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By Joaquin Villalobos • May 25th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Filmhaus / Criterion

Original release: October 16th,1977
Running time: 110 minutes

Writer and director: Robert M. Young
Composer: Michael Martin Murphey

Cast: Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen, Ned Beatty


Today, the immigrant experience central to the origin stories of every United States citizen is easily restricted to the Mexican/American border and experience. Policies have helped construe this so, and they depend in great part upon the notion of invasion, an entitled xenophobia that disregards Mexican immigrants as “illegitimate” and unworthy of a stake in our country.

We Americans, each with our own generationally complicit and complicated relation to immigration, are somehow not supposed to relate to the universal impulse in seeking a better life for ourselves and our children. “Self-deportation”, this past Republican primary’s thinly veiled pejorative “solution” to the clash arising between Mexico’s failing government and our own racism, is not a solution, but only another way of avoiding a problem that is simple and intuitive enough to understand and begin solving.

This attitude towards immigration is nothing new, of course, and it’s the sort of hotbed topic that rightfully insists on carrying relevance come each election.

Things haven’t changed much in the 35 years since Robert M. Young’s first narrative feature hit the festival circuit in 1977, and fittingly, ¡Alambrista! still remains the greatest film about the Mexican immigrant experience. In fact, no American production since has dealt with this experience as unsentimental, direct, and dignified as Young’s film does.

¡Alambrista! is a rare experience affording a full and achingly pure depiction of one journey within countless others that move away from home and into a hostile foreign land where the few gruelling work opportunities offered are as good as it will get. It’s the sort of film that roots deeper than the surface machinations of a social issue and into the heart, a story reactivating that same intuition we’ve learned to distrust when it comes to understanding the immigrant’s struggle to survive.


¡Alambrista! made an enormous impact at Cannes in 1978, winning the festival’s inaugural Caméra d’Or award for best first feature. The French were so impressed with an American fictional entry that employed a guerrilla documentary approach and was genuinely focused on the social issues of its immigrant character.

Young would enjoy a successful festival circuit run and much praise with his film over the next few years, but sadly, producers would only leave screenings fully enthused over the film (one producer even moved to tears) but forced to tell Young there was no way they could secure the funds for distribution to a larger audience. A film about something as presumably non-entertaining as a poor Mexican field worker is too steep of a gamble for any independent distributor to make, and by the early 80s, the film was forgotten.

Now available for the first time, ¡Alambrista! is nothing short of a long overdue revelation, both in terms of its place in American independent film’s beginnings and the gap it fills in Mexican American film history. Before now, the most widely known and applicable film to Latin American immigration has been Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983), a watershed, masterful film in its own right, but more specific to a necessary journey out of Guatemala’s civil war between Mayan natives and a CIA-orchestrated military dictatorship.

More importantly, Nava’s film is a scathing, Marxist indictment of our country’s hypocritical ethos as the “land of promise” that we ultimately deny most undocumented immigrants while exploiting them.

In so many ways, ¡Alambrista! (a term more accurately translated to “fence jumper” than “The Illegals” as the film’s title card does) can now serve as the cinematic genesis story within Mexican American film history. It can be deemed the inaugural piece in a boom of American narrative film dealing with Chicano culture, from Young’s own The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez ¡Alambrista!(1982) to La Bamba (1987), and even further to more necessarily violent (for distribution) and mainstream Hollywood pictures as American Me (1992) and Blood In, Blood Out (1993).

As a political piece, it belongs to the “Si, se puede” ethos of Cesar Chavez’s civil rights advocacy, for the film successfully elicits an emotional appeal towards the farm-worker without the sentimentality and false affirmation of something like Mi Familia (1995).

¡Alambrista! presents the story of Roberto Ramírez (Domingo Abriz), a young man from Michoacán, Mexico who, after his wife gives birth to their first child in the film’s opening scene, realizes he must make the trek north into the United States to seek work.

This story’s symbolic power and personal applicability is immeasurable, and more tellingly, its relevancy demonstrated in the couple of generations connecting today’s Mexican American youth with their grandparents, and even parents, who were part of the same exodus rendered in ¡Alambrista!.

Roberto’s entry into the United States is, of course, much easier when compared to the violent obstacles immigrants face today, and is simply a matter of darting through a hole in a chain-link fence while dodging the helicopter spotlights of la migra (six years later, the immigrants in El Norte would have to crawl through miles of rat-infested sewage piping to elude capture).

