By Michael Slate
Revolutionary Worker #1112, July 29, 2001, posted at http://rwor.org
The camera jumps around, showing thick brush, rocks, hills and the legs and backs of men and women, running, stopping, and running again. You can almost feel the sharp brush cutting scratches across their legs, the quick breath that comes with furious running. Words are shouted in a tense voice, "íVámonos! íMuévanse!" "Let's go! Move it!" Jackhammer heartbeats seem to pound in your ears. More running and hiding until they reach the van.
A young woman's face looks out the window at a new land: the highways, factories and cities of Southern California. Her name is Maya. Soon the coyotes pull into a deserted alley near downtown Los Angeles. They trade the new immigrants for wads of money scraped together by their families and friends. When Maya's sister Rosa falls short of the $800 the coyotes demand for bringing Maya to L.A., the coyotes flip a coin to see which one gets to take Maya home and rape her. Welcome to the "Promised Land"!
This is the beginning of Bread and Roses, the latest film from British director Ken Loach. It tells the story of people on the bottom of this society--the people who are essential to the how things run, but who labor on the edges and in the shadows. It's the story of proletarian immigrants from Mexico and Central America who work as janitors in the gleaming highrises of downtown Los Angeles, the people who labor far into the night when the buildings and the streets are deserted.
While the drama unfolds around the struggle of the janitors for a labor union, better wages and benefits, it is a complex and many layered tale of immigrant proletarian life. These proletarians are put on the stage in a way that rarely happens. We see their joys and sorrows, their suffering and dancing, their love and their hatred, their confusions and their inspirations. And we delight in the portrayal of their boundless energy and enthusiasm for justice and the struggle to win it.
Bread and Roses is the story of a young Mexican woman, Maya, who comes north to join her sister, Rosa, and Rosa's family in Los Angeles. It is the story of her transformation and how she transforms the lives of people around her.
From the moment Maya arrives in El Norte she is confronted with cruel and often barbaric assaults. After a brief stint as a waitress in a sleazy bar, Maya convinces Rosa to get her a job with her on the janitorial crew of a non-union janitorial service that cleans a downtown highrise. Before she's hired--at minimum wage--Maya has to agree to hand over a month's wages to the supervisor of the crew in the building. This supervisor, Perez, played by George Lopez, is a classic sweatshop overseer. He is full of himself and his petty power to terrorize the janitors, especially the women. When he hires Maya he tells her to pull her uniform tighter to show off her figure and asks her to turn around so he can see her body, commenting that it's nice to have attractive young women working for him instead of the "old hags."
When Maya meets the union organizer during her first week at work, we know this is going to change the course of their lives. But they meet in one of the film's most comical moments, as the organizer, Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody), is running through the building wearing a red "Justice for Janitors" T-shirt, being chased by security guards and diving into a trash bin to escape them. When Maya later talks to her sister Rosa, she calls Sam a payaso, a clown. But when Sam comes to talk, Maya is interested.
Maya is plunged into the struggle to organize a union and improve the conditions of the janitors. The workers meet with the union reps and begin struggling, with themselves and with each other, over whether to join the union and risk what little they have. While Maya and a handful of others are eager to fight, some of the workers are not so sure. In meetings they talk about the risk of being fired and blacklisted. They worry about being deported or not being able to use fake papers if a union is brought into the job. Some speak of the death-squad killings of union activists in El Salvador. At one meeting the union organizers show a video of the LAPD attack on a march of Justice for Janitors in the early 1990s that sent 60 people to the hospital. A few are reluctant to chance losing whatever small opportunities they are trying to chase. One young janitor is within a few paychecks of being able to get a partial scholarship to law school. And some, like Maya's sister Rosa, are indifferent and even hostile to the union.
The company plays on all the fears and contradictions among the workers. They fire workers for refusing to snitch on their co-workers. They offer bribes. Sam, the union organizer, is young, full of heart and enthusiasm and he seems to genuinely want to stand with the janitors against their bosses. Still, there is a distance between Sam and the janitors. He comes from the middle class and doesn't have as much to lose. He doesn't speak that much Spanish. And, as good as his heart is, he makes mistakes too--including one careless move that sets in motion a disastrous chain of events for the janitors. Sam also has to go up against the union bosses who aren't so supportive of this particular union battle. But Sam and the workers don't give up on each other, and the workers begin to take increasingly bold actions and remain united in the face of increased repression. Through all these twists and turns, Maya emerges as a strong, fearless fighter.
In many ways, Bread and Roses is Maya's story; this is one of the major strengths of the film. It is mainly through her eyes that we see the mountains of oppression that weigh on these immigrant workers, including the extra chains that shackle women. And it is through her actions that we also get a chance to see the kind of spirit and courage needed to fight and win in these battles.
