PBS Premiere: June 22, 2004Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmakers

Cameron from New Jersey asks: Although Farmingville is an important and timely film, it (like the Farmingville website) does not raise one of the most important questions about this matter. Namely, why is a *general* phenomenon (the current wave of Hispanic immigration) centered in *particular* areas (like Farmingville)? Why do some communities have to deal with all the issues raised by the film and other communities do not? The answer is that federal, state and county policies (especially environmental regulation and enforcement) pre-select certain areas as immigrant destinations (a fact disguised in the Brookings map by its treatment of metropolitan areas rather than particular centers, like Farmingville, within metro areas). Neighboring communities to Farmingville greatly benefit from the idea that local racism or local immigrant law-breakers are the problems at stake. Instead, the real issue is the *intentional concentration* of these problems in local centers which do not have the resources to deal with them (thereby hurting both the local community and the immigrants). How about a follow-up film on the senior government techniques for concentrating immigrant populations (which we *all* need) in centers where local schools, police, social services etc are *inevitably* overwhelmed (leaving neighboring centers blissfully underwhelmed)? Is there an institutionalized racism at work here which allocates immigrant populations and problems to specific centers like Farmingville in such a way to produce (and thereby disguise itself as) local racism?

Carlos Sandoval: Dear Cameron,

I share in much of your very incisive observation. Immigrant populations (in particular illegal immigrant populations these days) tend to concentrate in communities that are ill-equipped to handle them while frequently wealthier surrounding communities, who benefit from the labor, can avoid the cost of housing the very labor force that benefits them.

I happen to live in the Hamptons where I saw this phemonon happening. In fact, this observation informed an Op-Ed piece I wrote for The New York Times Long Island section at the time of the beatings.

However, where I disagree with you is that there is a concerted governmental effort to accomplish this. Instead, I think it's the outcome of a federal government not willing to face up to our historic dependency on an undocumented workforce. This "swinging-door" policy has existed in the Southwest (where I grew up) for decades.

Additionally, I think that what we see happening now is the confluence of technology and demographics. America's population is older and more educated, meaning many people do not want low-scale or low-end jobs (e.g. poultry processing in the Southeast, meat packing in the Midwest, dairy farming in the Northeast.). At the same time technology (cheaper communications and transportation) allows word for job opportunities to spread quickly. Additionally, with regards to Mexico, there was the push factor of a severely depressed economy in the mid-1990s.

So I guess, in sum, where you see politics and a concerted federal policy, I see economics and a mismanaged federal policy. In either case, we both agree that the burden on these communities is unfair. That's why I felt it important to try and penetrate the "racist" label in a town like Farmingville where so many of the people were just average citizens trying to get along who suddenly found themselves overwhelmed. If we don't understand the plight and source of frustration in these communities -- and actively address it in constructive ways -- it can lead to fear and tension within them.

By the way, for an excellent discussion on these new settlement patterns I refer you to this study co-authored by the Pew Hispanic Center and The Brookings Institute.


Cristin in Texas asks: I have a "mixed" family, how did you see this situation affecting families like mine? How did you see it affecting documented (legal) immigrants in this community?

Sandoval: Dear Cristin in Texas,

I'm not sure if by "mixed" you mean someone who is undocumented married to someone who is documented, or a Latino married to an Anglo. If you mean one member of the family is undocumented, then of course there are a whole host of legal ramifications in terms of the immigration laws. However, that aside (and I grant you that is a very big aside), I'm going to concentrate on the second part of your question, the effect on legal immigrants, in particular legal Latino immigrants.

Here I would say the effect is the spillover of the tensions growing out of the presence of such a large concentration of undocumented Latino men to the Latino community generally. By that I mean that I, as a Latino male, while living in Farmingville was the subject of some low level harassment from people who didn't know me and assumed I was undocumented. Beyond that, I have heard of incidents, particularly in the schools, of kids calling other kids "dirty Mexicans" -- an epithet that didn't exist in Long Island until very recently.

One person reported to me that his six year-old adopted daughter, who is of Mexican origin, was told by an "Anglo" 10 year-old that she could not sit on the same school bus seat because she was Mexican. This shift in attitudes can lead to tragedy, like the "prank" by five Sachem high school students who launched a powerful firecracker into a Mexican's family home on July 4th. The family managed to escape, but their house was destroyed.