He quickly aligns himself with a group of other Mexicans making the same trek and together they find work picking strawberries in Stockton, California. Roberto ¡Alambrista!befriends Joe (Trinidad Silva), another undocumented worker who teaches him simple social gestures and immediate English (instructing him to order “ham, eggs, and coffee, no beans”) to help him assimilate and blend into their present city.

Beyond the cultural significance of ¡Alambrista!, the film is also noteworthy in terms of its intent focus on showing actual work. American film mostly avoids this everyday part of life, and it wasn’t until independent fiction film began to flourish that working-class labor became a regular area of interest outside of the documentary form.

Appropriately, Young’s first major short work, Children Of The Fields (1973), is strictly about field labor as it follows a migrant worker family’s early morning routine and their day’s work in the onion fields. Highly effective in its realism and absoluteness, Young would apply this same direct documentary style to Roberto’s reality in ¡Alambrista!, showing first-hand the harsh and often dangerous reality of undocumented workers forced to keep plugging away tirelessly at expansive acres in intense heat.

Roberto and Joe’s friendship follows where the work is available as they embark on travelling across the southern United States, a partnership cut short by Joe’s sudden death in a train accident. Now alone and exhausted, Roberto is lucky enough to be discovered (and saved from a pickpocket) by a small-town waitress named Sharon (Linda Gillin), who despite their language barrier begins to build an intimate affair with Roberto out of her own cultural isolation. For Roberto, she offers a sense of something more beyond his long days of labor and fills the emotional void created from the separation with his wife and daughter back home.

Surprisingly, ¡Alambrista! also exhibits the odd singularity of working-class Americana that defined the 1970s independent film. Roberto’s night strolls through ¡Alambrista!the urban strip of Stockton reveal a collage of down-and-out folks from low places (where a young Edward James Olmos delivers a completely improvised drunken high-energy rant antagonizing the locals).

Not only are we introduced to the desperate air of the graveyard shift waitress (who resembles an extra out of a BBS production or Barbara Loden film), Roberto’s travels also introduce an overly chatty restaurant counter patron who goes mostly ignored and a fire-and-brimstone Baptist preacher that he, culturally unfamiliar as he is to this very American religious display, stares at in confusion and fear.

Presented with the same spontaneity as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969), another American film brimming with these characters, Young’s imposition of a foreign country’s idiosyncrasies is to Roberto as Manhattan was to someone like Joe Buck, who was also navigating his own migration from rural Texas.

“The film is not saying ‘round up everybody and put them in jail’ or ‘make them citizens’,” Young says. “Those are not really issues that are even raised. However, you come to all of that implicitly, out of understanding the situation and thinking was to give little beyond an accurately simple and full picture of what an undocumented immigrant must endure.

His politics are never didactic, but mostly whispered. While Roberto’s fate by the end is hopeful, one cannot help but dwell on ¡Alambrista!the quiet despair and detachment he adopts in his demeanour, a characteristic required of any farm-worker who has never had the opportunity to take root.

Bookending with the arrival of his own child, there is another sudden birth at the end of the film when a woman in labor clings to a flagpole at a border entry station so that her new baby can by default become an American citizen.

In this moment, Young poignantly captures the desperation, hope, and determination of an “illegal” demographic for a chance at the comfort and privilege afforded by America. More remarkably, this newborn child is a metaphor for all the cultural complexity and contradiction that will constitute the identity of future Mexican American generations who will take on the blessing and curse of assimilation.

For me personally, Young’s seemingly simple yet truly magnificent film has finally filled a long withstanding gap in the filmic cultural identity of myself and my family. ¡ ¡Alambrista! is the missing link in my heritage’s cinematic representation, and it shows with truth and respect what my father’s own struggle has been to stay in a country he never really arrived in, and to take root in a place that never allowed him to thrive.

The dark, silent canyon between the cultural identity of my Mexican father and me, his American son, is the sort of problematic heritage this film helps illuminate.

Joaquin Villalobos

Joaquin Villalobos

Joaquin Villalobos is a burgeoning critic, video editor, screenwriter, and lover of all things film residing in Denver, Colorado. His earliest memory of the cinema is Walt Disney’s Pinocchio at the age of three, an experience sealing his interest in storytelling through imagery. He achieved a Bachelor of Fine Arts at CU Boulder where his work on 16mm and digital video garnered several awards and exhibitions.

His writings on film continue to strengthen his appreciation and understanding of it as both art and commerce. His favorite directors include Pedro Almodóvar, Jean-Pierre Melville, Michael Powell, and Paul Thomas Anderson. More of Joaquin's work can be found at his website, Seen Said and you can follow him on Twitter @SeenSaid.

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