June 10, 2013
By Theresa Delgadillo
“In my mind, slavery has not yet disappeared. And in this case, we the Mexican agricultural workers are the slaves. I want to say to all of the employers that we are not machines. And I want them to consider, for just a moment, that the money they have is thanks to the work of all the Mexican agricultural workers who come to Canada to work.”
– Mexican agricultural contract worker in El Contrato (2003)
Advocates of U.S. immigration reform have long cited the importance of immigrant labor in making our daily meals possible. Immigrant labor drives all aspects of agricultural production in the U.S. — picking, packing and delivering to our local markets the vegetables and fruits we eat as well as slaughtering and processing the poultry and meats we consume. Yet, what we overlook when we focus on how much agricultural labor rests on immigrant shoulders is the wealth, income and economies the workers also produce. In Min Sook Lee’s 2003 film El Contrato, viewers hear how small family farms grew into major industries through the use of Mexican agricultural contract workers. But viewers also hear the male workers, who are at the center of this film, speak about the pain of their ordinary family and social life disrupted, their isolation and their powerlessness life as contract workers to improve the conditions of their labor. The film also shows us their efforts to support each other.
Since visas for temporary contract labor, skilled labor, and the temporary status of millions is on the table in the current immigration debate in the U.S., those interested in immigration reform might be interested in viewing Lee’s film to consider how guest worker programs affect all those involved, but also to learn about the historic and economic contributions of immigrant workers. For me, El Contrato drives a home a point that many would prefer to forget: immigrants are people, embedded in social as well as economic networks. El Contrato shows us men who are not able to both live and work among their families and social networks, but instead must forego life for work. Their labor, nonetheless, contributes to two economies: Canadian and Mexican. Though El Contrato addresses a Canadian/Mexican context, viewers might consider that the men’s voices in this film and their expressions of desire for a fuller family are sentiments shared by immigrants in the U.S. Today, we again revisit the debate between prioritizing family and social relationships in U.S. immigration law over that of worker supply and between inclusion of new immigrants via citizenship or forms of legal second-class status.
Filmmaker Min Sook Lee is at work on another film, Migrant Dreams, that focuses on women contract workers in Canada. The trailer promises even more intimate glimpses into the lives of contract workers, yet because these aspects of life are absent from El Contrato I wonder about the sources of this gendered difference — were these aspects of men’s lives not available to the woman filmmaker or a sign of the difference in men’s and women’s immigrant experience? Something to consider when Migrant Dreams is completed and published. In the meantime, view El Contrato in full online at the Canadian Film Board’s website.
Theresa Delgadillo is a Co-Editor/Moderator of Mujeres Talk and an Assistant Professor of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University.