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A Publication of OKCIR: The Omar Khayyam Center for Integrative Research in Utopia, Mysticism, and Science (Utopystics)
ISSN: 1540-5699. © Copyright by Ahead Publishing House (imprint: Okcir Press) and authors. All Rights Reserved.
Journal of the Sociology of Self-

The Latino Immigrant Labor Experience as

Depicted in Film

Duane Wright
University of Massachusetts Boston

Abstract: The author argues that traditional macro-level methods of gathering data on popula-
tions create an impersonal depiction of the group. A useful pedagogical tool for teachers to
counter this is to use fictional accounts in film and literature to put a more human face on the
subjects being studied. Two films, Bread and Roses and El Norte, are used in this way to enhance
or add another dimension to studies of the labor experience of Latino immigrants in the United
States. The films are looked at through various sociological theories, Assimilation, Competition,
and Neo-Marxist. The author concludes that Neo-Marxist theory best predicts the types of con-
flict and solidarity portrayed in the films.

I. THE LATINO IMMIGRANT LABOR of the migration experience. What this pa-
EXPERIENCE AS DEPICTED IN FILM per will do is use two films about the immi-
gration experience of Latinos, El Norte and
Bread and Roses, as if they were a data set in
Every year Latinos immigrate to the
a sociological exercise which aims to add
United States in large numbers. They have
more dimension to our understanding of
become the third largest group after whites
this subject.
and blacks in this country. Their experience
This paper will argue that Neo-Marxist
has both similarities and differences to ear-
Theory offers the best understanding of the
lier large migrations of other groups. Soci-
films’ presentation of the labor experience
ologists have come up with various
of Latino immigrants in the United States.
theories explaining the interactions of ra-
Assimilation Theory and Competition The-
cial groups resulting from migration over
ory cannot fully explain all of the dynamics
the years. Sociologists use these theories to
portrayed in the films. Neo-Marxist Theory
try to understand the dynamics and com-
is affirmed in three important ways: 1) seg-
plexities of migration. They often gather
mentation of the labor force through barri-
macro-level data about labor force partici-
ers to mobility for immigrants, 2) ethnic
pation, education, language fluency, gov-
cross-class conflict, and 3) immigrant and
ernment service usage, health status, and
native unity through class solidarity.
more. While this methodology is useful it
can often portray a very impersonal picture
Duane Wright graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2009 with honors in sociology and a
minor in economics. His thesis was titled “Alienated Labor in the Classroom: Rethinking Teachers’ Work Expe-
rience and its Implications for School Reform Discourse.” He plans to continue his studies in graduate school.


II. THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES tual assimilation” (Feagin and Feagin,

1999:30). Interactions create competition
Feagin and Feagin (1999) highlight the among groups that force social re-organiza-
main ideas of the most popular theories on tion. Through this re-organization subordi-
racial and ethnic relations. These theories nate groups eventually assimilate the
easily apply to the interaction between ra- values and culture of the dominant group.
cial and ethnic groups resulting from im/ Gordon’s Stages is a linear model that
migration. Three of these theories are appli- progresses irreversibly from “cultural as-
cable to Latino immigrants in the U.S., As- similation” to “structural assimilation,” to
similation Theory, Competition theory, and “marital assimilation,” to “identification
Neo-Marxist Theory. A few theories will be assimilation,” to “attitude-receptional as-
omitted because I do not think they really similation,” “behavior receptional assimi-
apply to this situation. The Bio-Social Per- lation,” and finally reach “civic
spective (Feagin and Feagin, 1999:34-35) assimilation” (Feagin and Feagin, 1999:31).
will be ignored because modern social sci- Lastly, Ethnic Pluralism Theory doesn’t use
ence recognizes that race is not a biological a cyclical or stage based model; instead it
phenomenon but a social construction so argues that assimilation is more subjective,
any bio-social explanation is based on that groups will assimilate toward the
faulty arguments to begin with. Finally, dominant group, but they will also find as-
Middle Man Minorities (Feagin and Feagin, pects of their own culture which become
1999:40-41; Bonacich and Modell, 1980) important to them and they will re-create
would be more applicable to racial and eth- their own ethnic identities.
nic groups that tend to be small business Competition Theory (Feagin and Fea-
owners rather than farmers or workers like gin, 1999:35-36; Olzak, 1992) argues that en-
Latinos primarily are. tire ethnic groups compete on a socio-
Assimilation Theory is a collection of a ecological level for land and resources. This
few Functionalist theories, the Race Rela- theory focuses on a more local level and de-
tions Cycle by Robert E. Park (Feagin and emphasizes social structure and institu-
Feagin, 1999:30. Park, 1950; Park and Bur- tionalized hierarchies. Stemming from its
gess, 1970), The Stages of Assimilation by ecological base it focuses on how groups
Milton Gordon (Feagin and Feagin, migrate and find niches—geographically,
1999:30-33; Gordon, 1964, 1978.), and Eth- socially, and economically. It’s main point is
nic Pluralism (Feagin and Feagin, 1999:33. that, “ethnic group competition and the ac-
Glazer and Moynihan, 1970) by Glazer and companying ethnic solidarity lead to col-
Moynihan. Assimilation Theories argue lective action, mobilization, and protest”
that immigrants will adopt the mainstream (Feagin and Feagin, 1999; 35).
culture and values of the dominant group Feagin and Feagin (1999:37-38) present
to one extent or another. There is disagree- Neo-Marxist Theory, which refers to a col-
ment as to whether this process is cyclical lection of theories by sociologists utilizing
or linear and as to whether or not they shed the concepts of Karl Marx. Neo-Marxist
their original culture completely or if they Theory is different from the above theories
re-identify more strongly with certain as- in that it incorporates power and class as
pects of their original culture while adopt- central to its perspective. Unlike the other
ing some aspects of the new culture. theories which focus on whole racial and
The Race Relations Cycle is the cycle of ethnic groups, Neo-Marxist Theory focuses
recurring social interactions of “contacts, on structures and institutions. Mario Bar-
competition, accommodation, and even- rera (1979), for instance, has incorporated a
Marxist class analysis into racially centered



Internal Colonialism theories. It can be said path to success. The result is that she is fired
that the “heart of [Neo-Marxist Theory] is from her job and she gets deported back to
an interactive structure of class and race Mexico. She ends up worse than Enrique.
stratification that divides our society” (Fea- Clearly Assimilation Theory is too simplis-
gin and Feagin, 1999:37). This theory has tic and can be dismissed.
taken the basic framework of Marxism— Competition Theory has much more to
that society is split into classes with oppos- offer. Immigrant ethnic groups find niches
ing economic interests—and added the in the economy by performing certain as-
complication of racial stratification within pects in the division of labor. In both mov-
each level of the class structure. Unlike the ies immigrants often work next to white
other theories which tend to homogenize natives, but not with them. Enrique, in El
racial and ethnic groups Barrera’s Neo- Norte, works as a waiter in a fancy restau-
Marxist theory argues that the main divi- rant. The management is white but his co-
sion in society is by class. Ethnic and racial workers are not. In Bread and Roses, the
groups of the same class may unite against Janitors are immigrants and the offices they
their own racial and ethnic group of a dif- clean belong to rich white professionals. In
ferent class. However, due to competition El Norte, Rosa works in a garment factory
this solidarity isn’t automatic, and racial sweatshop that produces clothing for white
groups within the same class may be antag- models to wear. Also, Rosa comments in
onistic toward each other. downtown Los Angeles, where many im-
migrants work and live, “Where are all the
III. THEORIES APPLIED TO FILM Gringos? It looks like Mexico City.” Clearly
ethnic groups have found niches in eco-
nomic and social space just as this model
Upon viewing El Norte and Bread and
Roses, it becomes clear that Assimilation
There are some weaknesses to Compe-
Theory is an inadequate model for explain-
tition Theory however. It predicts too much
ing the labor experiences of the Latino Im-
solidarity along racial or ethnic lines, which
migrants depicted in these films. Both films
neither of these films shows. In El Norte,
are rife with conflict and power struggles
Carlos, an American native of Mexican her-
that the Assimilation model would not pre-
itage whom the other Latino workers call
dict. Most notably, in the end the main char-
“Pocho” and “Chicano,” calls IRS on his fel-
acters didn’t choose to assimilate into the
low co-workers out of jealousy. In Bread and
workforce the American way. Enrique, in El
Roses, Maya’s sister Rosa rats out her fellow
Norte, thrice turned down the foreman job
Latino co-workers to their boss so that she
in Chicago which would offer him a Green
can be promoted to supervisor of the new
Card because he didn’t want to abandon
building. Also in Bread and Roses, Latino im-
his sister. Enrique ends up at the end of the
migrant workers go on strike with immi-
movie where he first started in the United
grants of all backgrounds, going against
States, standing on the corner looking for
their fellow Latino boss Mr. Perez. In both
temp jobs—all because he refused to follow
films these events are climactic to the plot
the given path to social mobility due to the
and suggest that the main struggles in the
conflict of values. American individualism
lives of Latino immigrants are not drawn
lost to the strong family and community
simply along ethnic lines.
values he grew up with. In Bread and Roses,
In Neo-Marxist Theory race and class
Maya chooses to ally with the union orga-
interact and produce layers of hierarchy
nizers and not the company—putting her
and a segmented labor force that are re-
at odds with the dominant individualistic
vealed in both films. Three main aspects of



