Crossing the Border: Filmmaker Documents Mexican Immigrants’ Search for Better Life in the United States

John Cheng Sep 1, 2009

Jen Lawhorne’s short documentary film, Little Trip of a Dream, provides a heartfelt counterpoint to the booming voices of xenophobia that often dominate the American media landscape. This 35-minute movie follows Lawhorne’s trip to the village of Ocotitlan, Mexico, to visit the families of her co-workers, who are undocumented immigrants earning a living at a restaurant in Richmond, Va., where Lawhorne works.

At an August 20 screening of the movie at Bluestockings bookstore, followed by a Q&A with the director, Lawhorne said that when she traveled to Mexico she didn’t have any intention of making a documentary. She had originally planned to simply hitchhike through Mexico and work with and film members of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. However, after attending a workshop while in Chiapas about Mexican immigration to the United States, Lawhorne decided to direct her attention to her co-workers’ families, who would be able to speak about the impact of this trend on their own lives.

The documentary chronicles the experience of Mexican immigrants crossing the border into the United States through interviews with these family members. The film also details the physical and psychological hardships faced by these immigrants, both during their journey and once they reach the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, enacted in 1994, launched a series of trade policies, including the weakening of trade barriers and the removal of tariffs, which strengthened the competitive advantage of corporations, thus making it harder for farmers in Ocotitlan, Mexico to profit from their labor.

These policy changes have forced millions of Mexicans to cross the border into the United States to find employment. Despite the economic downturn, on average, U.S. salaries are four times higher than those across the border. According to their relatives in Ocotitlan, family members who are currently working in Virginia are sending money back home that can then be used to build homes and feed relatives. However, for many families, this supplemental income is still not enough to lift them out of poverty.

Despite the extra money they are able to make in the United States, Lawhorne’s co-workers miss the local traditions, community and family members that they have left behind in Mexico, and hope to return home someday.

Interspersed with interview segments about Lawhorne’s co-workers and their loved ones are scenes of border militarization. The film reveals confrontations between the Minutemen and immigrant rights advocates, such as No More Deaths, an organization that distributes food and water to immigrants crossing the border. In one of these incidents, members of No More Deaths are shown making a nighttime visit to the border to blast, via loudspeakers, warning messages to immigrants who are crossing the border about armed Minutemen who have camped out in an effort to capture them. The Minutemen themselves are not spared playful taunts.

“Buenos noches, Minutemen! How are you doing tonight?” one activist is shown yelling with a disarming goofiness.

The documentary also includes insights into Lawhorne’s personal relationships with her subjects; she sees her co-workers as friends, and is warmly welcomed by their relatives in Mexico. She laments the refusal of narrow-minded Americans to reciprocate this kindness and respect towards immigrants, a sentiment institutionalized by restrictive U.S. border policies.

While Little Trip of a Dream is a no-frills film, its value lies in being able to show the experience of Mexican immigrants, who have left their families in search of a better life in the United States, as they struggle to survive border crossings in the desert with no vital supplies and find work once they’ve reached the United States.

Lawhorne’s respectful tone and empathetic approach to capturing the physical and psychological ordeals of Mexican immigrants is certainly worthy of an audience.

For more information about the film, click here.

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