John Lennon got at the nut of living high on the hog: “If I’d lived in Roman times,” he’s supposed to have said, “I’d have lived in Rome. Where else? Today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself.” While I’ve moved to the opposite end of the country, I still live in America, otherwise known as the American Empire. Most Americans blush whenever their beloved country is referred to as an empire, yet it’s more powerful, controlling more of the planet and the surrounding solar system, than in any Caesar’s wildest dreams.
And living in a global empire comes with plenty of perks because, as it turns out, an empire is built on the pain and suffering of those unfortunate enough to find themselves born beyond its bloody borders—and the borders of the American Empire, at least its southern one, are as bloody as a day at the Coliseum. When Border Patrol agents aren’t sending hot lead to the domes of rock-wielding youngsters from across the imaginary line, the Department of Homeland Security is funneling the tired and poor—young men and women full of hope, as well as desperate parents and their small children—through a fiery wasteland riddled with deadly rattlesnakes and scorpions, vicious javelinas, savage bandits and drug traffickers, on top of more Border Patrol agents (close to 20,000 in all) and bloodthirsty militiamen praying for nothing more than the chance to drop an alien or three for the sake of freedom, white supremacy, and that ass called The Law.
It feels wrong to say that I’m hooked on the border, but I am, ever since watching the sixth and final episode of the Netflix documentary series Immigration Nation. I’ve said on my podcast (Remember the Show!) that the filmmakers could’ve scrapped the first five episodes—saving the story of César López, a deported Marine veteran—and Immigration Nation would be just as good, if not better, for being more focused and, thus, biting. Since watching the series a few weeks ago I’ve read half a dozen good books on the subject, and even chatted with two of its stars on my aforementioned show: the first being Jason De León, the UCLA anthropologist studying the artifacts and human remains of migrants (a couple thousand a day, in fact, mostly Central American) who are brave enough, or crazy enough, but usually just ignorant enough of the dangers, to venture along the infamous Camino del Diablo—the Devil’s Highway; the second star to appear on my show being Mr. López himself.
So when the Reverend Dr. Ellin Jimmerson, a filmmaker and good Facebook friend of mine, sent me a link for The Second Cooler, her 2013 documentary about illegal border-crossers and the millions of undocumented workers on whose labor the great American Empire thrives, I felt as though, yet again, the Universe were winking at me.
The film begins and centers on a crucial question: Who benefits from illegal immigration? That this question remains so provocative, after so much time, suggests that the pampered and feted citizens of America, like those of any empire, wish to remain happily in the dark on what exactly their good fortune has cost and continues to cost those brown barbarians clamoring at our gates. As the son of a Honduran mother and a Puerto Rican father, those barbarians happened to be my people, the people I come from—but so too are my fellow Americans. I am the Empire, and I am not the Empire; it is both within me and without me. The whole thing is all one big bloody mess, with a bit of blood on my own hands, and yours too, if you’re an American.
Ellin’s film does a great job of covering a lot of old ground by heightening the sheer tragedy of the whole equation many Americans still choose to see only at a glance and with one eye shut. She zeros in on the economics of illegal immigration, beginning really with the start of NAFTA in 1994, and gives a fresh take on the old refrain Immigrants take the jobs Americans don’t want. Plus the film is bilingual and narrated by Ramón Estévez, better known as Martin Sheen (though he too might blush at that), so what’s not to love?
I highly recommend The Second Cooler for everyone and anyone, even those who, like me, feel they’ve read, seen and heard enough about the hundreds of thousands of migrants who every year try their luck at crossing our bloody border in hopes of reaching Rome.
Featured image: Dani Jardine/The Daily Universe