this theory are affirmed and highlighted by similar to the Mexican that buys Rosa and
both of these films: 1) segmentation of the Enrique in El Norte. There is something
labor force through barriers to mobility for sketchy about what he is doing, though it is
immigrants, 2) ethnic cross-class conflict, never explicitly shown in the film. It can be
and 3) immigrant and native unity through assumed that he gets some money for pro-
class solidarity. viding workers to the owner of the garment
The working class has its own hierar- sweatshop and the factory owning woman
chy that mirrors the racial hierarchy of the from Chicago. He even says, “The whole
larger society. Latino immigrants are a ra- economy would collapse if it wasn’t for the
cial minority and therefore are generally al- cheap labor we bring in.” Notice that he
lowed only into the lowest positions. Both doesn’t refer to immigrants as coming in,
movies showed how lack of Green Cards or but cheap labor. Like Perez, he too only sees
“papers” were barriers to more legitimate Latino workers as a “pair of arms.”
work. Immigrants are forced into jobs with Lastly, the inter-ethnic class solidarity
less pay and benefits, less security, and no displayed in Bread and Roses affirms the
unionization. The jobs that these immi- central point of Neo-Marxist Theory—that
grants worked included, garment ironer, society’s main division is by class not race
housecleaner, waiter/tress, and janitor. or ethnicity. The collective action under-
While these jobs are not necessarily always taken by the janitors was supported and
poor jobs, the better ones that are unionized even helped along by a diversity of work-
with better pay and benefits are usually al- ers, students, and organizers. It took a class
ready taken by white workers. Mr. Perez, in struggle to unite people into organization
Bread and Roses, even tells his employees and protest. The Justice for Janitors cam-
that if they try to join a union it will check paign and the local janitors unions all sup-
their papers, implying that they will be de- ported the non-union immigrants fight for
ported or at least fired. This is how racial hi- a union. Sam, the white college educated
erarchies are structurally supported within organizer even goes to jail with the immi-
the working class. grant workers. On a more symbolic level,
Ethnic cross-class conflict is also pre- the title of the film, and the slogan the jani-
dicted by this model and is an important tors used, “We want bread but roses too,”
conflict in both films, though most notably connects across historical as well as ethnic
in Bread and Roses. Mr. Perez is a Latino boss lines. It is the slogan of young women tex-
who clearly takes the side of the company tile workers who went on strike in
over the employees. He goes so far as to tell Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Over 40
Maya, “It’s about time we got someone nationalities, mostly European, were repre-
young in here, got rid of some of these old sented in this strike of over 30,000 people.
f-ing hags. They’re worthless.” Clearly he The point of this parallel is that the struggle
doesn’t identity with his fellow Latinos. He of those immigrants then and these immi-
only sees them as a “pair of arms,” as it is grants now is the same one. Class is the
said in the movie El Norte. Perez rules the common factor here, not ethnicity.
workplace through intimidation and arbi-
trary power. He fires old people and a preg- IV. CONCLUSION
nant woman just to maintain the low wages
the company pays. He doesn’t ever show
The theory that best applies to the
an ounce of sympathy for other Latinos. He
films’ presentations of the experience of
also takes advantage of people in a desper-
Latino immigrant workers is the Neo-
ate situation. He charges a “commission”
Marxist Theory. The movies and this theory
for hiring undocumented workers. This is



