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When the Rio Grande Becomes the River Styx

Humanity and “The Girl”

by PETER LINEBAUGH

Nurses and doctors, bring your patients! Teachers, bring your students!  Children, bring your parents, and parents, bring your children!  Pastors, rabbis, imams, bring your flocks!  Hipsters bring the grungies.  Zapatistas bring the Anglos and, Anglos, parlez à vos voisins!   Boys, bring your girl-friends, and girl-friend bring the sisters.  Lawyers bring your clients and vice versa.  Same with cops and cons, fops and fools, Dads and Moms.  Dudes bring the nerds.  CEOs bring your consciences.  Hard-hearts bring a flask, softies bring hankies.  Patriots leave your guns at the door.  Occupiers, check your mike. O beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly for here is a sad tale from Nuevo Laredo.  And remember all, the border is within.

Opening on International Women’s Day 2013 in N.Y. and L.A. is “The Girl,” a movie written and directed by David Riker,  with its profound but terrifying questions, what is humanity? where is its home?

David Riker is himself a man of the border. Gloucester London, Brussels, Corsica, Oaxaca, Brooklyn, Silver City.  He is not easily side-tracked by human differences of language, mores, costume, or ethnicity, but strikes at the heart.  Follow the “milestones” – three minute videos on YouTube – expressing the making of the film,    The continuation of his work in “La Ciudad” in which he outlined his theory of film-making, engagé, “cinema from the bottom up,” letting the story protagonists tell the story, it affects his language, his work as a critic, which obviously arises from talking with hundreds, thousands of people from all walks of life.

What does this movie show us about the world?  How does it cause us to think about the world?  We are enthralled, and almost swept away by its pensive moods which the film so lyrically creates.

The movie is in three parts.  Part one is set in the North where commerce, bad attitudes, cars and trucks, shattered families, and the English language prevail.  A young woman, Ashley Colton (played magnificently by Abbie Cornish) fails in her job, fails as a mother, and seeks in her father, Tommy Colton, guidance to “a streak of luck.”  Part two is set in the South of the mountains where a commons, the Spanish language, and pedestrians exists.  A seven-year old girl, Rosa (majestically played by Maritza Santiago Hernandez) is at the center, an activist with demands.   The third part of the movie is the middle, the tragic turning point from one direction to the other.  We watch this change of direction, not just in the 180º turn of the Jeep Cherokee (Wagoneer) that Ashley Colton drives, but we see a change in the direction of her attitudes, language, values, and habits.

The trucks cross the bridge, an endless conveyor belt of commodities from the maquiladora of the south to the malls of the North.  Beneath the bridge the Rio Grande flows along and one officer with his own hands pulled out six hundred drowned corpses.  Unbelievable!  600 bodies!   Commerce in one direction, naked bodies or corpses in the other.  Yes, I am left aghast.  Lamentation upon lamentation!  For humanity’s sake, could this really be?  O Mankind what has become of thee!

Yet this movie does not want us to weep and wail.  We know the problem.  That’s not the issue.

Here is a story of those who cross the border and of those whom the border crossed.  The central myth of the border – that hope resides in the North – Riker seeks to turn on its head:  he proposes that for the hopeless, resentful anglos of the North it may be found in the South. This is not the story of atrocity or terror on the border.  The violence is off-screen; it is assumed rather than enacted.  Rather, like the plot which moves from the North to the South, the emotions wrung are not of fear but hope.

We have a Brechtian distance from this woman.  Her voice of complaint is a whine without conviction.  “You didn’t get a raise because of your attitude,” the boss explains.  Already in her voice before the first image of the film we sense her downfall; we are warned not to identify with this ordinary, anglo girl clinging to a scrap of white-skin privilege.

Automobile civilization is established in the first few minutes of the film with  images of motion, lights, and traffic.  We cruise along a Texas highwayscape with the single-pole tower signage designed for long-range, high-speed identification, the only thing between earth and sky.  Speed + product + machine = high-tech traffic = money.

Tommy, her father (skillfully played by Will Patton), drives an eighteen-wheeler, a Kenworth.  In England such trucks are termed “juggernauts” after the Hindu parade float, or the temple vehicle, that ran over devotees in sacrifice.  The film before us must deal with both the traffic on the bridge and the traffic beneath it, the commodities and the people.  These eighteen wheelers are driven in the service of Mammon.  The U.S.A. worships Mammon, the ancient deity of money. Ashley accepts her father’s ‘southern comfort’ of alcohol.  Tequila promises comradeship, solidarity, love, truth, the ‘real world.’  Wrapping herself against the evening chill in plaid shirts like her father, expressing her father’s stance to the world with curses of anger, surprise, and despair, she will emulate his career path and become a coyote.

