[URBANTH-L]FILM REV (ARD): Eller on Gutierrez et al, Ties that Bind: Immigration Stories

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Sat Jan 6 16:06:31 EST 2007

ARD Video Review:

Gutiérrez, José Roberto & Elia Castillo. Ties that Bind: Immigration 
Stories. 1 videocassette (56 min.).  Princeton, New Jersey: Films for the 
Humanities and Sciences, 1998.

Reviewed 11 Dec 2006 by David Eller <jeller at mscd.edu>, Metropolitan State 
College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA


Just as Rousseau is remembered for the phrase "noble savage" without ever 
having written it, so Ties that Bind may be remembered for the phrase "noble 
immigrant" without ever uttering it. The movie, from the venerable Films for 
the Humanities and Sciences company, gives a personal and 
anthropologically-informed portrayal of the situation of migrants on both 
sides of the Mexican-U.S. border-internal Mexican migrants and cross-border 
immigrants from Mexico to the U.S. - including the pressures they face and 
the experiences they encounter.

     The film comes in three acts. The first, entitled "Of Good Neighbors 
and Tall Fences", discusses the economic and political circumstances of 
internal and international migration for Mexicans. In particular, it 
highlights the ways in which NAFTA created conditions that dislocated 
Mexican workers, especially small-farm workers, and sent them looking for 
jobs in factories (maquiladoras) on either side of the border. However, the 
video argues that industrial development offers neither sufficient 
employment nor sufficient pay (as little as $25 per week) for a decent life 
for these restless masses.

The narrator makes the salient point that migration is a consequence of many 
non-local factors, with other consequences as well. For instance, while 
American and other foreign factories relocating to Mexico did not generate 
enough work for Mexicans, these relocations simultaneously cost jobs in 
their home countries. This effect, combined with disparate economic changes, 
leads Americans and others to look for explanations (the film says 
"scapegoats") for the negative developments, and immigrant workers inside 
America take the blame. The movie finds this ironic, since globalization 
allows and encourages capital and goods and ideas to cross borders but not 
people. It goes on to argue that America actually benefits from immigration 
(legal and illegal) since the "cost" of immigrants (in education, health 
services, and so on) fails to consider the savings in low-wage labor, not to 
mention the taxes that are collected from but virtually never disbursed to 
immigrants. As the film suggests, immigrants get the message that "all we 
want is your labor, and we want it cheaply."

This first, and most substantial, section of the film makes some valuable 
claims. The immigrant situation is a "relationship," not a "problem," and 
both sides experience costs and benefits. It also urges us to look at the 
situation from all of its perspectives, reminding us that any human, 
cultural matter is diverse and complex. However, it also harps on a dubious 
point that the political boundary between the U.S. and Mexico is an 
"imaginary wall." As anthropologists we appreciate that all political and 
cultural systems are imaginary or at least human-made, but this does not 
make them any less "real." I wonder if Mexico feels the same way about its 
southern border.

The second section is called "Just Between Us" and is a glimpse of the lives 
of several women who have made the illegal border crossing. After a few 
too-brief comments about immigration history and contemporary anti-immigrant 
rhetoric (including the "militarization" of the border), the film focuses on 
the perspective of the women, who, we are told, are just people seeking a 
better life. Anti-immigrant types would probably not be swayed by this 
argument, and some anti-immigrant politicians, including Kay Bailey 
Hutchinson and Pat Buchanan, are portrayed in an unflattering light. The 
women make the point that as farm laborers they never saw an American, 
contradicting the opinion that immigrants take American jobs. The segment 
goes on to discuss how the women struggled to develop their neighborhoods 
(colonias) and bring services like buses and water.

The final section, "The Common Bond," is the least interesting and the most 
manipulative. Its theme is that immigrants bring "family values" with them 
and that this should be considered in their favor. One young woman in 
particular travels back to Mexico to see her hard-working old grandfather, a 
model of the virtue of industriousness. There is almost an insinuation that 
Americans do not like to work or that they are afraid of the example of 
hard-working foreigners in their midst. Immigrants comment on the conflict 
they feel between being a good American citizen (although most are not 
American citizens) and the preservation of their culture and family. They 
stress that the distinction between legals and illegals is merely a ruse to 
perpetuate white middle-class identity and values. Immigration, they insist, 
is a family value, and they are celebrated for their piety. They don't want 
hand-outs, they tell us; they only want to work.

Ties that Bind is unique and worthwhile because it presents the frequently 
overlooked perspective of the immigrants themselves. It concentrates on the 
local and the small-scale and therefore is appropriate to anthropology. 
However, I came away from the viewing somewhat frustrated. In terms of 
production, the film used some clips repetitiously, and the sound was 
muffled. But my bigger objection was the sentimental and partisan tone of 
the whole thing, an attitude that anthropology cannot indulge or support. I 
am as liberal as the next anthropologist, but the project really has a 
"bleeding heart" liberal slant makes some assertions without support and 
leaves some complex and opposing perspectives out or even mildly ridiculed. 
Some audiences would find it unconvincing or even annoying, and while it is 
worth watching, it needs to be part of a larger and more inclusive - and 
more objective - dialogue. Perhaps in conjunction with readings like Ted 
Conover's Coyotes (1987) or Leo Chavez's Shadowed Lives: Undocumented 
Immigrants in American Society (1998) it could make an interesting 

Level/Use: Suitable for a public audience or for college courses in Cultural 
Anthropology, Ethnic Studies, Hispanic Studies, Multiculturalism or 
Diversity Studies

     Chavez, Leo 1998 Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American 
Society, 2nd ed. Fort Worth TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
     Conover, Ted 1987 Coyotes: A Journey through the Secret World of 
America's Illegal Aliens. New York: Vintage Books.

To cite this review, the American Anthropological Association recommends the 
following style:

Eller, David
2006 Review of Ties that Bind: Immigration Stories. Anthropology Review 
Database. December 11. Electronic document, 
http://wings.buffalo.edu/ARD/cgi/showme.cgi?keycode=1681, accessed 6, 2007. 

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