The People of La Ciudad

by Luciente

Revolutionary Worker #1040, January 30, 2000

There are films that never leave you. The characters in the film La Ciudad live in my memory. The lines that outline their faces are redrawn every time I wait in line at the panadería or walk past a crowded bus stop. I hear their voices as my mother and aunt talk and laugh while they knead masa and spread it thinly with their hands on big hojas de plátano (soaked plantain leaves) to make tamales. The lives of the masses of immigrant people who live in the city are immortalized in every frame of the La Ciudad--written and directed by David Riker. The struggles of the characters are real and are the struggles of immigrant people in the U.S. Every wound, every bruise, even the sweetness of a dance is internalized as the laughter and tears of the characters permeate from the screen to the audience.

The film is linked by four stories. Each story is about the lives of immigrants in New York City--acted by workers from different parts of Latin America. La Ciudad's opening setting is a corner where dozens of day laborers compete for back-breaking work. In the next story, a young immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, crashes a Quinceañera (sweet fifteen birthday party). Then we witness a few days in the life of a puppeteer and his daughter who live in a station wagon by the river. Finally, there is the struggle of a costurera (garment worker) to gather up $400 to cover the hospital bills of her dying six-year-old daughter in Mexico.


Over 100 years ago, Marx wrote about "a class of laborers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital." Marx's words find physical expression in the faces worn with hardship and calloused hands of the jornaleros (day laborers) who compete against each other day after day to find work.

Vans and pick-ups roll up to parking lots of any hardware or auto parts store looking for cheap labor. The intensity of la esquina (the day labor corner) in La Ciudad mirrors the intensity that exists in cities throughout the world. Dozens of young and old men rush up ready to sell their labor, bidding for the job. The livelihood of their families and themselves depends on it.

A young immigrant unfolds a letter written to him from his wife in the opening scenes of the film. She writes about the downpour of rain in their pueblo (town), and the homes of their neighbors being washed away. She misses him. She hasn't received the money or letters he has sent her. Their son loves to play in the rain. He cherishes her words and keeps the letter close to him in his clothes pocket. This young immigrant and about a dozen others are hired at la esquina. Locked in the back of a truck, they set off to work. After a long ride, the back door slides up, and hot sunlight floods the back of the truck. The workers un-cramp themselves, squint their eyes and see mountains of bricks. They will be paid to clean mortar off of bricks--15 cents per brick, not the daily $50 they were all promised. The work is tiresome, exhausting, and dangerous. The fate of the workers is determined by the exploitative conditions in which they work.


Immigrants truly live between a rock and a hard place. Day in and day out, from sun up to sun down, even in the stillness of the night, they can be seen struggling for their subsistence and fighting to survive del otro lado (the other side of the border). Even still, their spirit is not extinguished or consumed by their hardship.

Francisco just arrived in the city. Everything he owns crowds into a backpack. Other than that, all he has is a few dollars and a crumpled piece of paper with an address written on it. Like millions of immigrants before him, he believes he will be lucky and find work, save up a little money and make a better life for himself.

Francisco can't find his uncle's address, but instead finds a Quinceañera party and is drawn in by the rhythm of cumbias. At the party he forgets the largeness and noise of the city. The city disappears. He remembers his home in Puebla and all the loved ones he left behind to pursue his dream to make life a little better by working here. At the party he meets María and they share stories of their families in Puebla. María has not seen her parents or siblings in years. Her entire family depends on the money she sends them--they need her to live on this side of the border. She shares her sadness with him, but they also laugh and lose themselves in the rhythm of music while they dance.


Dulce and her father live in their station wagon by the river. They have no formal address and share no shelter other than their car. Dulce is young, she loves to work with her father and help set up street performances. Their subsistence is the change people drop in Dulce's hat after the puppets take their bow and leave their little wooden stage.

Dulce's father is sick. He contracted tuberculosis in a shelter they stayed in. He worries about the well-being of his daughter and wants to enroll her in school. She wants to learn to read, but he can't make out the words written on a page to teach her. He teaches her of the beautiful things in life and the brilliance of the stars in beautifully poetic language in the bedtime stories he whispers to Dulce as she falls asleep.


The camera pans through the city. There are trains, people moving their way through door. In the fábrica (factory) workers engage in an early morning cotorreo (chatter) and laugh, a little. The whistle blows. Then, the faint whispers of sewing machines grow into loud vibrations that resonate from floor to floor and from factory to factory.

Ana hasn't received her paycheck. None of the workers have been paid in at least a couple of weeks. This isn't unusual and is to be expected when you work in costura. Ana is washing dishes after she comes home from work when a friend tells her that she must call Mexico--there is an emergency. Ana rushes to the corner to use a phone and the anguish from her teary face spreads to the audience. Her daughter is in the hospital, very sick, and close to death. Ana must send $400 to cover the medical expenses to save her 6-year-old daughter, Carmelita.

Getting paid at the sweatshop is a fight and uncertain. Ana's friends try to collect enough money amongst all their co-workers, each contributing as much as they can. Another close friend tries to sell her handmade dresses to shops around the city. The solidarity of her fellow workers--who confront the sweatshop owners--brings hope that Ana will be able to assist her daughter.

La Ciudad is powerful. It is a film that matters. The experience of Ana, Dulce, Francisco, María and all the other characters in La Ciudad are familiar to me. Growing up in Los Angeles, I've met all these characters in la esquina, in costura, and at las fiestas. They are people that I've known my entire life. Their voices, and the stories they tell, fill me with warmth for the people.

At the same time it makes my face red with rage that people live and die in the way that they do in this country. In their millions they have traveled for thousands of miles, leaving everything they've ever known, to work in a country that criminalizes and exploits them.

La Ciudad tells the stories of immigrants in New York, historic for its towering Statue of Liberty. The statue is not a symbol of freedom for these immigrants, nor to the actors who portray them (some of whom have already been deported). Rather, it is an ominous symbol of oppression.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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