Harvest of Empire, the documentary


By Aracely Panameño

Harvest of Empire documentary is the historical account of the various waves of immigrants into theUnited States fromLatin America.  Combining narration, news footage, and personal interviews, it reveals theU.S. foreign policies that gave way to the corollary mass migration of displaced people fromMexico,Puerto Rico,Cuba,Dominican Republic,El Salvador, and other countries.  The film illustrates each wave of immigrants with personal stories of individuals and families impacted by policy or  conflict.  These families came to theU.S. seeking safety and security; they uprooted themselves from all that was familiar and planted themselves in a new land of possibilities full of challenges, but possibilities nonetheless.

One by one, the viewer is exposed to theU.S.policies that effectively led to, if not created, the social and political conditions of instability and insecurity for millions of people throughout Latin America and theCaribbean.  From an American angle, each policy adopted offered theU.S.economic opportunity or advanced national security interests.  Consequently, theU.S.government aligned itself with dictators and military governments responsible for abuses to humanity.  Innocent people caught in the middle, landed on our shores and settled across the nation.


Today, over fifty-two million people of Latin American descent live in theU.S.and the majority of them are U.S.-born citizens.  An estimated eleven million are undocumented immigrants.  Mexicois by far the greatest contributor to the overall Latino population, followed byPuerto Rico,Cuba,El Salvador, theDominican Republicand others.

The film recounts how and why the U.S-Mexico border moved southbound to where it is today.  Why is Puerto Rico a U.S.territory and its residents U.S.citizens?  How did the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement impact the Mexican labor force in Mexico?  Why are there so many Nicaraguans and Salvadorans in the U.S.? Harvest answers these and other questions.  It bears witness to the cause and effect ofU.S. policy and immigrant waves.

The stories are way too familiar for me personally.  As a U.S.citizen of Salvadoreño descent, my family survived the atrocities of Salvadoran military dictatorships that were in alliance with the U.S.  From the increased presence of U.S.corporations in the Salvadoran economy starting in 1950s to the civil war that began in the 1970s, Harvestportrays my family’s story in multiple ways.

As Dreamers (immigrants who were brought to theU.S.as minors by their parents) today, I too was brought by my mother as a minor in 1981.  The present heated debate over immigration and immigrants’ rights is the second time I live through national societal tensions over this issue.  When I first arrived, I could not even register at my district high school and immigration raids were the norm.

However, The Supreme Court’s decision on Plyler v. Doe gave minors like me the opportunity to attend and graduate from high school.  A Republican President, working with a Democratic-led Congress, signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 into law, which legalized nearly three million immigrants including me and my immediate family.

What defines a nation state is its ability to establish, defend its borders, and determine under what conditions foreigners enter in.  Clearly, many Americans unfamiliar with the policies and history that created the Latino burgeoning segment of theU.S.population feel that “their country” is being invaded and “their culture” is being changed.  History tells us that during times of national economic hardship, it is commonplace to blame immigrants and others for the level of unemployment and other societal ills.

Harvest of Empire allows us to self reflect and ask critical questions.  For example, to what extent increasing waves of immigrants are the makings ofU.S. foreign policy towards the sending countries? How do we address these challenges now that “the chickens have come home to roost”?  The film’s title tells us that theU.S. is harvesting the fruit of what it sowed.  How do we then responsibly manage the outcomes?  I for one look forward to a lively dialog.  Join me.

Aracely Panameño is a fellow for the InsightCenterfor Community Economic Development’s Closing the Racial Wealth Gap Initiative.  She is the director for Latino Affairs at Center for Responsible Lending.  The views expressed are personal and do not reflect any organization.  She may be reached at [email protected].


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