This review will probably be a bit dated, as Nicholas Bruckman’s 2008 documentary appealing for more welcoming U.S. immigration policy has been superseded by our new president’s openly liberal views on the issue. However, La Americana still manages to be refreshing, ambitious, and important, particularly for those who are still skeptical of Obama’s stance or who simply don’t know much about the immigrant experience.
Bruckman makes a valiant effort to de-generalize the issue or, rather, the people it affects most, by focusing on one woman’s journey to the U.S. as an illegal immigrant from Bolivia. Her story is not the one to which we are accustomed: Maria does not come to New York in pursuit of some variation on “The American Dream;” she is only there in the hopes of making enough money to cover medical expenses for her daughter Carla, who was left paralyzed by a bus accident as a young girl. Ironically, Maria’s need to take care of her daughter ends up being somewhat of a detriment to their relationship, as it keeps them apart for several years.
For a film that’s bookended with two liberal quotes on immigration—the first by JFK and the second by Obama himself—La Americana is surprisingly unbiased in its presentation. Though Maria is a special case and certainly doesn’t represent all the illegal immigrants in New York City, let alone this country, her story is told in such an unadulterated manner that I wasn’t left feeling manipulated or like I was being pitched a political ideal.
It only helps that Maria herself is quite relatable and likable; she speaks candidly and without a speck of naïveté, so much so that even in spite of her situation, we never pity her. When she moves back to Bolivia on Carla’s quinceañera, we are finally able to see the awful living conditions her family endures there, but Maria never breathes a word of despair. She says nothing of how poor the available health care is there—we see it for ourselves, as she is forced to carry Carla up flights of stairs to the doctor’s office.
Unfortunately, the money Maria saved up in the States cannot sustain her and Carla for more than several months, and it is with a world of regret that she must move back to the U.S. It is at this point, at the end of the film, that we are reminded of Bruckman’s agenda, but not by Bruckman himself; it is Maria who pushes for change, eloquently expounding on what the term “American” means and what it should mean.
As I watched Maria tearfully explain that all Americans came from immigrants, I was surprised to realize that I’d never been allowed such emotional access to an illegal immigrant before. Bruckman has done something truly revolutionary by concentrating on this woman’s story: he’s personalized a group of people that has typically been pluralized and portrayed as a single mass, a collective “issue.” With the help of his film, perhaps those who still have trouble breaking that convention will at least begin to see illegal immigrants as people rather than a problem.