This last election cycle proved what we pretty much already knew—that immigration is now the major talking point for politicians and pundits. Many speculate it was the issue that lost republicans the presidency. Since giving up the Latino vote a crushing 27 percent (Romney) to 71 percent (Obama) last November, RNC members have gone out of their way to prove they habla español—while still trying not to offend their good old racist friends. Whether we call them “illegal aliens” or “undocumented immigrants” or just plain “people who come to America looking for a new life just like your ancestors did,” Americans of all philosophical stripes have to admit that our nation’s growing Latin population is topic numero uno for the 21st century.
Harvest of Empire, the new, PBS-style documentary by Peter Getzels & Eduardo López, tries to tackle this issue from a fresh perspective. Based on the book by award-winning journalist Juan González (“Democracy Now!”), Harvest of Empire asks one very simple question: What are these people doing here in the first place? The knee-jerk, surface-layer answer is that people from poor countries emigrate to America to make more money. Simple, no? But why are so many Latin American countries riddled with civil war, organized crime and overwhelming poverty in the first place? The answer, as in so many cases, lies in America’s neo-colonial government policy.
On the one hand, Harvest of Empire serves as a counterpoint to babbling heads like Glenn Beck, who think that immigration (particularly when it comes in shades of brown) is killing America. This film provides plenty of immigrant success stories—examples of newcomers who have graduated Harvard, become executive directors of the ACLU, won Nobel Prizes, captured Grammys or even grown up to be FOX News reporters like Geraldo Rivera. Of course it’s a question of picking and choosing examples. Opponents of immigration can easily (and gleefully) trot out rapists, murderers and drug dealers of the non-white persuasion. But the thrust of González’ argument (in both book and film) is less philosophical (should they be here?) and more historical (why are they here?).
Subtitled “The Untold Story of Latinos in America,” Harvest of Empire lays out an eye-opening alternative history of the Western Hemisphere. It begins more or less in the early 1800s when the majority of the Western and Southwestern continent was owned by Mexico. Short of population and concerned about keeping such vast tracts of unoccupied land safe, Mexico invited sympathetic (read: Catholic) settlers to take over the land. Instead, waves of Southern ranchers and plantation owners showed up hoping to turn Texas et al. into new slave territories. Mexico, having already outlawed slavery, pushed back at the idea, and we wound up with a little thing called the Mexican-American War. Spoiler alert: Mexico lost. In the end, Mexico ceded all of the Southwest to the United States. Suddenly, thousands of longtime Mexican families found themselves on the “wrong” side of the border. That problem was compounded shortly afterward when the Americans realized the same problem the Mexicans had: too much land, not enough population. And since President Lincoln soon put the kibosh on slaves altogether, Americans in the Southwest were forced to do what they’ve been doing ever since—importing cheap, undocumented workers from south of the border.
That set the pattern for Mexicans and other Latinos in America, but it was just the start. González, who is interviewed throughout the film, explains the “tipping point”—Guatemala in the mid-’50s. That country had just switched to a democracy and elected its first president, the progressive Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán. But the American multinational United Fruit Company—which owned something insane like 50 percent of Guatemala’s arable land—balked at Guzmán’s reforms. Company owners complained to President Eisenhower, and the CIA secretly backed a coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected leader. United Fruit Company got what it wanted, and Guatemala has been paying the price ever since in the form of a 36-year civil war. Upwards of 250,000 people have been killed—but, hey, bananas are inexpensive.
The legacy of Guatemala has become the United States’ new modus operandi. America doesn’t like fighting wars—certainly not on its own turf. Our government (regardless of administration, it seems) prefers to covertly fund rebellions, coups and assassinations around the globe. Instability is fine, so long as it’s on foreign soil and American business interests are maintained. On the other side of the world, this policy has little direct effect on us. (Generally speaking.) In the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, however, it has an immediate and direct impact.
Whether American foreign policy causes or exacerbates problems is controversial for some people. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was verboten to suggest that our country might have contributed to the rise in Middle Eastern fundamentalism by militarizing Saudi Arabia or messing around in Iran or installing Saddam Hussein in Iraq or overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But if you want to know the whys and wherefores of America’s immigration crisis, Harvest of Empire lays out a mighty compelling chain of events. It’s obviously preaching to the progressives in the audience who are already sympathetic to minorities and the downtrodden. But it’s got enough dark conspiracies and secret government plots in it to appeal to the hardcore libertarians as well. It may not provide an answer to the problem, but it certainly gives us a background on what’s causing it. If you don’t want your neighbors showing up on your doorstep looking for a place to stay, maybe you shouldn’t burn down their house.