Here's a mind-blowing statistic from filmmaker Eduardo Lopez: "Approximately 500,000 Latino U.S. citizens will turn 18 every year for the next 20 years."
You don't need to be too much of a mathematician, says Lopez, to figure out the impact this has on the social and political fabric of America. The history behind this immigrant baby-boom is at the core of his feature-length documentary "Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America," based on writer Juan Gonzalez's book of the same name.
Gonzalez, a New York Daily News columnist and co-host of the daily TV show "Democracy Now," says that the best way to get a grip on the present immigration debate is to track down some of the reasons people leave their home country.
"You cannot really understand the explosion of the Latino community in the U.S. over the past 50, 60 years unless you first understand what has been the United States' role in Latin America, at the end of the 19th century, but most especially in the early 20th century," Gonzalez said. "So that really, the Latino presence in the U.S., is the harvest of the American empire."
"Harvest of Empire," narrated by Gonzalez, uses archival footage, personal stories and census data to document the history of each of the major countries where Latino immigrants come from — Mexico, El Salvador, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic — and Puerto Rican migrants.
The legacy of U.S.-backed dictatorships
It's a complicated story of uneasy alliances between local governments and American industrial and foreign policy interests. This often meant supporting democracies but mostly, especially during the Cold War, propping up dictatorships.
A clip from the film shows Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" in 1979 saying, "To understand where Nicaragua is heading you have to know where it is come from, the young people who are in the street in insurrection regarding a family that has ruled for almost 50 years, a family installed in power by the U.S. government, following 20 years of occupation by the U.S. marines. Though their country was desperately poor, the Somozas amassed a huge personal fortune."
"Harvest of Empire" follows similar patterns of political disruption and turmoil in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba and Guatemala, where the U.S.-backed military dictator Efrain Rios Mont was just sentenced for genocide and crimes against humanity and for almost decimating the indigenous Maya population.
So, says filmmaker Eduardo Lopez, tens of thousands of people fled their countries escaping political violence, persecution, poverty, and social and economic instability, and headed to the United States. Once here, says Lopez, himself an immigrant from war-torn El Salvador, many chose not to tell their American-born children how they arrived. He saw their now-grown kids respond to the film.
"They had no idea," Lopez said. "And especially when they see the very difficult images of the war at the time and how it was fought, basically from an army against unarmed civilian population, they're really shocked, because they understand 'This is what my parents actually lived through, and I didn't know it.'"
Human stories, handed down
In the film, celebrated novelist Pico Ayer remembers how his family emigrated from the Dominican Republic in the mid-'70s to escape the Leonidas Trujillo dictatorship.
"I thought we were going up the road to some mystical place," Ayer said. "When I finally saw a map in kindergarten, how far we would go, I was not only astonished but terrified. When I emigrated to New Jersey in 1974, a few months before the fall of Saigon, this was not a place that was very welcoming. I experienced a tremendous amount of racism, not only from white Americans but also from black Americans and Latinos."
Puerto Rico, because it's part of the United States, and Mexico, because it's the largest source of immigrants, occupy a prominent place in the film. There are more than 30 million Mexican immigrants in the U.S.
"More legal Mexican immigrants have come to this country since the 1920s than the Irish, the German, the French — than any other population," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez says this film is not a story of statistics but of people, a way to provide an historic backdrop for the current immigration debate.
"There's this sense of those who have already settled into and become a part of the fabric of this society, that these newcomers are threats, rather that seeing that the debates really are over what kind of nation are we going to be," he said. "This current debate in Congress is not about immigration reform but about what will be the composition of America in the 21st century. It's not a unique debate, this may be the third or fourth major debate in U.S. history".
"Harvest of Empire" will continue to tour in commercial movie houses, festivals and universities for the next year.