e-mail us


On picket lines


I’d like to know more about Father Gregorio in “Bread and Roses,” the latest film by English director Ken Loach, known for his cinema of social critique.

That we hear the priest’s name at a union rally but never see him is a metaphor for one omission in this movie about the fight for workplace dignity and a union by a group of largely Latino janitors in Los Angeles. Religious leaders of varied stripe have had a significant role in the Los Angeles labor movement. And some attention to the spirituality of Latino workers might have injected more hope into a story of ongoing abuse and struggle.

However, the film compellingly focuses on another significant dimension of the immigrant experience, the family. Loach personalizes the exploitation of immigrant labor by concentrating the action on one set of workers and, among them, two sisters.

A fast-moving cinema vérité sequence opens the movie with the chaotic journey of Mexican immigrant Maya (Pilar Padilla) across the U.S. border. Maya’s sister, Rosa, (Elpidia Carrillo), whose diabetic husband is too sick to work, lives in Los Angeles. Though Rosa gets her newly arrived relative a job in a Latino bar, a row with a sleazy pair of macho clients confirms how demeaning the work is for Maya, who wanted to clean buildings with her sister.

Despite the endless supply of workers waiting for an opening, Rosa succeeds in getting Maya on with the cleaning service. Quickly befriended by fellow worker Rubén (Alonso Chavez), Maya soon encounters union organizer Sam (Adrien Brody), establishing a relational triangle that helps motor the unfolding labor story.

The primary emotional power comes from the stormy relationship between Rosa and Maya. Resistant to the union from the start, Rosa eventually rats on the employees pushing to organize. Emotions peak when Maya, who has become a leader in the campaign to organize, confronts her sister.

During the exchange, we learn that Rosa got Maya the job by sleeping with the abusive company supervisor Pérez (George Lopez), a bitter echo of an earlier time in Tijuana when prostitution was the only way Rosa could keep her family fed. The standoff between sisters precedes the climactic labor battle, which lands Sam, Maya and their fellow marchers in jail.

While the union placards in the movie read “Justice for Janitors 2000,” the film telescopes years of labor history. Organizer Sam coaches his protesting workers with news clips from the 1990 Los Angeles Justice for Janitors campaign, in which clashes with riot police landed marchers in hospitals and jails. Sam links the California workers’ slogan to the same theme that inspired a Massachusetts labor fight back in 1912. “We want bread, but we want roses, too,” Sam tells the workers. “You know when you get roses? When you stop begging, and you organize.”

“Bread and Roses” is Loach’s first film set in America. His foray into injustice in America seamlessly fuses Spanish and English, faithful to the linguistic give-and-take of many California workplaces. Refusing to commit to English-only with Spanish subtitles or Spanish-only with English, the dialogue oscillates, the onscreen translations flip-flopping between the two languages as fast as the characters’ speech.

The dialogue lurches at times toward harangue. Rosa’s anti-union rhetoric sounds too rehearsed to be as spontaneous as we’re made to think. And a series of threats by supervisor Pérez, each symmetrically prefaced with “Join a union” (“Join a union. They’ll take 20 percent of your check”) perhaps overplays his union-busting boss-talk.

But the few near misses don’t derail the film’s believable portrayal of immigrant life and labor exploitation. The cast is drawn from life. Reminiscent of the Italian neo-realists, Loach combines nonprofessionals with experienced actors. Among the largely Latino cast, Pilar Padilla didn’t know English when casting started. She played Maya, convincing in both languages, after two months’ intensive English study in San Francisco.

The film is full of the real world icons of the labor struggle, from the bright red “Justice for Janitors” T-shirts of the Service Employees International Union Local 1877, to the black-helmeted storm trooper-like Los Angeles riot cops.

Loach’s visual approach blends in-your-face documentary with more symbolically complex images. Toward the film’s conclusion, for instance, a close-quarters handheld camera captures marchers storming the lobby of the high-rise they clean. But on the way to the building, Loach relies on the compressed visual perspective of a long lens to emphasize the tightly bonded collective now making its way to the showdown.

And the fractured relationship and the unfinished reconciliation between Maya and Rosa reminds us of a social and economic system that not only exacts deep individual pain, but itself begs redemption.

Ted Parks writes from Malibu, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001