all suggest that Latinos, like all other racial BIBLIOGRAPHY

and ethnic groups, are not a homogenous
group, and cannot be understood as such.
They may be toward the bottom of the ra- Barrera, Mario. 1979. Race and Class in the South-
west: A Theory of Racial Inequality. Notre
cial hierarchy, but they too are divided by Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
class. So while they may face barriers that Bonacich, Edna and John Modell. 1980. The Eco-
stop them from getting good jobs within nomic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small Busi-
the working class, due to the racialized na- ness in the Japanese American Community.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
ture of the social system they are more
Bread and Roses. 2000. Lions Gate Home Enter-
likely to unite with fellow white and black tainment.
workers against their class oppressor than El Norte. 1983. Independent Productions.
they are to mobilize and unite as an ethnic Feagin, Joe R. and Clairece Booher Feagin. 1999.
group. “Theoretical Perspectives in Race and
What this sociologist has learned about Ethnic Relations.” Pp. 29-45 in Rethinking
data gathering through this exercise is that the Color Line, 3rd edition, Readings in Race
and Ethnicity edited by Charles A. Gal-
while macro level data (i.e. population sta- lagher. New York: Mc Graw Hill.
tistics) can be used to tell the characteristics Glazer, Nathan and Daniel P. Moynihan. 1970.
of groups and is useful to show the fallacy Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negros, Puerto
of certain stereotypes (i.e., of a certain Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York
City. Cambridge: MIT Press.
group doing this or that) it lacks a personal Gordon, Milton M. 1964. Assimilation in Ameri-
touch or humanity to it. Looking at films can Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and
and literature as a data set for understand- National Origins. New York: Oxford Uni-
ing social phenomena brings out all the versity Press.
complex relationships and tensions that are Gordon, Milton M. 1978. Human Nature, Class,
and Ethnicity. New York, Oxford Univer-
missed with macro level data. Humanity sity Press.
and life cannot be quantified without losing Park, Robert E. 1950. Race and Culture. Glencoe,
all of the aspects that really make them Illinois: Free Press.
what they are. Qualitative research on the Park, Robert E. and Ernest Burgess. 1970. Intro-
micro-level can highlight important fea- duction to the Science of Society. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
tures of the group being studied that might Olzak, Susan. 1992. The Dynamics of Ethnic Com-
be much more useful in social policy deci- petition and Conflict. Stanford: Stanford
sions or with issues of representation than University Press.
quantitative macro data. Fiction provides a
narrative and perspective that is difficult to
attain in case studies. Case studies that are
written like a narrative must have an ele-
ment of fiction to them anyways because
the author is always both missing details
and choosing to leave out others. So long as
we remember that fiction is fiction and
keep an eye out for statistically accurate
representations I believe that using film
and literature can be a useful tool for teach-
ers and students if used to supplement a
more macro-level statistic-based lesson