Traffic and commerce originated with capitalism in the 16th century when likewise the enclosures, the witch-burnings, the slave trade, the genocide of Aztec and Inca occurred.  Take Latin com (together), add it to merx (merchandise) and you get commerceTrafficke meant the same thing but with a north European origin, the transportation of merchandise for the purpose of trade, or buying and selling for profit.  It is not until the 19th century that it’s other meaning arises, the collective name for vehicles passing to and fro along the road.

How are the two flows connected?  The political economists among us can answer quickly.  It is a question of push-pull.  The push comes from expropriated labor power.  The pull comes from immigrant workers needed for production.  In between the push and the pull is the historic violence of the labor market written in letters of blood and fire.  But no, this film is not about this, not about production, not about sweat-shops or factories in the field.  This film is about reproduction.  What is a human being?   Who is the girl?  Seen through the lens of social reproduction these are political questions.

Ashley is shut out from the heart of the American dream.  She is denied access to the white picket fence, the play-set, and “the god damned jungle gym” to quote her Dad, and instead finds in the border “endless rows of walls within walls.”  Her son, Georgie, resides in foster care while Social Services determines whether with sobriety, a job, and permanent address Ashley is fit to have him back.  Meanwhile, in self-righteous anger she tells the foster parent, “The only reason you got Georgie is money.”

Abbie Cornish’s performance, her whisper, her scooped t-shirt, her high-tops, her ease behind the wheel, her ease at the bar, her curses which she utters with expressive inflection and Texas accent.  She can say God Damn! In disappointment or despair and she can say God Damn! in elated discovery.  She says it as a prayer.

Rosa has eyes that seethe with anger, eyes of accusation, watchful eyes absorbing the world.  The word “stressed” is tossed back and forth between Ashley and Rosa, as a creation of shared meaning.

The secondary characters are brilliantly cast, the welfare case-worker, the foster parent, the coyote in Nuevo Laredo, the border patrol man, the grandmother in Oaxaca, and of course the nocturnal portraits in Nuevo Laredo of lonely people on journeys of danger.  These are masterful portraits.  Riker is a Rembrandt of the border.  Emotions are evoked by music, color, pace.  The language of emotion is subtle, conveyed by gesture, like Ashley’s recognition of Rosa’s mother in the book of the drowned in the municipal record office by a sudden, barely detectable but unmistakable, quickening of breath.

“Your Daddy’s run into a streak of luck.”  Tommy knows what he is doing, where his money comes from.  So, off Exit 8 onto the World Trade Bridge, they tool along to Nuevo Laredo.  She says, “I don’t care what anyone says, you gotta have money.”  True enough.  She has learned her father’s knowledge along with the cigarettes, shots, and beer. He has access to truth, a realist.

Rio Grande becomes the River Styx.  Ashley becomes Charon, the conductor of the ferry of mythology who carries souls across the river into the underworld.  A full moon shines through the stygian darkness on to the assemblage of frightened, near naked, desperate, men, women, and a child, Rosa.  A helicopter hovers overhead, its blades making a racket, search-lights on the river, the current treacherous, the river deep.  Rosa’s mother may be lost.

The middle part of the movie begins with Rosa’s insistent cry. “Where’s my mom?  I want my mom!” Rosa is determined.  She argues with Ashley, she blames her. Over breakfast they begin to argue.  Slowly Ashley is transformed by a hundred subtle changes in relationship between the little girl and the woman who in actuality has been sitting “child”-like on a pity pot. Quoting her grandmother Rosa will tell Ashley that beer is “the devil’s drink.”  The devil is the reality principle. Money does rule.  Mutual recrimination, excuse-making, follow.  Her acceptance of the world without complaint contrasts with the self-pity of Ashley.  Paradoxically, it is Rosa who is the active one.  She fights with Ashley, argues with her.  Ashley on the other hand is fatalistic.  Her one attempt to score that streak of luck that her father spoke of ends in tragedy.

They learn that both were abandoned by their fathers at an early age, “Well now we have something in common,” Ashley’s bitterness remains.  Both are practically ‘orphaned.’  Rosa moves to the front seat.  No longer in hiding, she has become partner, a navigator.

On the Mexican side of the border we have a study of institutions – the orphanage, a church, a shelter, the city hall.  The public servants are not ogres but modest and helpful.  The face of the state on both sides of the border tries to be human.  While this is a deeply political film – if you only submit to its pensiveness – it is not a condemnation of government as such.

There is a blinding moment when Tommy refuses to look at Rosa face to face and raises his hand momentarily in front of his eyes to conceal from himself the recognition of a human being.  “I don’t know who they are and I don’t ask.”  Self-imposed ignorance, he is the commodity dealer, the trafficker of vulnerable human bodies, the coyote.  Yet his daughter is his “princess.” Colton-family “blood” runs in their veins, as if they were royalty, as if their kinship lineage, or “blood,” could preserve them from working-class destiny.  “Colton blood?” she responds, “I thought it was just bad luck.”  Fatalism or “blood.”

