Of Kites and Borders. Directed by Yolanda Pividal. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2014. 60 minutes.
The Hand That Feeds. Directed by Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2014. 84 minutes.
After more than a generation of struggle against neoliberal economic policies, the battle in the social factory continues. The concept of the social factory is a response to autonomous Marxist debates that overlooked the struggles of women, students, and other unwaged workers. Specifically, it highlights how women and the unwaged refuse to be saddled with the costs of reproducing family, household, and community in service of capitalist command. Nowhere are the burdens of those costs and the violence associated with them more pronounced under neoliberalism than along the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants from the interior struggle as do migrants who make it to the other side. Not surprisingly, those who are forced to compete for the lowest-waged, most dangerous, and dirtiest jobs are racialized as “underdeveloped” on the southern side of the border and “illegal aliens” once in the north. Two recent documentaries explore struggles around social reproduction in realms shaped by capitalist relations forged through the U.S.-Mexico border. Taken together the films evoke Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of borderlands and the power emanating from the refusal to be overdetermined by the imposition of a border that marks who belongs and who is exploitable or disposable.
Of Kites and Borders examines the everyday struggles of four young people who negotiate the hardships of Tijuana. Director Yolanda Pividal offers viewers a rich ethnography of youth confronting grinding poverty and multiple violences of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Eddie Escobar, an enterprising young man who risks his own freedom and safety as a pollero, a border crosser who guides migrants to the other side, so that he can earn enough to take care of his family and to be independent. Eddie imagines himself as something of a fighter, much like the fighting cocks he trains. Maria del Carmen wonders about the “other side” as she examines the lived reality of the border for a school assignment. At the same time, Maria experiences the real dangers of the border as she, along with her father and brother, attempts to scratch out a living by scouring Tijuana dumps for anything of value. Jorge Adrían and Jaime Fernando do their best as luchadores, or wrestlers, in the streets to “bring home the daily bread.” Not content to work just in the dangerous intersections of Tijuana, Pividal follows the lads as they prepare for a luchador match-up where they will take the mat to the great pleasure of the audience. The brothers wrestle, similar to the other people featured, “while fighting to survive.” All of the youth dream of the day that the border no longer divides them from a life on the other side.
The northern side of the border, however, is not without struggle for the undocumented. In The Hand That Feeds we observe how low-wage, mostly undocumented employees at a Queens delicatessen slowly claim their dignity as they organize for their rights as workers, proclaiming that even though they are undocumented it “doesn’t mean [employers] have to profit from [their] hunger.”1 Directors Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears also follow Mahoma López, Gonzalo Jiménez, and their Laundry Workers Center (LWC) allies who reject mistreatment from an abusive manager and exploitation by callous investors. Through the union Mahoma and Gonzalo rally their comrades to fight for minimum wage, back pay, overtime, vacation days, and safer working conditions, motivating their compatriot Virgilio Arán’s reminder that “the only way to change things is by organizing.” Recognizing that their labor militancy must go beyond handing out flyers, Mahoma and Gonzalo connect with Occupy Wall Street activists and other labor organizers and win an election with the National Labor Relations Board to convert the 63rd Avenue Hot and Crusty (a bakery chain) into a union shop. Despite efforts to bust the union, the LWC wins a much improved contract from Hot and Crusty’s new investors. The film ends hopefully as Mahoma, with his family’s support, takes his place in the mobilization of low-wage, precarious workers and the fight for an increase in the minimum wage.
Taken together both films illustrate how the costs of the social factory are distributed onto folks of color, women, and, increasingly, children. In Of Kites and Borders we observe children refusing to be denied moments of wonder and joy discovering the world. Their optimism and resilience is moving and echoes the courage of those resisting exploitation in the heart of New York City in The Hand That Feeds which remind us that “the system doesn’t work for poor people.”
1 The Hand That Feeds is distributed by Bullfrog Films.