Spoiler alert: Do yourself a favor and watch La Santa Cecilia’s new video before you read any further.
Done wiping that tear from your eye now? All right. We’re good to go.
When the band La Santa Cecilia and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network approached filmmaker Alex Rivera to create a new music video a few months ago, he jumped at the chance. “El Hielo” translates to “The Ice” in English—and references the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, also known as ICE, and its actions that split families apart.
Rivera, whose brilliant sci-fi 2008 film Sleep Dealer imagines a future United States that relies on migrant labor without the migrants, says that he’s always been aware of the potential and promise of creating documentaries—but that documentary work inevitably creates a power dynamic, since subjects are being examined by a filmmaker from a distance. “But working collaboratively and collectively with a group of people to tell a story can change those dynamics a bit,” explains Rivera.
Aside from featuring people who live through the horrors of an immigration system that pivots on instilling fear, Rivera also took the unusual step of choosing to humanize an ICE agent in the video. “ICE agents are not phantoms—they’re making decisions, and they’re complicit in a violent system,” says Rivera. He wants to challenge the viewer to accept that some people who work to support their families make a living by splitting other families apart. “It’s provocative to highlight their humanity,” adds Rivera. “It tears apart at the heart in a way that demonization and characterization never can.”
If you’re a frequent reader here, you might already be familiar with the stories behind some of the actors featured in the video. Isaac Barrera, who surprises us when we learn he plays ICE agent, worked with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, and was the first person to infiltrate an ICE detention center in order to organize from the inside in 2011. He now works with the Los Angeles Immigrant Youth Coalition, which organizes undocumented immigrants, and works to put an end to deportations. Erika Andiola, who plays the restaurant worker caught in the raid, is a well-known immigration activist from Arizona. Her mother in real life, Maria Arreola, was nearly deported less than three months ago. In the music video, Arreola herself is left behind, breaking down as she watches a raid on television.
If living through the reality of raids and detention is difficult, it can also be a challenge to blur that line and depict it with cameras rolling. “It was really hard to do it, to reenact what I went through in real life,” says Andiola, whose mother is now under an order of supervision that allows her to remain in the US for another year. Andiola says that although she knew what was happening for the cameras was fiction, the shoot was fraught with emotions. “There’s that scene at the end where my mom is crying,” she remembers. “Well, she was crying for real.”
Pepe Carlos is a founding member of La Santa Cecilia, and his undocumented status has meant his band mates have had to literary take longer routes on tours, avoiding immigration checkpoints. “It took us an extra day of driving to get to Texas, but I’m so grateful that I have band member who are like family to me. They never gave up on my dream,” says Carlos. When La Santa Cecilia traveled to tour in Mexico, Carlos had to stay behind, because his status bars him from visiting the country of his birth.
Carlos says La Santa Cecilia wrote El Hielo in order to humanize the problem that’s affecting the immigrant community in the US, and usually understood in numbers. In Spanish, the lyrics tell the stories of three undocumented immigrants—a domestic worker, a gardener and a student. Part of the chorus reminds listeners, “ICE is loose in the streets, we never know when it will be our turn.” Carlos says that he and his family have lived with the constant fear of being detained and deported at any time, and he hopes the song and video will inspire people to declare their undocumented status and stop living with that fear.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that a director has opted to use everyday people acting out their reality. When Salt of the Earth was produced 60 years ago, most of the actors in that film—which remains the only film to ever be blacklisted—were striking miners and their family members, who lived out the risks of mining and striking against intimidating bosses in a company town. Rosaura Revueltas, who played the lead, was deported to Mexico before the film was completed.
As we learn at the end of Rivera’s video, Isaac Barrera and Maria Arreola are already in deportation proceedings. They put a face on the more than one million people who have been deported under Obama’s tenure. As we await a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will likely be unveiled sometime this week, NDLON is asking that Not One More person be deported under an unjust immigration system that easily forgets that these are human beings.
High schoolers, welfare applicants and the unemployed are a well of profit for the drug-testing industry. Read Isabel Macdonald's story in the April 22 issue of The Nation.