At the gas station with the highway trucks rolling passed, she detects people in the trailer.  It’s after this discovery that he delivers himself of his class consciousness. “You know how many trucks cross the bridge every day?” he righteously explains.  “Five thousand of them.  You think they’re gonna stop me with a hundred of them?  No!  Shit, there ain’t no border for General Motors or Wal-Mart.  You can cross with your pants down as long as the trucks keep rolling, as long as I keep hauling their shit.”  America is riven with class consciousness.  Even Abe Lincoln would sympathize.  One class labored, another class ate. Lincoln contrasted “the common right of humanity” with the “divine right of kings.”  One labored so the other could eat. Class consciousness not the problem either.

“You walk away, you don’t look back.  Drop her at the corner and you never look back.”  Now we know the actual utility of alcohol.  After Ashley is near raped in a bar, Rosa will say, “You shouldn’t drink beer.”  She is the unsmiling witness.  And Ashley does not look back but instead of leaving Rosa, she leaves her father.

What the film shows is that children are part of humanity, and moreover, “humanity” is not a condition of age or biology.  It is made; it is an achievement; it is collective.  To speak of Rosa as a child is to miss the theme of this movie.  Go to Wikipedia, read its articles on childhood, and be instructed.  Childhood is conceived without a sense of fairness or justice.  Justice is not age-exclusive.

“Humanity” is an accomplishment arising from social relations.  The little girl lost comes to lead the Big Girl and to help her grow.  Together they find “home” and “humanity.  The “children” teach the corrupted, cynical elders, and lead them to both maturity and ‘the commons.’ I have begun to think a little bit about the struggle of children whose lives, if they are seen only in the perspective of psychological development, are deprived of precisely the political power which is dramatized in the film.  We are familiar with the child as protagonist of religion but the child as a protagonist of history is not so well known.

Philipe Ariès showed us that the notion of “childhood” is a recent development historically speaking; in the middle ages children were little adults.  When the machines of the factory system ground up children, we get the first testimonies, such as that of Robert Blincoe in 1832.  Anna Davin wrote one of the first histories of the ‘little adults’ of the city slums in Growing Up Poor.  Marcus Rediker’s Slave Ship puts the little adults in the nadir, the absolute pit, of history.

Silvia Federici quotes the evidence that 3% of households with children aged eight to eighteen included care-givers who were children. Mothers and fathers long learned that it is the children who teach them how to become parents.  At the same time we were also taught that this was a perverse inversion of natural relations.  The crisis of child-care is thus also a crisis of elder-care and neither can be resolved without nurturance of the ‘sandwich’ generation, or those in between, the adults who are at the pinnacle of their strength in the labor market where, however, insecurity makes life precarious for themselves much less able to care for others.  Child-care once a demand of the women’s movement is here a demand by the young.  Rosa demands home.

“I’m going to take you home,” Ashley announces to Rosa.  When we speak of the “home” of the characters, what do we mean? Etymologically, “home” is a Teutonic word referring both to the world and to a safe dwelling.  Home has meant the village; the place of dwelling and nurturance where refuge, rest, and satisfaction reside.   It is not the “coming to carry you home” brought by the sweet chariot.  It must be on earth, not heaven. In the U.S. its meaning has descended increasingly to mean a private residence, a soulless designation of real estate, a debt-producing, revenue-enhancing asset.

Ashley explains that she lives in a “box” or a trailer.  Trailer signifies rootlessness, mobility, and it is both the filthy place in south Texas where Ashley “lives” and it signifies the “box” pulled by the Kenworth cab upon eighteen wheels concealing migrants across the border.  Rosa responds saying that she lives amid corn, beans, squash, – the three sisters – and that delicious fruit hangs from trees for the picking.   Two cultures meet: one barbaric, the other not.

Who gives birth to humanity may seem stupid to ask on International Women’s Day.  We know where babies come from, but whence humanity?  Labor is more than parturition or a surgeon’s knife, a Caesarian, an epidural; “humanity” is more than this.  The OED says “humanity” is a disposition to others of kindness, compassion, and courtesy.  To the romantic poet John Keats love and friendship sat high on the forehead of humanity.  Does it exclude fairness or justice?  Is humanity that “species-being” which Karl Marx wrote about?  Man is “a suffering being, and because he feels his suffering he is a passionate being.  Passion is man’s essential power vigorously striving to attain its object.”  Certainly this applies to Woman and to Man.  Here it applies not so much to Man as to Girl and then from Girl to Woman.  This is signified with the locomotive driving across the penny on the rail, the same locomotive whose power caused the two persons, the two humans, Rosa and Ashley, to run to one another’s protective arms.

