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Migrants and Minutemen

Two exhibitions at DiverseWorks explore both sides of a hot-button issue

"The Minutemen are doing exactly what President George W. Bush requested all citizens do in his State of the Union speech…" says "Bob," a middle-aged Minuteman sporting a safari-esque khaki shirt and hat. "Here's what he said: 'I call on all Americans to be ever vigilant and to report any unusual activity to the appropriate authorities and to stand ready and to give aid to the appropriate authority when they do arrive on the scene.'"

"Bob" quotes Bush so emphatically, it sounds like he’s saying the pledge of allegiance. He’s part of "The Border Film Project" at DiverseWorks. The project includes a documentary film about migrants and Minutemen as well as an exhibition of photos by both groups. "The Border Film Project" is a collaborative effort by the filmmakers Rudy Adler, Victoria Criado and Brett Huneycutt. Sharing the main gallery is "Frontera" a collection of portraits of and interviews with migrants and Minutemen by William Howard.

You have probably seen television coverage of border issues. But in "The Border Film Project" video, there’s no voice-over explaining the situation, no interviews with government officials or "experts." In "Frontera," Howard tries for similar neutrality with his photos and interviews. He shoots his full-length portraits of Minutemen and migrants in the same way. He upsets stereotypes by choosing subjects like a Native American Minuteman or a young man who suddenly finds himself deported to Mexico after spending almost his entire life in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Minutemen photos are filled with the trappings of hunting.
Anonymous Minuteman
The Minutemen photos are filled with the trappings of hunting.
Most of the migrants look grim and tired.
from the Border Film Project
Most of the migrants look grim and tired.

Some of the Minutemen in "The Border Film Project" video make valid points. One man explains that because Mexican migrants are working here and sending money home, it "removes the societal pressure" on the Mexican government to reform itself and improve the lot of its poor. One woman addresses corporate greed and how 20,000 meatpacking-plant workers in Iowa were laid off and replaced with "illegals from Mexico" paid minimum wage with no benefits.

But you get the sense that the Minutemen in the film aren’t exactly putting all their cards on the table for the filmmakers. They seem to choose their words carefully, vigorously trying to snuff out any whiff of racism. Still, their paranoia is undisguised — the illegals are streaming across the border and Al Qaeda probably is, too. Their vision of an ominous horde of migrants coming to take from good honest Americans is obvious.

The interviews with the hopeful migrants — a mother and her three children, one of them a small, sick boy, about to cross through the desert to follow her husband; two earnest-looking young men whose goals for the future amount to achieving a basic standard of living — illustrate that that supposedly ominous horde is made up of ordinary people with the most ordinary of dreams. The footage of a woman and her young daughter sitting in the cage-like back of a border patrol vehicle is tragic, no matter how nicely the agent speaks to them.

Listening to the Minutemen talk about illegal migrants, you get the impression that merely by setting foot on American soil, illegals are showered with cash and social services. If you look at the lot of America’s own poor, depictions of such green pastures seem a little disconnected from reality. And if you look at the project's interviews with two guys standing in a Wal-Mart parking lot trying to get work as day laborers, the pasture looks pretty barren. They talk about standing eight, ten hours a day waiting for work. One guy says that some weeks he only makes 40 bucks.

While the border crackdown has hurt migrants, it has also hurt farmers. A recent New York Times article revealed that much of the best pear crop in recent history rotted because growers couldn't find enough pickers. As part of Howard’s exhibition "Frontera," one potential harvester, "Elias," was photographed in Mexico after being caught in Phoenix and sent back. Howard recorded the story of his journey and return. At the end, Elias says, "This time we did not succeed but we will succeed next year. This year the gringo harvest can go to waste. We would like to see the gringos try to gather their own harvests!"

A scene in "The Border Project" shows a training session for Minutemen. They are told that it's not about excitement and adventure; they are told they are not there to catch people, only to observe and then summon the border authorities. But in listening to them and reading Howard's interviews, you get the impression that they desperately want it to be about excitement and adventure. They have a sense of crisis about them; these are people who seem to want drama, some reason to feel important and needed. They are answering what they see as a call to arms.

The photographs from "The Border Film Project" cover the main gallery's walls. The project distributed 600 disposable cameras to record the realities of the border from both sides. Half went to people in Mexico who were on their way to cross over, and half went to Minutemen trying to stop them. All participants were given pre-stamped envelopes to return their cameras in, as well as a financial incentive — Wal-Mart or Shell gift cards that would be funded when the cameras were received.

The exhibition of people's photographs of themselves is about as objective a representation as you can get. The only editorializing is in the editing and arrangements of the photos. There are a lot of images of people making their way through or stopping to rest in the desert landscape. One series shot by a Minuteman shows a lone figure of a man on a road in the distance. Later, closer-up images show the border patrol stopping him and the man being arrested. It apparently documents a Minuteman at work.

These photos are filled with the trappings of hunting. The Minutemen wear a lot of camouflage; they also drape their trucks with it. They sport a lot of guns. In one photo, a shirtless guy sits at an outdoor table, a huge hunting knife stuck in his belt. Another photo captures a guy perched atop a deer stand and looking out into the desert. A big-gutted Minuteman slumbers atop the four-wheeler used to tow the stand.

A couple of guys grin at the camera, but most of the migrants who photographed themselves in the desert look grim and tired. Meanwhile, the smiling Minutemen who photograph themselves at the border with their shiny SUVs look like they are out for a tailgate party. For the migrants, crossing the border is a matter of life or death. The Minutemen seem convinced it is for them as well.

"The Border Project" and "Frontera" probably aren't going to tell you anything major you don’t already know about the border situation. But they add nuance, and they humanize the people on both sides, giving added dimension to the ongoing debate.

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