This film is about the contradictions in the public discourse towards immigration. It is a story of economic desperation and societal alienation on both sides of the border: the people of Magdalena Peñasco in Oaxaca, Mexico, who go to Austin, Minnesota, to quarter pigs for Hormel Foods, the makers of Spam products. Communities change with migration, and in the process of adapting the old can sometimes not assimilate with the new. We document part of this uneasy transition.
The documentary first introduces several families from an impoverished, agrarian, indigenous Mixtec community in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. The narrative focuses here on what it means to be so poor that crossing a scorching desert, leaving everything behind, makes sense. The film looks in depth at three families and tells the story of their communities through their eyes and voice. It then shifts to a Midwestern meatpacking town that was at the center of a crushing national defeat of the meatpackers’ union during the Reagan administration, where the Mixtec migrants have formed their own community that exists uncomfortably alongside the mostly white population.
A mix of observational documentary with reportage, this film shows how the strong sense of community amongst these immigrants perseveres in the U.S. while the anxieties of working class life set in. The social effects on the families of migrants back home are profound. “Mexican Dream” brings these pressing issues to light and humanizes the denigrated, undocumented “illegals” by showing them as sons and daughters and parents in the struggle for material security. It also discusses how these same anxieties haunt the long time white community in the United States.
We start by talking with the people in this remote town in the mountains of the Sierra Mixteca where people live on a subsistence economy based on growing corn or knitting hats for a few pennies. Only the rich sometimes own a few farm animals or have tiled or even cement floors. Half of the people in this community, mostly the elderly, do not speak Spanish, only Mixteco (the local indigenous language). These communities have strongly felt the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the saturation of the labor market in underdeveloped Mexico. Some twenty years ago people would usually migrate to Mexico City in search of expanded opportunities. Now they go to “El Norte”.
The film also explores how economic prosperity is sometimes secondary to a more recent phenomenon in the bilateral cultural relationship. Most high school kids in rural Mexico want to migrate north to fulfill a distorted fantasy of easy money, baggy pants, big pickup trucks and baseball caps. It also illustrates how the Mexican government plays a comfortable game of neglecting its poorest citizens using international migration as an escape valve for its own impotency.
The story continues with several families from Oaxaca’s members on the other side. More than 5,000 of Austin’s population of 25,000 come from the Magdalena municipality. The demographic shift has brought a series of changes to the community, which is segregated in two worlds that hardly interact. The piece then turns to long time, mostly white residents and focuses on some of the political challenges that small town America faces today: cultural exclusion of immigrants, the economic logic that underlies their forceful acceptance, the mutual blaming between government levels and the myth that immigrants do not pay taxes.
Once these “hard” issues are explored, the film turns to a more personal narrative as a way of conclusion: is all this –the dangers, the solitude, the social confinement– worth it? The film’s character unambiguously conclude it does: they see themselves as a sacrificed generation so that their offspring can lead better lives.