Does the American Dream Exist for Migrants?

Does the American Dream Exist for Migrants?

By Libby Coleman


Because this is the intersection of research, advocacy and art.

By Libby Coleman

The adolescents are yanked off the train in broad daylight and hustled with dozens of others to the side of a dusty road. That train was headed toward freedom, but now men are pointing big guns at the would-be passengers, demanding their possessions. Women have it worse: They are herded onto the back of a truck destined for who knows where. Sara, who has disguised herself as a boy, stands nervously until one of the gunmen notices her and gets a hunch. He lifts up her shirt, discovers her bound breasts and yells: “Take her!” She disappears, never to be seen again. What began as a journey of four people is now down to two. Is this really a golden dream? 

Diego Quemada-Díez forces the question in his 2013 film, The Golden Dream, which won a host of awards and can now be watched online. Next up, Quemada-Díez is working on a new feature, Operacion Atlas, which will take on another meaty issue — civil resistance to multinational corporations. The Spanish-born director now lives in Mexico and spoke with OZY about what films to watch to learn more about migration, his process for telling authentic stories and why he focused on Guatemalan migration.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

OZY: What’s the best metaphor for U.S.-migrant relations right now?

Diego Quemada-Díez: One of them is the prison — la jaula. [The movie’s Spanish title is La Juala de Oro, which translates to The Golden Prison.] The United States is a place to make more money, but it also traps you. It condemns you and fragments you from your own family. So many people have not seen their wives in years because they cannot get in and out. Another metaphor is the wall — a wall that separates human beings. It’s a very arbitrary and hypocritical wall: We all know economies need labor, especially for things Americans don’t want to do anymore, like meatpacking. I thought about cages, the wall and the flying of birds — the freedom to go and how humans should be able to do that. Nowadays we have lines drawn on the earth. 

OZY: Why did you choose Guatemalan and Tzotzil characters? 

D.Q.D.: There’s added drama if you’re from Central America, if you don’t have documents or speak Spanish: You’ve got to cross a huge country. The film was really about the journey across Mexico, and that’s why it was better to have them be from Central America. In Mexico, there are so many migrants from Honduras, for example, having a horrible experience: kidnapping, sexual trafficking and now the trafficking of organs. 

OZY: Your migration story is much different than the one you portray. How do you tell these stories faithfully? 

D.Q.D.: By listening to them with my heart and mind. The process started when I read an interview with John Ford after he made Stagecoach in 1939. He predicted that in the future, filmmakers won’t work with big stars and make big stories. Instead, they would go to villages and listen to what stories needed to be told, and from that listening, they’d write their screenplays and go back to their communities, and their communities would act on them. Much of what he predicted hasn’t happened, but it is possible to do that kind of filmmaking now. 

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A scene from The Golden Dream

Source The Golden Dream

And so the character of the girl, Sara, came from a couple of real people: one girl who told me that when she did the journey, her mother cut her hair and dressed her as a boy, and a woman who told me she took birth control pills because she knew she was going to get raped. You put those two elements in one character. 

OZY: Your film seems hesitant to endorse trying to come to the United States, and also hesitant not to endorse it. What would you advise? 

D.Q.D.: I’m not there to tell a migrant what to do. I’m just observing a current situation. The migrants told me: Please tell our story, and tell it so people in the United States understand why we’re migrating. And they said: Please do it so other migrants can see what could happen to them. They said: If I’d known, I’d have made the journey differently or I’d not have done it or I’d have made a more conscious decision. 

A migrant once said to me after viewing my film, “I’m a successful migrant story — why didn’t you tell my story?” I said, “I’m happy you were successful in the United States, and I also have had an extremely positive experience in the United States. But if you look at most stories, there are a lot of dangers and a high percentage [of people who] never arrive. It’s a representative journey, but it’s not all of the journeys.”  

OZY: If you wanted to learn more about migration through film, where should you look?

D.Q.D.: In This World, by Michael Winterbottom, was an inspiration for my film. The Path of Hope, directed by Pietro Germi, is a great Italian film. Those two films I really love. There’s also Le Havre by Aki Kaurismäki.