“Como desearía tener una vida menos difícil. Y solo preocuparme de las cosas que se preocupan las chicas de mi edad.”
In an agricultural town on the Central Coast of California, Mexican-American teenager Ashley Solis dreams of being the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend college. However, when increasing ICE raids in her community threaten to separate her from her family, Ashley must become the breadwinner and help her mother evade ICE. Fruits of Labor, a documentary from Emily Cohen Ibáñez, is a fascinating coming-of-age story about a teenager navigating the tensions between forces that keep her trapped in poverty, gender roles, and the desire for a “normal” adolescence. Fruits of Labor offers a glimpse into the lives of child workers, women workers, the global food system, and gendered expectations in family systems.
Ashley and her family live in an overcrowded house in Fresaville, California. The film opens by depicting Ashley hunched over in the hot sun, picking strawberries, a job she started at the age of fifteen to support her family. For much of the documentary, we follow Ashley as she works by day in the strawberry fields and by night at a food processing factory sorting frozen strawberries. Ashley’s jobs disrupt the way she goes about her life as a teenager. Her body “stinks of strawberries and work;” when she gets her nails done, she must cut them for work; after work, she is too tired to go to class. It is difficult to imagine how Ashley is supposed to live a “normal” teenage life when she carries all this responsibility. She is overwhelmed but courageous and the film takes great care to show this optimistic side of Ashley as she supports her family and pursues her dreams.
Throughout the film we also gain brief insight into the lives of Ashley’s mother and brother, Beatriz and Ashford Soliz. Beatriz cleans houses in the Central Coast of California. She dreams that Ashley will have a better life, become a better woman, and eventually have a higher-paying job than she does. However, Beatriz lives in a precarious state. Although she has been in the U.S. for 22 years, she is undocumented. Her undocumented status places pressure on Ashley to provide for the family and care for her siblings when her mother cannot. On the other hand, Ashley’s brother, Ashford, is not expected to take responsibility for anything. While Ashford promises to get a job to support his family and the family he is starting with his girlfriend, he never does. Instead, he asks Ashley for money to buy new shoes and gaming systems. The film highlights the disparity between gender roles in the family, showing how Ashley and Beatriz have to put in long, grueling hours to support the family, while men like Ashford do not.
While many documentary films about the lives of farmworkers or undocumented Latinx individuals focus on the public and political elements of their lives, this film excels in its focus on a teenage girl’s personal struggles and aspirations as they intersect with existing structures of oppression. Through Ashley’s story, the documentary explores and questions what it means to come into your power and to come of age as a young woman working in the United States.
However, the film leaves some questions unanswered. Between clips of Ashley’s life, we see clips of strawberries ripening, butterflies emerging from cocoons, a turtle coming out of its shell, and flowers blooming and wilting. These images of nature blooming and evolving represent an interesting parallel between the processes of nature and Ashley’s growth from the beginning to the end of the film, much of which we do not get to see. The beautiful nature clips seem to take the place of typical story-building, emotional scenes and depictions of personal hardships. Initially, the film suggests that because of her duties to her family, Ashley may not graduate, she may never recognise the dreams that she and her mom have for her, and instead she will be forced to support her family indefinitely. However, by the end of the film, Ashley graduates from high school and goes on to community college, but we never get to see her take charge of her life or own her power, which may make it difficult for viewers to identify with Ashley. This abrupt change in Ashley’s depiction may leave viewers wondering how she turned her life around and how she overcame the tensions of supporting her family as a teenager.
Fruits of Labor is a film to watch for audiences who are interested in understanding more about the personal struggles of Latinx families in the United States who face fear of deportation, poverty, and gender roles through the lens of a teenage girl. This is not just a film for Latinx audiences, but for everyone who seeks to understand how structures that are so often taken for granted deeply impact the lives of Latinx immigrants. Although the film creates a looming sense of sorrow and despair, it offers important depictions of Latinas. Because U.S. mainstream media so often represents Latinas as subservient, and Mexican immigrants as undeserving of sympathy, this film does the necessary work of portraying Ashley as hardworking, the backbone of the family, and deserving of respect.
Fruits of Labour premieres on PBS’ POV on October 4th
by Camille Ruiz Mangual