I guess what I am saying is that left unaddressed, the resentment, anger, fear, frustration triggered by the presence of the illegal Latino immigrants can transform into a more generalized sense of hostility against immigrants and Latinos as a whole.

As a Latino myself, I am particularly concerned about this situation because of its potential effect on children who are made to feel different, excluded, less than others. I went through this myself as a kid and know firsthand the debilitating effects of this treatment. It leads to low self-esteem, sometimes the formation of gangs in search of protection, and generally the loss of a generation who could otherwise grow to be productive members of healthy, inclusive communities.

On the hopeful side, it's my understanding that the principal of the new high school in Farmingville is hoping to address just these issues.


Beth Anne from Montana asks: To me, one of your film's most complex subtexts was fear and suspicion of Farmingville's Latino men by several Anglo women. A number of the film's women spoke of how they feared for themselves, or for their young daughters, in the presence of their town's newcomers. Whatever comments or looks they had received in passing had somehow made them uncomfortable, angry, afraid, and resentful. Maybe for some of them, a general uneasiness with change came out as fear of unknown men, the strangers in their midst who didn't speak English or didn't conform to the women's expectations about appropriate middle-class public behavior. Maybe certain comments reflected unconscious, unexamined racism. Or was it unfamiliarity with Latin American cultural assumptions, and the ways that Latino men feel entitled to behave towards women in public? Were there conversations about the clash of Hispanic and U.S. culture with respect to women that didn't make the film's final cut? Maybe the whole dynamic is about constant shifts in power: who is making who feel wanted or unwanted at that moment in that place. Men who hear themselves called ugly names every day feel more human if they can indulge in whistling at women, and women who cherish their sense of security feel outraged at the presence of men whose habits belittle them. Any thoughts?

Catherine Tambini: As a woman I can feel intimidated walking past a group of men whether they are construction workers on a break, teenagers hanging out or Mexican men standing on a corner. I think it's much the same for the women in Farmingville. Latino men like to show their appreciation for women in a different way than most of us are accustomed to. The fact that these men look different than the mostly white men the women are used to seeing makes for a more uncomfortable situation. Add in the language barrier and the different customs and you have a situation ripe for fear and misunderstanding. It seems to be a tribal thing to feel the need to "protect the women." And anytime you want to stir up racial feelings, you accuse men of being inappropriate with women. But I think it boils down, mostly, to fear of the unknown, as is the case with many of the negative situations in Farmingville.

You make an interesting point about power shifts. Possibly there is something to that, but I feel that it is a little less complicated than that.

Several people we spoke with, including Inspector Rau and Brother Joe, talked of the unease the women feel and the reasons for it. In making a film of this complexity, it is difficult to go into any one subject in depth. We tried to show the uneasiness in the community with the comments that were made. I'm sure a whole documentary could be made on the subject.

As far as I know, in Farmingville there has been no upswing in sexual assaults attributed to the Mexican men who are living there.


Michelle from New York asks: After the completion of the film, did either of you change your personal views on immigration, legal or otherwise in the USA?

Tambini: Going in, I didn't really have a strong opinion one way or the other because I didn't know enough about the situation. The more I learned, the more I realized that we need to reform our immigration laws. There is obviously a need for the people who are here doing the work that illegal immigrants do. Our policies need to make room for those who are here contributing so much to our society. Our country has always been enriched by immigrants from around the world who've come to live here. We need a more workable solution.

Sandoval: Dear Michelle:

I can't say that my personal views on immigration changed greatly, other than feeling more strongly than ever that our immigration laws need to change in order to provide some legal means of allowing entry to this workforce on which we are becoming increasingly dependent.

I guess this grows from the fact that, despite the fact that I am at least a sixth generation American, I have always had to confront the issue of immigration -- whether personally or professionally -- because of my physical appearance and Spanish surname. I was therefore aware of many immigration issues both viscerally and academically.

I am aware, for example, that Mexican Americans can have very mixed reactions to undocumented Latinos, which, in turn, allowed me to understand that some of the reactions of many of Farmingville's residents were not necessarily or purely "racially" based, but legitimate concerns; concerns of a community, for example, suddenly finding itself providing overcrowded housing for a group of people who were more directly benefiting surrounding communities.

