Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America

This film sets-out to answer a rarely-asked question, one that should be the first posed during debates about immigration policy: how did +40 million Latinos end-up within the territorial boundaries of the United States? Of course, most Americans are woefully ignorant of the US’s own colonial legacy and the theft of nearly half of Mexico. Yet, even more recent economic, military, and political policy is often unknown. Perhaps the thing that most Americans know about US policy toward Latin America is the Monroe Doctrine, although that knowledge is likely de-contextualized and lacks an understanding of its driving factors and far-reaching consequences. Harvest of Empire is a film adaptation of the book by the same name, written by progressive journalist Juan Gonzalez (also of Democracy Now! fame). He addresses the social forces—push-pull factors, according to geographers—that bring large numbers of Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, Cubans, Dominicans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans to the United States.

Repeatedly, actions led by the US (government and economic elites) involved participation in foreign civil wars, engineering coups, colonial trickery and conscription, and economic pillage. For example, Puerto Ricans—after being promised, but never given independence—had US citizenship thrust upon them just in time for thousands to be drafted into the US Army to fight in World War One (echoing Irish immigrant naturalization in order to conscript them to fight for the Union in the Civil War). The Central Intelligence Agency, led by the Dulles brothers (who also had economic interests in the United Fruit Company) led a coup against a democratically-elected president in Guatemala who was eying land-reform which would repossess fallow land from United Fruit; the coup led to decades of bloody civil war. Elsewhere in Central America, the US’s arming of the brutal “contras” in Nicaragua and the paramilitaries of El Salvador created horrific chaos and massive emigration to the US. These country-based histories revitalize and compile an essential element of the US’s economic successes in the twentieth century. Consequently, Harvest of Empire would make a good accompaniment to a text like Eduardo Galeano’s classic Open Veins of Latin America or William Blum’s Killing Hope, which is more focused on US military and CIA history.

Lots of interesting people appear throughout the film, most notably reporter Geraldo Rivera and American Civil Liberties Union director Anthony Romero. Dissident Catholic priest and director of the School of the America’s Watch, Roy Bourgeois also appears—who spent time in El Salvador in the 1980s; in the film he states he was more scared there than when he was a chaplain in the Vietnam War. Gonzalez himself also appears throughout, leading much of the narration. The film seems a bit too focused on his life, but many films are like this today, as they try to personalize the story (and it’s all excusable since Gonzalez is simply awesome). As a piece of art, it is incredibly compelling, featuring a consistent template and presentation. It looks at the historical impetus for immigration, then ends each country’s description by providing factoids in a nice, graphical style.

At the film’s end, Harvest of Empire makes a plea for multiculturalism, tolerance, and an acceptance of the demographic changes that are occurring in the US. The percentage of white Americans is decreasing, and, in future decades, people who can trace their ancestry to Latin America will become the numerical majority. Regrettably, there seems to be a lack of sophistication with dealing with recent controversies over immigration, especially so-called “illegal” immigration. The multitude of scholarship that shows Right-wing concerns to be unfounded are not presented; instead, Fox News pundits are shown making outlandish accusations, without refutation. It would have been incredible benefit to more deeply address the misunderstandings about Latino immigration, especially concern of the “immigrant criminal” caricature or that Hispanics are “stealing jobs”. Still, the film does challenge the political framing of “illegality”, arguing forcefully that such language is hyperbolic and inaccurate, and that people cannot be “illegal” simply by being undocumented.

Topics: sociology of immigration, demography, race/ethnicity, political economy.

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