A few weeks ago, Turner Classic Movies ran a night of films with Hispanic themes. Even better, several of them were set and filmed in New Mexico. Milagro Beanfield War and Salt of the Earth were already familiar to us. Another, And Now Miguel (1953), was entirely unfamiliar. Filmed as a documentary of rural Nuevomexicano life, the narration describes a young boys yearning to “go to the mountains”–that is, to go with the men to the summer shepherding grounds and, consequently, fulfill an important right of passage. Aspects of integration and migration are raised in subtle ways, and gender divisions between home and mountains are present, if not analyzed. Elias, surprisingly, was gripped by the young boy’s work with the family sheep.
The strange outlier among these films was a short, called “Give them the land.” The film depicted efforts of an American scientist to educate Mexican farmers on scientifically-informed methods of farming in the harsh Mexican deserts. Perhaps it is a bit of a nit to pick, since the rest of the films concerned Hispanics in the United States, and rural life in New Mexico is not necessarily comparable to that of rural Mexico.
Certain underlying messages distburbed. The short was a stunning visual document of farming practices. The scientist, of course, encounters various inefficiencies of agriculture methods, and he discusses how Americans can educate Mexican peasants in order to make land improvements. His approach: literally become “a good neighbor”, living among the peasants to serve as an example and compatriot. The good neighbor disarms opposition to innovation by living among Mexicans, offering advice and supplies for barter (some of the improved yields) rather than capital. In some sense, the good neighbor is socially assimilated, but culturally radical, working from within rather than as part of a hierarchy.
The final message puts the film into context: “We need him more than he needs us.” We need Mexicans (and by extension, subalterns) to become more efficient farmers rather than come to us for employment. It is a pro-development policy that carries an anti-immigration sentiment. It is, perhaps, little different from the thoughts and arguments that drive so-called free trade agreements, substituting the flow of people with the inverse flow of technology and capital. Indeed, the film begins with a soaring montage in which a message from the UN reaches the tiny village by telegraph, postman, and finally pidgeon, and ends with the peasant staying in his place, revealing how flows can be controlled.