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Four movies reflect early views on illegal immigration

What do illegal immigration and the 1978 television series “Fantasy Island” have in common?

Answer: Actor Ricardo Montalban, who stars in one of four old movies being presented at the Washington County Museum this month as part of a closer look at illegal immigration 60 years ago, during the height of America’s Bracero “guest worker” program.

A complementary noon lecture on how changes in the Bracero program may have actually stimulated illegal immigration will be presented on Wednesday, Sept. 18.

“Border Incident,” the one movie in English, features Montalban as a Mexican federal police agent. “He’s given top billing in the movie, over and above George Murphy, who was a big U.S. star,” said Ilene O’Malley, the museum’s bilingual educator.

O’Malley is amazed at how the 1949 movie portrays the U.S. and Mexico as equal partners in the effort to crack down on illegal immigration.

“Our modern day idea is that Mexican police are corrupt,” she said. But in this movie, Montalban is the “crack agent. He’s smart, he’s honest, he’s efficient, he’s brave, and together with George Murphy, they’re going to bring law and order to the border.”

“Border Incident” and the other three movies — all at least 50 years old — are particularly fascinating when contrasted to current American attitudes toward Mexico, O’Malley said.

Many people see Mexico only as “this nasty place where horrible things happen and it’s got this overflow of poor people who just come up here and bug us,” O’Malley said.

But these four movies portray Mexico as a full society with art, culture, a wide variety of viewpoints, and people at all ends of the economic spectrum.

“Coming from the gringo side, this is sort of a different view,” said O’Malley, who has also served as a migrant farmworker attorney.

The movies reflect many of the dangers that legal or illegal workers along the border faced — from victimization by ruthless employers to the physical dangers of crossing the Rio Grande, which was then the primary route for illegal immigrants.

The other three movies are in Spanish, with no subtitles, so are better suited for Spanish-speakers or people who have at least a basic grasp of conversational Spanish.

In “Pito Perez se va de bracero,” a town drunk gets chased out of town and falls in with a group of honest, hardworking braceros whom he comes to respect. In this film, the United States comes across as a mechanical, hard, cold place, O’Malley said.

At one point, Perez is supposed to help smuggle people across the border, but instead he urges them, “Don’t go. You do not want to go to the United States. It’s really horrible over here,” O’Malley said.

“Then he gets arrested and deported and he’s really happy.”

“Espaldas Mojadas” focuses on a bracero who has a difficult time adapting to the ill treatment he encounters in the U.S.

The final movie, “El Bracero del ano,” is the quartet’s only comedy. It features the famous Mexican comedian Piporro, whose misadventures trying to sneak across the border are humorous instead of painful.

It’s “the clever Mexican trying to outwit the people in the U.S.,” O’Malley said.

Somehow Piporro ends up becoming the best tomato-picker in the U.S. and is named “Bracero of the Year.” He is sent to Hollywood, where he spoofs many aspects of U.S. pop culture, including singers Nat King Cole and Pat Boone.

“You see Mexico looking at the United States and making fun of (Americans) just like we make fun of them,” O’Malley said.




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