February 9, 2007

The Hidden Mexicans of Deer Canyon

By Mark R. Day

Filmmaker Juan Carlos Frey told his audience that the only thing that keeps homeless migrant workers living near Rancho Penasquitos from being accepted as human beings is a piece of paper. After watching his 71 minute documentary, most of the viewers agreed. The undocumented status of most of the migrants has made them prone to harsh living conditions, exploitation, fear of deportation and exposure to hate crimes. And there is no sign that these men will get that piece of paper any time soon.

The film was The Hidden Mexicans of Deer Canyon. The venue was Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad. Frey spent a year visiting with and sometimes sleeping in the makeshift huts of Mexican migrant workers in the canyons twenty minutes north of San Diego. For the past year, he has been showing the film to raise consciousness about their plight. Frey describes responses to the documentary as “gratifying” but he laments that only a handful of activists are speaking out for the men.

Recently, these canyons have become a combat zone between the Minutemen vigilantes and the workers, leading to the eviction of more than 100 workers by the City of San Diego. Most recently, on Jan. 27, unknown assailants attacked two camps, destroying the men’s personal possessions and shredding their clothing with knives.

Amy Isaacson of KPBS radio reported Feb. 1 that San Diego police interviewed a witness that identified the culprits—four men and two women. Captain Jim Collins said that the vandalism may be charged as a hate crime. But a source close to the investigation said the response of the police and the City of San Diego has been slow and unenthusiastic. “They just don’t seem to care,” he said.

Frey, who videotaped the vandalism, said that when he first arrived in the camps, the migrants shied away from talking with him. It was only months later that he was able to begin filming, and on several occasions the men consented to have Frey use a hidden camera when other options were impractical or impossible.

Frey does an excellent job in documenting the daily lives of several migrants who earn their living in agriculture, landscaping, construction and day labor jobs. They tell him of evictions, of having their shacks torn down, of losing their possessions to thieves and the difficult task of rebuilding in more remote locations. Dwindling space has made it increasingly difficult for the men to find new living areas. Frey said low cost housing is virtually nonexistent.

Battling the elements is also a daily struggle. Heavy rains often soak through the huts, and Pedro, a migrant, told Frey that he found two rattlesnakes in his makeshift dwelling, one of them under his bed. Rats and insects also abound. “It’s hard to understand how they can survive this,” said Frey. “They tell me that only their religious faith helps them through it, though they fail to understand why anyone would attack them. “God challenges us,” said Raul in an interview. “He does not punish us. One has to surrender and hope everything will work out all right.”

Shots of bulldozers tearing down campsites are reminiscent of Paul Espinosa’s PBS film “Uneasy Neighbors,” which told similar stories about city authorities tearing down camps and evicting migrants in the early 1990s. Then, as now, there were few, if any housing alternatives. The last site offered as a shelter for North County farm workers was nixed two years ago by the Carlsbad city council. It now serves as an animal shelter. The collective will of the pubic seems to be: “Too bad, if you don’t like it, go back to Mexico.” But local growers worry that if that happens, their crops might spoil. One of them showed up at a recent eviction, but the same grower raised objections three years ago when approached to offer land near his strawberry fields for farm worker housing.

Frey’s film cuts to a shot of a worker taking a long winter’s walk from his hillside campsite to a hiring site.

Scenes such as these enhance the workers’ sense of loneliness and alienation. But some of these sequences are too long and repetitive. At times the film seems to drag and is tedious to watch. A bit of judicious editing would help. Willa Cather, the novelist, once advised an aspiring writer, “Kill your darlings.” Frey’s documentary would have more impact if it were cut down to an hour.

Nevertheless, it is a film that everyone should watch, especially policy makers.

The men in the camps are not troublemakers or a burden on our society. They provide the back-breaking work that Americans will not do, for any price. Far from being villains, they are the foot soldiers, the throw-away people of our globalized economy. And as Juan Carlos Frey points out, they are the victims and refugees of our failed trade policies especially the North American and Central American Free Trade Agreements.

Squeezed out by greedy corporations who push them off their land by flooding Mexico with cheap corn and cereals, and others who offer subhuman wages in the maquila-doras, these migrants risk their lives to cross the border so they and their families can survive. As one worker from Oaxaca told a reporter recently, “Wherever the First World is, there you will find us.”

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