There was, however, one thing that did surprise me, and that was the extent of anti-Mexican sentiment among groups like Glenn Spencer's American Patrol, and the extent to which they have exaggerated and misrepresented the concept of "reconquista" so as to cause anxiety among the general public. In my opinion, Mr. Spencer and his kind are engaged in irresponsible hate-mongering, to the extent that in one of his Email blasts he effectively called on "citizens" to take arms against Mexicans.

Lilli in California asks: Do you really not see the difference between the (mostly) Mexican illegals of today and the Irish, Polish, German, Italian et al in the 1900's? Then they assimilated into America -- today they demand everything in their language, etc. They do not want to join us -- surely you can see that. And we have obliged them: no job unless you speak their language; bills in 6-7 languages other then English; schools must teach and understand up to 50 + languages; signs, menus. You must see the difference.

Sandoval: Dear Lilli,

I see little difference in the Western European immigrants of the 1900s and the Mexican immigrants of today. I do, however, as you have pointed out, see a difference in the circumstances of their arrival and reception.

First, let's clarify that before 1924, it's my understanding that it took little more than a birth certificate from the nation of origin and a clean bill of health upon arriving in the United States to enter legally. Today, virtually every person here in our country illegally would qualify for legal residency under this low threshold. Secondly, recent studies show that the immigration flow that we popularly believe was one-way and permanent was actually circular, with people going back to, for example, Italy, and returning the next year to the United States. As a result, it would appear that mother language and cultural retention in the first generation was probably more widespread then we think among immigrants in the early 20th century.

Today's immigrants, whether Mexican, Irish or Indian, come here seeking the same thing that earlier immigrant waves sought: to help their families back home and make a better life for themselves. So to this extent I see little difference in the immigrant waves.

Additionally, among the men in Farmingville I met, most wanted to learn English. It's simple economics -- if you speak English, you get better jobs and more pay. Some of the men were even having their pre-school children take English classes in Mexico; others would send or bring home toys that taught their children how to speak English. Among the Latino families I know, virtually all the children speak English fluently. And where these kids can integrate without tensions, they generally do.

In my own family, where many in our parents' generation spoke Spanish, all in my generation are English-dominant, with some Spanish-speaking ability. In the next generation virtually all of our children speak English (though they still like rice and beans and Jennifer Lopez -- except for the ones who have gone completely Goth).

What has changed is that we as a country have come to realize the value of diversity. The mono-culture model you refer to -- if indeed it ever truly existed -- led to what I refer to as the third generation diaspora syndrome. That is, people in search of their roots. Look, for example, at the keen interest in genealogy, much of which has to do with wanting to reconnect with our ethnic origins. This longing is the result of a "Dick and Jane" culture, which saw legitimacy in only a narrowly-defined model that excluded Jews, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans, etc. It wasn't until the Civil Rights movement that we began to see the shortcomings of this model.

I, personally, believe diversity is a much better model for acculturation. English is and will remain the coin of the realm -- not only in the United States but throughout the world. Most of the people immigrating to the United States today (legally or illegally) realize that. American movies and sitcoms dominate internationally and so, by extension, does American popular culture. Immigrant kids watch American television.

While I'll admit that even I bristle some times at the extra step of having to press "English" at the ATM, I believe it's a small price to pay to allow a generation of newcomers to more fully participate in society. Democracy, after all, is based on an informed citizenry. And whether it means making parents comfortable enough to participate in school board decisions or the elderly self-sufficient in understanding their prescriptions, I think we all benefit from an informed populace.

What I will concede is that technology has tossed us a monkey wrench. The "narrowcasting" that the internet and cable provide, for example, allows kids to live entirely separate lives from their parents in the same household. In the same way, if one leads a life entirely out of the mainstream, we can risk balkanization. The issue is one of balance.

Finally, let me add a highly personal note. I find it ironic in the extreme that today everyone says they want me to be "fully American." Yet there seems to be little of the same solicitousness to consider me as fully American when I get racially profiled -- as I have been, particularly in the making of the movie. Further, these same people do not understand why I can sometimes get annoyed with people who ask "where are you from" despite the fact that I am a sixth generation American.

After seeing Farmingville, one of my uncles in Colorado, a decorated veteran, came to me nearly in tears as he explained that he had to disguise the fact that he was Hispanic -- even going as far as changing his name -- in order to get jobs as a contractor. His parents, his parents' parents, going back for generations, were born on what is now American soil. In other words, they were Americans all, but not accepted as such.

