Race, Action, Culture: Transnational philanthropists: Alex Rivera’s documentary The Sixth Section shows migrants makinga difference

Transnational philanthropists: Alex Rivera’s documentary The Sixth Section shows migrants makinga difference

Xochitl Bada

In The Sixth Section (2003), filmmaker Alex Rivera portrays the most salient characteristics of grassroots immigrant organizations that have flourished in the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century. The 30-minute documentary captures the dynamics of cross-border organizing, grassroots globalization, and transnationalism from below, shattering many traditional preconceptions about uprooted migrants. The film shows real possibilities for transcending many barriers imposed by unequal citizenship rights in American society and to engage in social change activities across borders.

The Sixth Section is a documentary that tells the story of Grupo Union, one of the many immigrant-led hometown associations that work for the well-being of their communities of origin in Mexico. Premiered September 2003 on PBS nationwide, the documentary has captured diverse audiences among community-based organizations, academic circles, and mainstream Latino and non-Latino NGOs across the United States.

Rivera presents powerful images of migrants from Puebla who came to upstate New York in the early 1980s when the agricultural economy of their hometown of Boqueron collapsed as a direct result of many years of economic liberalization, dependence in seasonal agriculture, and free trade agreements. Instead of depicting these migrants as passive victims of economic globalization, Rivera chooses to present the everyday lives of these hardworking uprooted migrants and their effort to rebuild their hometown with remittances.

Rebuilding Their Hometown

The documentary follows the organizing efforts of Grupo Union and their effort to keep strong ties with their tiny hometown of 5,000 residents who live in the five sections that make up Boqueron. Grupo Union members have named the Boqueron community in Newburgh “The Sixth Section.” Through their effort as industrious grassroots philanthropists, Grupo Union members have significantly improved the lives of the compatriots they left behind. They raised enough money to bring electricity, an ambulance, and a 2,000-seat baseball stadium to Boqueron. So far, they have funded 14 infrastructure projects in Boqueron that include building a church, a basketball court, and buying instruments for the town band.

Despite the fact that the organization did not obtain financial support from the state government in Puebla to develop their various infrastructure projects, the group members are never disheartened and they manifest a solid commitment with the social development of Boqueron. One of their future projects will be to construct a much needed major artesian well to bring water to the desert community.

Organization across Borders

The story of Grupo Union is not very different from the story of hundreds of Mexican hometown associations that exist in the United States. Contemporary Mexican hometown associations (HTAs) represent values of commitment, solidarity, altruism, and patriotism. Commonly known as clubes de oriundos, Mexican hometown associations are based on the social networks established by community members of the same rural locality of origin in Mexico.

The composition of Mexican HTAs consists almost solely of first-generation immigrants with stronger ties abroad than those of other multigenerational Latino NGOs. As Rivera clearly shows in The Sixth Section, the first purpose is typically social. These are the well-known soccer clubs, baseball fans, or religious groups that host dinners, dances, and other events where people can mingle. However, along with a growth in numbers has come greater institutional outreach and ties to their home community, reflected in part in collective remittance projects. The members of these associations promote the well-being of their community in both the United States and Mexico by raising money to fund public works and social projects. In the last decade, HTAs have increasingly been more effective in their advocacy efforts to affect political and social issues in their communities of residence, but they still remain isolated from mainstream philanthropic institutions in the United States and lack an effective participation in major public policy issues that affect Mexican immigrants.

Although Mexican HTAs have the longest history and are the best known, an increasing number of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Filipino, Dominican, and other Caribbean hometown associations have formed in the last decade and are actively participating in the improvement of their communities of origin and residence. Nowadays, communications and other technologies enable migrants to live their lives both in the U.S. and in their country of origin more fully than in the past. Not only is it easier to travel and to wire money home, it is also easier to see salient needs that many migrants themselves did not notice until they left for the United States. As one hometown leader from a Mexican HTA based in Chicago told me once: “I want to see the kids from my town being able to arrive to school with their shoes clean, like mine are now. I don’t want them to walk through muddy roads in order to reach school.”

Across the United States, there are approximately 600 Mexican hometown clubs and associations formally registered in 30 cities whose main purpose is to work for the well-being of their communities of origin and residence. The associations of Mexican immigrants based on their region of origin exhibit organizational complexity. One of the most important characteristics is that they depend entirely on volunteer work and voluntary contributions from their members for the development of social projects that they complete successfully with efficacy, honesty, and transparency.

Grassroots transnational organizations provide another vehicle for individual migrants to obtain and reinforce their social position in both societies. Joining, and even more significantly, leading such transnational organizations offer migrants an opportunity for public validations and recognition both within the United States and in their country of origin. Such status validation becomes a high priority for the many migrants who, through migration to the United States, have achieved a higher standard of living, but only by accepting lower status positions within the United States and withstanding the daily assaults of racism and discrimination from mainstream society. Some of the migrants who financially support the projects of these associations do not have legal status in the United States, thus making it more difficult to undertake more ambitious projects that require them to travel constantly to Mexico.

The collective efforts of HTAs reflect the best tradition of U.S. self-help organizations, and they maintain and reinforce social solidarity among the emigres. Because of their dual engagement with civic issues in their towns of origin and their new communities, the experience of organizing as internationally oriented organizations builds leadership capacity, as well as organizational identity, experience, and a record of accomplishment–factors that contribute to a more active participation in the United States. I strongly encourage everyone to watch this documentary. Certainly many trees have been sacrificed in writing about transnational communities, but this is the very first effort to really capture them in motion. The video unpacks what transnationalism actually means, the effects of globalization on vulnerable communities, and above all, the great potential of mass media to capture audience attention on the pressing issues that affect communities around the world.

Xochitl Bada is pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research focuses on Mexican HTAs in the Midwest.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Color Lines Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group