National Press Club

Rep. Gutierrez lauds Latino history film, pushes immigration reform

June 28, 2013 | By Lorna Aldrich |

As the Senate weighed the immigration overhaul it passed June 27, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill, told a National Press Club audience that Congress needs a deeper understanding of the varied Latino experience in America.

Gutierrez' remarks came during the June 26 screening of “Harvest of Empire: The Untold Story of Latinos in America." The documentary, he said, communicates in words and images aspects of immigration he sometimes finds difficult to communicate in congressional committee meetings.

“This is the story I want my daughters to know and that I want my grandson to learn,” he said, of the film based on the book of the same name by Juan Gonzalez.

Gutierrez, the son of Puerto Ricans, said “We’re immigrants, except we come as citizens.” He described prejudice against Puerto Ricans in the 1950s when his parents came to the mainland and that he, born in 1953, experienced later. He illustrated the immigrant’s quandary of being foreign both in the US and the home country with his own experience when his parents moved him to Puerto Rico in 1969. An attractive girl he wanted to impress called him “El Gringo,” which came as a shock.

The congressman said he spends most of his time working on immigration reform. He objects to some aspects of the current bill, including making siblings ineligible for family reunification, barring the estimated 11 million people already in the country from any means tested program and increased border patrols and fences. But, he said, not passing a bill would lead to more deportations.

The film depicts U.S. policies impacting five of the six countries that have sent the most immigrants to the U.S., plus Puerto Rico. Eduardo Lopez, who both co-directed and co-produced the film, said the film is meant to illustrate how U.S. policies "play a huge role in creating the circumstances that force people out.”

The film covers U.S. policies toward Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua. Columbia has sent more immigrants to the U.S. than Nicaragua, but it was included because more people would recall the Iran-Contra incident of the 1980s, co-producer Wendy Thompson-Marquez said.

The film reports the granting of citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, followed by drafting 20,000 Puerto Ricans for service in World War I.

Depictions of policies toward Mexico, the largest contributor of immigrants, begin with the Mexican-American War of 1848, by which the U.S. acquired Texas and what is now the Southwestern United States. The film continues by describing alternating U.S. encouragement and discouragement of farm workers and ends with the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, which it says forces farmers to leave Mexico.

Depictions of policies toward the other countries include cooperation with dictators who welcomed U.S. corporations and covert operations by the Central Intelligence Agency to overturn governments. The film attributes civil wars with associated atrocities to U.S. policies. It says that the U.S. military trained Latin American militaries that became involved in civil wars.

Lopez and Thompson-Marquez said it took seven years to develop the documentary because they needed help with each step along the way. Acquiring the archival films and newscasts showing the countries’ and Puerto Rico’s histories cost $200,000, Thompson-Marquez said. She encouraged the audience to visit the film’s web site, purchase the film and promote screenings.

The International Correspondents Committee sponsored the Club’s screening.