The Same Valley Twice
There is power in a union. Or is there? In the '70s and '80s, when documentarian Hart Perry wielded the camera for his then-partner Barbara Kopple's two labor-dispute epics--the Kentucky coal mine strike chronicle Harlan County, USA and the story of Austin, Minnesota's Hormel plant strike, American Dream--unions were already doomed. Part of American Dream's poignancy lies in its slow-dawning realization that trends far beyond the union operatives' disastrous internecine wrangling are conspiring to end the heyday of the upwardly mobile factory worker. Aerial shots of suburban homes and snow-tired pickups paid for with postwar Spam elegize what's soon to be lost.
Calling his new doc Valley of Tears, Perry suggests that the time for ironically positive, patriotic movie titles is over, too. Built around footage shot for the Texas Farmworkers Union in the agricultural community of Raymondville during a 1979 onion pickers' strike, and on a pair of follow-up visits to the town in the mid-'90s, his film adds issues of race and severe poverty to the dismal mix. Weaving past and present interviews with Mexican American activists and laborers, Anglo landowners and officials, his doc logs the effects of community organizing on a town where the community's viability is dependent on back-breaking, near-indentured drudgery.
The older footage is muscular and kinetic. Anglo town leaders--from smug, paternalist growers to the avuncular Spanish-speaking sheriff--try to keep a lid on worker discontent as restlessness grows and longhaired organizers arrive. Slogans are shouted and tortillas are stuffed to strains of a plucked ballad lauding heroes and heroines such as incendiary out-of-towner Jesus Moya and hometown beauty Juanita Valdez, awakened and radicalized by unfulfilled American promise. Looking back on the inevitable landowner strikebreaking maneuver, Valdez asserts that it was a victory nonetheless: "We had called ourselves Mexicans. This is where we became Americans."
Returning to the town in 1992, Perry documents what being American has meant for residents, who have largely been replaced in the fields by mechanical harvesters. The school situation for migrant families is so unworkable that the county's Mexican American District Attorney Juan Guerra sets up a ramshackle alternative academy in a corrugated barn. Perry finds Raymondville's immigrant parents trying to win representation on the school board and follows the board election in which Anglo town leaders run a Mexican-surnamed crony as a write-in candidate to best the community's legitimate hopeful. Witnesses attest to seeing officials scribbling on multiple ballots in a back room. Later, Guerra himself is ousted, finally regaining his post in 1996, only to be visited by personal tragedy that darkens his victory.
Never finding a solid narrative arc, Perry's film finds pathos in its own ragged edges and loose ends. American Dream's Austin hog cutters were fighting to preserve the town's prosperity. They wanted to stay. Raymondville is a town rooted in exploitation that can only exist under that paradigm. Its strikers' strides are evidenced only in the courage some found to leave. The organizers are long gone, and we learn via postscript that Valdez now lives in Denver. The identity that blossomed during the strike helped her escape the fate of the fields. But in this Wal-Mart world of supersized tax cuts and exported jobs, we also feel the strain underlying her attempts to enshrine the movement in a legend of success.
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