On Tuesday, Jan. 24, filmmaker Jenny Alexander came to speak as a guest in Brandeis course, Documenting the Immigrant Experience, bringing particular focus to her film “The Vigil.” Along with the members of the class, students and faculty of other departments, such as Romance Studies and Latin American and Latino Studies, were invited to the presentation, as Alexander’s work links the faculties together. Her work “The Vigil” follows the plight of immigrant Mexican community members of Maricopa County, Arizona in the days surrounding the emergence of the controversial Senate Bill 1070, the toughest anti-immigration law in the country. The bill, in its initial terms, allowed enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of anyone suspected of being an illegal or undocumented immigrant, and required all immigrants to keep their papers constantly on hand. Alexander reveals the quotidian experience of Mexican immigrant communities and the unseen consequences that laws such as SB 1070 create, by following the protests largely through the point of view of a Mexican immigrant named Gina.
The film opens in the early morning with unmediated footage of a woman unloading the Virgin Mary from the passenger seat of her car, an intimate moment in which she delicately extracts the supplies which will become the components of her altar. We then see a prayer underway, as a woman bows before the altar and presents the Virgin Guadalupe with a modern prayer—that she protect those who are out driving and that she keep her loved ones from being detained. Each day, a number of dedicated protesters occupy yard space outside the Capitol grounds in the hopes of stopping SB 1070 from passing. The yard becomes a site for prayer, for food, for conversation and for the Mexican community in Maricopa County to support one another. Alexander’s filming style keeps the narrative simple and appeals to the humanity of these peaceful protesters, who go to great lengths to preserve their fundamental human rights and their dignity.
“We are not criminals,” began one testimony. “But in that moment we were made to feel like criminals.” Footage of shouting protestors and children crying fill the view as one of the early protests ensued. Senate Bill 1070, while intended in large part to ameliorate the issue of illegal immigration, was expected by many to become a legal means of racial profiling by police.
Gina had lived in the United States for twelve years when the footage of “The Vigil” was taken. “When you first come here,” said Gina, “you come with a dream to give your children a better life. They tell you you’ll earn money, that everything is easy and beautiful. But what they don’t tell you is what you must endure … They said you’d make money, you’d have a job, but they never said at what cost.”
After arriving in the United States, Gina managed to create her own business, but she continues to live in fear without legal citizenship. Prior to SB 1070, Gina did not leave her house. “I only went to work and necessary things, like payments and my son’s school. But at night I would not go out.” The risks were simply too high, and she lived in constant fear of running into the wrong place at the wrong time. However, Gina had to step up when it came time to defend her family and community. “For me to go to the Vigil,” she said, “is something I can’t explain. How is it that I, with so much fear of the police, how did I end up where the police would also come?” Despite threats of arrest or deportation, Gina risked everything on behalf of her son and on behalf of all those in similar situations to herself.
After three months of peaceful gathering and arranging community events in protest of the bill, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio threatened to round up and detain all protesters, sparking fear in those involved.
“I decided to be here and fight,” said Gina, twirling Rosary beads in her hands. “I would be sacrificing the 12 years that I have been here … If the law goes into effect, I don’t know what will happen. What I do know is that I fought and I showed my son that he should fight and be a good citizen to fight for the rights of many people who don’t have the opportunity. I think that is a beautiful thing that he will have even if we lose. It will be an important lesson for him.”
The film’s website sums up perfectly the individuals who Alexander captures on film: “Jenny is interested in films exploring the character of individuals who, despite extreme hardship, choose to risk their lives to create systemic change not only for themselves, but for others.” Those strong and passionate activists we see in “The Vigil” could not be described any better.
Words alone cannot do the film justice. One must experience firsthand the power of narrative that Alexander conveys with her stark footage. As told by the website, “This is a story of those who are not considered American, making American history.” For those interested in an integral part of American society and contemporary issues in this country, look no further than Alexander’s film, “The Vigil.”