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Imagine being contained in a crowded room lacking proper ventilation with hundreds of others. The last time you saw daylight was 10+ hours ago. Frantically, you feed fabric through a sewing machine as if competing for Olympic gold. Only in these close quarters, there is no gold to be won. You can smell and nearly feel the sweat from the worker beside you. And day after day, your hard work yields little reward earning just a few dollars or even cents. Welcome to a modern day sweatshop. This unfortunate truth happens all around the world, including the United States. The 2002 movie, Real Women Have Curves, staring America Ferrera, while not as extreme as the example above, gives a great interpretation of what laborers in a Los Angeles garment shop endued. Ana Garcia (America Ferrera) and her female family members work in her aunt’s garment shop, located in Los Angeles. But the Garcia’s are not the only Latino laborers in the United States to endure poor and harsh work experiences, negatively impacting their lives. In fact, there is a long history of Mexican American labor use and recruitment in the United States that can be interpreted from this film. Various Latino groups, such as Mexican Americans, Cubans, and Dominicans unique national, gendered, political, legal, and environmental experiences have impacted their lives as laborers in the United States.
The United States and Mexican Americans have a long history that can be traced back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and through World War II. While the United States was fighting two battlefronts and rationing at home, cheap labor to support war efforts was in high demand. The Federal Government turned to its neighbor to the south and enacted the Bracero Program that allowed thousands of Mexicans entrance to the U.S. to work as laborers. However, those who decided to take advantage of this appealing program experienced horrible working conditions. Soon, Mexican American laborers grew tired of this mistreatment, and multiple Mexican American labor groups were created in order to advocate for safer working conditions, fair wages, etc. People Organized in Defense of the Earth and Her Resources (PODER), South West Organizing Project (SWOP), the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) (Marquez 2012, 164-168) were just some of the many labor groups organized to fight for the poorly represented Mexican American laborers. Among these newly created groups, political action leaders arose, such as Cesar Chavez, who began to lead the fight towards equality in the laborer workforce. Chavez believed the issue with labor inequality was that Latino laborers were narcotized by the environmental conditions they endured. He stated, “We have adapted ourselves, as human beings will, to working conditions that few other Americans would accept. We work in open-air factories where temperatures rise to 115 degrees. We have had to accept the big humiliations of labor camps and being looked down upon as ‘“dumb Mexicans” (Oboler 1995, 60). In the film, Ana makes several comments regarding the conditions of the garment shop such as, “it’s so hot in here, seriously I feel like I’m in hell… all this steam has me sweating like a pig” (Real Women Have Curves). After Ana makes these comments and takes off her shirt, the other women in the factory appear to be accepting of these conditions, as it is all they have known. The environment of the literal “sweat” shop seen in the movie is a great interpretation of the scenarios in which the Latino workforce has experienced.
While Mexican Americans have faced hardships as laborers in the United States, immigrants from the Dominican Republic had challenges of their own. Since the late 1880’s, the U.S. has had a significant influence within the Dominican Republic. Levitt explains, “as the Dominican State grew more and more indebted to its U.S. creditors during the first half of the 1900’s, the U.S. government literally ran the country or managed its affairs from afar” (Levitt 2005, 230). U.S. sugar companies and investors controlled nearly a quarter of the country’s agriculture land by the mid 1920’s. In 1930, the Republic elected a new President, Rafael Trujillo, and he changed the direction of the agricultural economy, predominately sugar, to an industrial one. This shift caused wide scale unemployment across the country. Beginning in the 1960’s, over 10,000 Dominicans left the Republic for the U.S. and continued each year, as the country’s economy was in disarray. The new immigrants to America had difficulty graduating from high school and attaining college degrees, like many other Latino groups. In comparison to Puerto Ricans and Cubans, Dominicans made less money per year, on average (Levitt 2005, 238-240). But as the Dominicans began to work in the U.S., much of the money they earned was being sent back home to aid family still in the Dominican Republic. While many Latino groups may send money back their homeland, the American Dominican communities do so more than any other group. A term called “transnational actor”, is what describes the practice of continuing to aid and maintaining a close connection to their homeland. There is a strong correlation between the Mexican American garment workers portrayed in the film and Dominicans. Each group has had struggles with finding quality employment in the U.S. with fair wages. Dominicans, much like the female workers in the movie, work low wage paying jobs in subpar conditions.
Dominican Republicans and Mexican Americans have both faced difficult times being laborers within the United States, and Cuban Americans are no exception. Cubans immigration to the United States began in a series of waves beginning around the 1950’s. The first wave consisted of wealthier, upper class Cubans who saw signs of the revolution and left before becoming too dangerous. Since this group could afford the expenses to leave, they had intentions to return once it was safe. Unfortunately, Castro rose to power and enacted Marxist-Leninism polices which kept the first group from returning to their homeland. The second wave to leave Cuba, “Those who Search”, were looking for better economic opportunities than were provided in the socialist society of Cuba. In response “to President Lyndon Johnson’s “open door” policy that welcomed refugees from communism… for eight years, the U.S. and Cuban governments administered… Freedom Flights, that brought Cubans daily from Varadero to Miami” (Pedraza 1996, 267). This surge of Cuban immigrants provided additional opportunity for low cost labor, making Cubans vulnerable to exploitation. Similarly, in the film, we see the hardships Ana’s mother has endowed as a result of being a first generation Mexican American immigrant working in a garment shop. With Cuba’s new leader spreading ideals of communism, tensions grew between U.S. and Cuba. Russia positioned nuclear missiles on the island and the U.S. counteracted with the failed operation of the Bay of Pigs. After this event, Castro made the quality of life very poor for Cubans still living on the island. For example, “those who applied to leave (the island) lost their jobs, were ostracized as enemies and forced to do hard labor in agriculture” (Pedraza 1996, 267-268). Over the years there has been a large increase in U.S. Cubans living below the poverty level (Pedraza 1996, 275). Cubans and Mexican Americans have striking similarities in regards to the garment industry seen in the film. Each has experienced low wages, harsh working environments, and a large female presence. Both Latino groups are expected to put their families first by working, much like what is seen between Ana and her mother in the film.
To conclude, the film Real Women Have Curves provides a relevant interpretation of the harsh experiences female Mexican American laborers have endured in the Los Angeles garment industry. After gaining a greater comprehension of the history of Mexican American, Dominican Republican, and Cuban laborers and becoming aware of the hardships that each Latino group has lived, it is evident they share many similarities, yet each is also unique. Each group has achieved various advances that have improved the working conditions for their people and overall impact on their lives.
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