Maya is a woman we rarely see in the movies or on any stage. She is young, strong, resourceful, rebellious and full of life. She is fearless and bold in a way that captures your attention and your heart from the moment she escapes the coyote rapist early on. Maya has absolutely no respect for or fear of the authorities. Laws and rules mean nothing to Maya; she runs her life by a basic class feeling and code. She has no respect for bourgeois property or the bourgeois way of life. And she is a sister who never, even in the face of tremendous pressure and adversity, gives in or backs down in the struggle. She delights in outsmarting the authorities and she is really sharp and quick in figuring out the ways to do this.
The film's most intense and provocative scene comes during an argument between Maya and her sister Rosa. When Maya questions a move Rosa made against the union organizing effort, Rosa, who must fight every minute to work, take care of her family, and try to get help in a county health system stretched to the limit for a husband suffering from the complications of diabetes, lets loose on Maya. Rosa decides to let Maya know all of the horrors she had to go through to feed the rest of the family in Mexico--how she became a prostitute to send money to her family and how it continued relentlessly up to the present, including that she had to sleep with Perez, the supervisor, in order to get him to hire Maya.
This scene is an extremely moving and very difficult moment in the film. It probes the complex pressures placed on the people at the bottom of this dog-eat-dog system. For their own survival, some people are forced by the system into horrific and degrading acts. Their experience pulls them in different directions. On the one hand, the only way out is uniting with the other have-nots. On the other, the system schools people in a kind of desperate individualism: If you don't look out for yourself in this terrible world, nobody will. While Maya loves her sister and is devastated by what Rosa tells her, still she will not leave the struggle.
Bread and Roses has its weak moments. It's a little stiff and one-sided in its portrayal of the middle class and their view of the janitors. Through the course of the janitors' strike in L.A. many from the middle classes--including many Hollywood figures--have come to support the janitors. Yet this is barely acknowledged in the film, with the Hollywood middle class portrayed only as surprised, indifferent or hostile.
But the biggest weakness of the movie is its emphasis on trade unionism as the answer to the exploitation and oppression the proletarians face. It shows the workers stepping forward to get involved in struggle. But the movement and the workers' consciousness don't go beyond trade unionism. At a large rally of workers and supporters, Sam tells the crowd that the workers will get justice when they build a union movement that is as strong as the corporations.
Ironically this stands in stark contrast to the whole picture that emerges of Maya's life and the lives of her comrades. How could a strong trade union possibly solve all the injustices confronting the characters in this film: the sexual degradation of women, the poverty in Mexico and Central America, the police brutality, the Migra deportations, the lack of health care, and the whole class structure of the society?
As Maya rides away in the Migra bus--deported because she took money to help her friend pay his college tuition--I could not help thinking that it will take a proletarian revolution to solve all the problems Maya and her comrades have encountered. And whether the filmmaker intended it or not, in the end Maya herself offers hope for such a revolution. As Lenin once said, if the workers will sacrifice so much in a strike to change their conditions of exploitation, what would they do to end exploitation once and for all?
Still, Bread and Roses is an important film. It is a strong and moving portrait of the lives of a significant part of the proletariat in the U.S. And there aren't many films like this out there. The cast is a mix of professional and non-professional actors. Members of Justice for Janitors and activists play various secondary roles in the film. Maya is played by Pilar Padilla, a Mexican actress who didn't speak English when she got the role. Rosa is played by the Mexican actress Elpidia Carrillo whose previous credits include leading roles in Oliver Stone's Salvador and Tony Richardson's The Border. Los Jornaleros del Norte, a popular Latino immigrant band formed by day laborers waiting for work, performs in a couple of scenes. The film also moves effortlessly between Spanish with English subtitles and vice-versa--mirroring the mix these proletarians deal with every day.
Many Mexican and Central American immigrants see themselves and their families in this film. Janitors all over Los Angeles love it. Immigrant youth talk about being able to identify with the people in the film. A young immigrant women told the RW that she really loved the language it used. She said that you could tell the filmmaker took time to listen to people and to get to know them because it uses the slang and all the little expressions used by recent Mexican immigrants as opposed to just mushing together immigrant and Chicano culture like so many other films do.
A janitor who cleans the offices of Sanwa Bank in downtown L.A. wrote in a review that it "insists on the dignity of workers and human beings." It is important that films like Bread and Roses are out there today, especially as a new generation joins the struggle. There are moments of triumph, and there are setbacks in this film, and some big questions in people's lives are left unsettled at the end. But the audience never gets a feeling of defeat.
Indeed, it would be a beautiful world if the Mayas of this earth--and all their class brothers and sisters--were running things.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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