I guess what I'm saying is that until we as Americans realize how many hues now make up the face of America, those of us who are treated differently because we look different are going to act different and take some pride in that difference; to not do so would be to relegate ourselves to something less than our full place at the table.

Tambini: I'll add, from my point of view, that it's a proven fact that it is very difficult to learn a foreign language after the age of puberty. Statistics show that in most immigrant families, the first generation, those coming from the mother country, speak mainly their first (native) language. The next generation learns both languages and, by the third generation, English is the main (if not the only) language spoken. Personally I always appreciate, when I am in other countries, being able to read signs, etc., posted in English. Having signs in multiple languages helps those who are coming here to be able to navigate our systems. In Europe, many people speak three or four languages. Here in America, because we are isolated, we only have the opportunity to learn other languages for the most part in high school and by then it is usually too late to really develop a facility for another language.

Christina from Idaho asks: Have any of the day laborers brought any of their families over?

Tambini: Since Farmingville was a new destination at the time of our filming, there were very few women in the community. There were a number of family members there together -- brothers, fathers and sons, cousins -- but they were mostly men. We recently had a screening in Farmingville and there were several families there -- husbands, wives and children. In fact, Eduardo has brought his wife and son over and they are now happily united and living a better life.

Tom from California asks: As filmmakers, is immigration your future documentary subject material? Will you do other subjects?

Sandoval: At this stage in my life I consider myself more of a storyteller. I left the practice of law due to health reasons, and found storytelling aided me healthwise. Farmingville is my first film. I expect that, as with most storytellers, my tales will continue to be informed by my experience, which in my case means my experience as an Hispanic-American. My hope is to find the universality in those stories so that others will not only enjoy and identify with them, but come to realize the richness of our American culture. I have several projects in the hopper, some fiction, some non-fiction; none deal directly with immigration.

Tambini: Another immigration film is not in my immediate future. Along with fellow filmmaker Allan Miller, I have started work on a film about the US Patriot Act and the impact it has on our civil liberties. We hope to have it finished by the time several provisions are due to sunset in 2005.

Victor in New York asks: I saw Catherine Tambini speak on PBS after Farmingville aired. She totally misses the point of why most Americans oppose illegal immigrants. It has nothing to do with prejudice or hatred! Tambini says that her people came to this country as immigrants. Well, so did mine, but there is one major difference between my people immigrating here and today's immigrants -- the word is "illegal." As an American citizen, it is illegal for me to break the law. If I decide one day to rob a bank, or assault someone, or even exceed the 55mph speed limit, I am doing so illegally. I am subject to these laws! Therefore, if someone wants to enter my country, they have to go through legal channels. There are many, many reasons why we place restrictions on immigration. In my case, it has nothing to do with hatred or race.

Tambini: It's my understanding that during previous waves of immigration, prior to 1924, the only documents that were required for "legal" immigration were a health certificate and a birth certificate. Even so, many in the previous waves came without papers -- thus the term, "wop" -- and faced the same problems that the illegal immigrants face today.

I don't think people should be here illegally. We do need to know who is in our country. But we all benefit from the cheaper labor that is provided by people who are trying to make a better life for themselves. Doing work most Americans today shun. Somehow we need to find a way to incorporate the new immigrants into our society so that they can pay into the system just as the rest of us do.

Cheryl in Arizona asks: Is this situation still continuing currently? What can be done to help?

Sandoval: By all reports, the situation in Farmingville hasn't changed much. The men are still flowing in, looking for work on the street corners. The citizens are still frustrated. However, the number of active protesters has dwindled. In general terms, I see the climate as one of frustrated resignation.

There are some small signs of change. A resource center for the day laborers was opened without much fanfare. Some residents in Farmingville and surrounding communities, upon seeing the movie, have talked about taking steps towards practical local solutions.

In terms of what can be done to help, the most effective way would be a change in our immigration laws that provides a way to accommodate this workforce, while not relegating it to a permanent second-class status. On the local level, I suggest you visit the Resources section of this website. There you will find a downloadable Resource Guide and Discussion Guide. They are invaluable tools prepared by our outreach partner, Active Voice, and they can show you what some communities, groups and individuals have done.