Simone de Beauvoir anticipated the abolition of “the slavery of half of humanity together with the whole system of hypocrisy it implies.”  On International Woman’s Day, we remember the passionate proletarian fighters like Emma Goldman or “La Pasionaria”, the nom de guerre of Dolores Ibárruri who fought the Fascists in Spain.  On being elected to Parliament her first act was to go to prison and demand the keys and unlock the doors and free the prisoners.  Which she did.  In our age we learn from this movie “humanity” is made by a girl.  Her passions, her demands, her knowledge, her understanding transform the proletarian victim, Ashley, to an actor capable of making her fate.

Wordsworth heard “the still, sad music of humanity” and felt its presence, in motion and spirit in the mind of man, though these abstractions evade his experience of witness to the straggling, defeated Irish revolutionaries fleeing to England from the English terror in Ireland.  Nevertheless, it is humanity that he heard.  In the U.S.A. today we are led by sneaks, cowards, liars, blowhards, and bullies amplified into monstrous institutions.  We imitate, as Hamlet said (III.ii.38), though not referring to the president, we imitate humanity abominably.

What I saw were a succession of portraits of an American woman, the face of the proletariat, framed by the windshield of the automobile.  The movie is less about the “maternal instinct” than the renewal of humanity.   The movie provides a steady study of proletarian consciousness.  Ashley is not alone but the portraits in the car are with Rosa, and the solidarity across borders and across generations.

The commons in this case is the grandmother and the village in Oaxaca it is female, multigenerational, quasi-rural, simple, and vital.  The commons is beautiful with village festival, tortillas, and forest. The first smile from little Rosa, the new dress, the comforting hand on the shoulder, a circle of stones arranged on the sands of the river bank symbolically indicate a new stage, and then into the mountains with utterly sublime camera work.  Here a brass band, a small herd of goats, the cock crowing at dawn, bird-song, and a children’s festival.

Ashley is puzzled.  What is the meaning of this life in contrast to the roaring traffic of south Texas?  It is the place of the mortar-and-pestle, the kitchen, children laughing in the road, and flying kites down the hill.  The evocation is not poverty or under-development but satisfaction, simple labor in the field, human needs met by human means, jolly colors of fabric and flower, a song of innocence.  That the commons of Oaxaca here takes on a romantic, Rousseau-like quality is unfair critique, because the romantic finds immanence and roads not taken yet.  Tommy is the realist.  The historical issue, as opposed to the aesthetic issue, is, What has happened to Ashley?

For one thing she must tell the truth.  She confesses to Rosa that she has been an unfit mother, and Rosa flees in rejection.  But wait!  Rosa comes running after with a gift.  It is the penny flattened by the train engine, the lucky penny, and in this movie the talisman symbolizing a human bond. Filthy lucre, the root of all evil, has been crushed.  We are in the presence of social relations that are not fetishized by money, anymore than the grandmother’s tortillas, succor for the road, are commodities.

Marx again, “… as everything nature must come into being, so man also has his process of origin in history.  But for him history is a conscious process, and hence one which consciously supersedes itself.”  To Tolstoy “humanity” was the subject of history.   How will Ashley Colton supersede her history?  We await her decisions. What will she do?  What must she do?  Humanity hangs breathless on her fate.  This is the open question at the end of the movie.

It is sometimes said that children are pure potential.  This too is an enclosure shutting out grown-ups.  At the end of this movie, Ashley drives off, all potential herself.  Will she live happily ever after?  We imagine a metamorphosis of the proletariat from a whinging worm into a soaring embodiment of humanity.

What can we learn from “The Girl” about the connections among the ideas of home, humanity, and commons?  Apart from speculation derived from the etymology of these words and without romantic projections of futurity, the potential we see in Ashley is the result of understanding that Rosa is the protagonist of this history.  The ideas of home, humanity, and commons cannot exclude children.  They assert subsistence needs and solidarity, affirming the dignity of human reproduction.

The young woman with the bad attitude does not linger in bucolic escapist arcadia but returns to her duties within the empire, and the tasks of raising a new generation which will be nothing if not international and revolutionary challenging the borders within as well as those outside.

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:plineba@yahoo.com

Books

Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood (1962)

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)

Robert Blincoe, Memoir (1832)

George Caffentzis, In Letters of Blood and Fire (2013)

Anna Davin, Growing Up Poor (1996)

Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero (2012)

John Keats, Endymion (1818)

Abraham Lincoln, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates (1858)

Karl Marx, The 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts

Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007)

Shakespeare, Hamlet (1602)

Howard Slater, Anomie/Bonhomie (2010)

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)

William Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey (1798)