Independent film shines a light in the dark canyons of immigration

The hypocrisy of U.S. immigration policy is underscored by a little-known reality of Mexican migrants in the border city of San Diego.

An estimated 2,000 undocumented Mexicans live in tiny shacks in the rocky, rattlesnake-invested, brush-covered canyons abutting high-end San Diego communities that boast multi-million dollar mansions.
The owners of these mansions employ the undocumented workers for substandard wages to prune their gardens and to do maintenance work on their estates. The Mexican laborers each day make the trek by foot from their humble shacks, made of plastic-tarps and discarded wood, to the sprawling estates that overlook the canyons. Their sole purpose is to make a little money to send back to their families in Mexico, since their ability to make a living off the land south of the border has been destroyed by the price-deflating realities of free trade.

But even in the midst of the dire poverty that marks their lives in the rugged canyons, the Mexican workers maintain a sense of community and in one section of the canyons have even constructed a small chapel where they gather for Sunday church services.

But as housing development pushes ever-nearer the San Diego canyons, the Mexican worker are being displaced (run out by the very same people that employ them) because their shantytowns are deemed unsightly blights from the window views of the mansion dwellers.

These facts are brought to light by Los Angeles independent filmmaker John Carlos Frey, himself the son of Mexican immigrants and a native of San Diego. Frey decided to document this human tragedy on film to expose the plight of these people with the hope that it might prompt changes that lead to a better life for the workers. Maybe, he hoped, his film would open the eyes of the mansion dwellers to the price the Mexican workers are paying to tend to the rich man’s gardens.

Last November, Frey released his documentary, called “The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon.” The DVD jacket for the documentary includes this description:

Mr. Frey spent a year documenting Mexican immigrants living in the clandestine shacks and shantytowns within eyesight of multi-million dollar mansions. Over two thousand individuals live outdoors in the secluded canyons of San Diego, CA — invisible to the local population. Their shacks have no electricity, running water or sanitation. The migrants live within several yards of some of the most expensive real estate in America and work in the local landscape, construction, agriculture and tourism industries.

The film is definitely worth seeing because it does tell the truth, which is a rare happening in the context of the highly charged debate over immigration in this country.

But I have to be honest about a question that was in the back of my mind after being enlightened by Frey’s work.

So I asked Frey:

How did you deal with these people as individuals in the sense that once they show up in the film, they might well be targeted by the authorities and bigots, if for no other reason than to retaliate against them for the embarrassment they cause the power structure?

Did they understand this potential consequence?

It's clear that the community in the area must know who they are, since they hire them and send church folks out to the canyon to preach the so-called gospel, but once they show up in a powerful film like this, these immigrants essentially become public figures who might well be targeted by less-than-scrupulous people for political reasons.

This is a dilemma filmmakers face in particular, since they can't really expose these issues without tripping that switch of injustice in our system.

I think it is important to know how you dealt with that, or how you view it, because it is bound to be a question in the back of the minds of some folks who watch the film.

Frey’s response:

Your question … is something I thought about deeply in the planning stages of the film. I did not use anyone's real name nor is the locale 'Deer Canyon' a real name for the location. That being said, the scenario you speak of happened just as you describe — much to my terrible disappointment.

The film was screened in several locations in the San Diego area soon after it was completed in late November 2006. There were protests against the film and it’s contents as you elude. Anti-immigrant groups, including right wing radio and the Minutemen, staged a “campout with the illegals” to force them out of the canyon. As you can imagine the rhetoric was KKK in nature. It felt like a lynching was going to take place.  

The groups accused the migrants of running a prostitution ring in the camp. They were portrayed as drug dealers, rapists and even pedophiles. The press ate it up as it was good for ratings. In short, they were not going to let this film show any other side of the story and the press was happy to participate.  

As a result of much press coverage and immigrant bashing, the migrants were once again forced out the canyon since the film was completed. The chapel featured in the film was demolished on Jan. 8, 2007. I was granted sole access to the last Sunday service, and I filmed the entire event as the migrants themselves, with sledge hammers and power saws, brought down their sanctuary of over 20 years.

I am currently working on a follow-up film that will deal specifically with the events I just described culminating with the demolition of the chapel. I was incensed. I tried to get the press to cover the fact that a place of worship had been shut down by hate groups, but no one wanted to listen. The demolition of the long-standing chapel got NO coverage, and it is one of the reasons I am going forward with the follow-up film.

I do not feel responsible for what happened. There was a period of time that I blamed myself for the eviction of the migrants from the canyon and the demolition of their chapel, but I am not the one who perpetuated such violence. What I am responsible for is helping to reveal some deep sentiments of hate and xenophobia. I think it has to happen if the situation is ever going to resolve itself. Feelings and secrets have to be exposed so that they can be dealt with.

As a result, the San Diego chapter of the Minutemen are being seen as a hate group. There may even be charges brought against them.  San Diego is getting a reputation as a racist city — something they certainly don't want and are working to resolve some of the issues they have swept aside for so many years.

I have lost many nights of sleep over the question you put to me.  My only resolve and answer is to continue to expose the light of truth because I firmly believe it is the only thing that will eventually expose the lies for what they are. Maybe I am wrong in my beliefs but I will continue to work on this next film and do just that: Expose the hate and xenophobia for what it is — ignorance and fear.

Are you sorry you asked?

I replied to Frey as follows:

I'm not sorry I asked. I have had to ask myself similar questions in stories I've covered over the years.

Way back in the 1980s, I covered a story about an arson that nearly cost the lives of a dozen people in Milwaukee. I investigated and tracked down the arsonist, a local slum landlord who had burned the buildings down as part of a dispute with another landlord. He was simply trying to get even.

In the wake of publishing a story that basically fingered the guy, the slum landlord went off the deep end knowing he was exposed. Shortly after, he murdered his wife and then went down to a river that ran along his property and put a bullet through his brain.

I'm still sorting that one out some 20 years later.

We all have to be honest with ourselves if we ever hope to tell the truth in the media. That honesty includes recognizing that, as writers or filmmakers, we become part of the stories we cover and share in the consequences those stories have on our communities, on other human beings.

Telling the truth always has consequences. That is a burden that can never be washed away with a paycheck.

For more information on Frey’s film and future screenings, check out the following Web site.

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