933 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007).

Anna Ochoa O’Leary is a professor and the head of the Mexican American Studies Department at the University of Arizona in Tucson, AZ. She also codirects the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona. She is twice a Fulbright Scholar, and her research focuses on immigrant women and Latino/a education. She has authored numerous journal articles and opinion editorials on these topics, developed the textbook Chicano Studies: The Discipline and the Journey (Kendall-Hunt, 2007), is editor of the two-volume work Undocumented Immigrants in the United States Today: An Encyclopedia of Their Experiences (ABC-CLIO, 2014), and coedited Unchartered Terrains: New Directions in Border Research Methodology, Ethics, and Practice (University of Arizona Press, 2013).