The Harvest/La Cosecha
by D.M. Engel
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How bad is Mexico? It has to be really bad, or else The Harvest/La Cosecha could never have been made. Every year, according to the film, 400,000 children work as migrant farm laborers in the United States. As the father of one of the film’s subjects puts it, “We had absolutely nothing in Mexico,” though it is hard to believe that they ever had less than they do in the film. The Harvest/La Cosecha follows 3 children living in the southern United States, who traverse the South and Midwest over a single summer in search of picking jobs alongside their impoverished families. No clan goes unpunished for their efforts to put food on the table, and as with any documentary that deals with poverty in the U.S., it is astonishing that human beings live like this in the most powerful country in the world. The movie goes to great pains early on to flash easily digestible quotes at the audience, making sure we are aware that migrant children are 4 times more likely to drop out of school, and that these children often work forteen hours a day, 7 days a week. And while these statistics are wonderful for the “holy shit” reaction director U. Roberto Romano is going for, he offers nothing in the way of hard questions, both of the people who exploit, and the families who allow their children to be exploited.
The film takes an almost lavish approach to how little insight it offers the audience. When a forteen-year old Perla Sanchez talks of her nineteen-year old brother’s murder, she explains that he was shot in a laundry room, but bled out because the hospital refused to treat him since he didn’t have the money. And though it could have happened that way, it doesn’t make much sense. (During filming, her mother had to have an emergency hysterectomy to save her life, with no mention of the magic cash that funded it). A laptop glowing on Perla’s face in the Texas night, braces on her crooked teeth, and an expensive Dodge Ram pick-up all send bizarre aesthetic messages that the audience, I suppose, is just supposed to not question of a family that pulls in around $17,500 a year. As well, Perla’s father’s sudden illness (a forty-six year old man who looks to be sixty-five) at the end of the movie is never explained except for Perla’s off-handed statement that she thinks her father may just be tired of working. And so the family must go off to Michigan once again, the father’s life-changing job for the family in Louisiana tossed in the garbage, alongside any hope of his kids ever being able to afford a night out at the Olive Garden.
The film is, of course, undeniably sad. The impoverished living conditions are at times mindblowing, yet these children stand by the decisions of their parents to move from state to state in search of work as loyally and blindly as a private at Normandy to his commanding officer, too young and inexperienced to realize that they will quite possibly do this to their own children. Victor Huapilla, a sixteen-year old in Florida, is another focal point of the film, picking tomatoes alongside his parents so his younger sisters can stay in school. He bathes his hands in bleach at the end of each day, is poisoned by farm pesticides, and explains that the summer prior to the filming the skin had fallen off of his arms from exposure to farm chemicals. All laughs aside, his father has been working for two years to get Victor’s two older sisters their papers to come to the United States. Once the girls get to Florida, one sister is dumbfounded by the endless days in the field.
And for every tale of heartache, there is a moment where you wish you could shake the parents to death. “I feel bad because I can’t give her a life that I know she would want,” twelve-year old Zulema Lopez’s mother says as she stands in a field, a naked two-year old on her hip, save the diaper. Zulema is finally sent away to live with her grandparents in Florida so she can focus on school, but after 9 months it didn’t work out. Again, all we are offered is that, in Zulema’s words, it was a “bad experience for me. I got mad at people, and some people got made at me.” Well, that’s good enough for me, but as Zulema states at the beginning and end of the film, she has no real dreams. Whose fault is this? The mother’s? The farmer’s? The U.S. government’s? The Mexican government’s? The stork on the Vlasic Pickle jar? It’s impossible to tell who the filmmaker is sympathizing with and who he is demonizing. And in the end, it seems that the whole purpose of the film was to create a cinematic sad face. That is, until the credits, during which time we are shown pictures of numerous professors, executives at Fortune 500 companies, and CEO’s, all who once were child migrant workers. So which is it? You can make it or you can’t? Should we not be worried, since the people in the credits are doing alright, or is this a travesty? Obviously it is the latter, but the filmmaker isn’t doing these people any favors by simply feeling sorry for them.
The Harvest/La Cosecha is available on October 11 on DVD and blu-ray and is distributed by Cinema Libre.
D.M. Engel is a writer based in New York City. Much of his work can be found at dmengel.com. He is also the host of Your Podcast of Podcasts (yourpodcastofpodcasts.com).
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