Pubdate: Tue, 22 Feb 2005
Source: Kansas City Star (MO)
Copyright: 2005 The Kansas City Star
Author: Mary Sanchez


Oscar contender paints all the gray areas of immigrants' stories

"Maria Full of Grace," the Oscar-nominated film, could go by another name:

"There, but for the grace of God, goes the Latin I."

The film does not preach. There is power in that approach.

Far too much pontificating is done these days about Latinos, from those
opposed to immigrants and those more welcoming.

"Maria Full of Grace" simply offers a story.

There are no outright villains. And, despite the religious overtones of the
title, no angelic heroines either.

Maria is Maria Alvarez.

She is Colombian, a 17-year-old young woman with the spunk and zest common
to teenagers.

She is wise beyond her years. She is naive beneath her years.

She desperately wants to move her life forward, past what she sees as her
destiny: marrying a boyfriend she doesn't love, bearing his child, enduring
as he finds other women to bed.

Past her tedious job standing on an assembly line, pulling thorns off roses
and stacking the stems into tidy bundles for export.

Past a life of contributing the paycheck to her family, folks who seem more
demanding than grateful.

Maria's spirit for more of life disrupts or sets - depending on the
perspective - the course of her life.

Maria becomes a drug mule. She uses her body to ferry drugs to America.

The film is fiction. But it could have been a documentary.

The subtitle: "Based on 1,000 true stories."

Yes, people really do swallow dozens of latex-wrapped pellets of heroin or
cocaine and board planes flying into America.

Maria practices countering her own gag reflexes by choking down the
oversized grapes common in Latin America.

If one of the pellets breaks she will die - of a slow overdose leaking into
her body.

Maria's body is simply the vessel. The true value of her existence is the
drugs, ten grams per pellet.

She learns that lesson when a mule dies. Drug dealers cut the girl's body
open to extract the drugs.

This has really happened.

Orlando Tobon of Jackson Heights, Queens, plays himself in the film, through
the renamed character of Don Fernando.

Tobon, born in Colombia, helps immigrants.

He finds them work, prepares their taxes, arranges their travel back home.
He serves as a funeral director of sorts when drug mules die en route.

That is a reality of immigration that most people, even those of us who
claim the label Latino, would just as soon not hear about.

Another is the film was made in Ecuador. Colombia was deemed too dangerous
for the film crew.

It is so simplistic to say that people immigrate to America for work, for

True, those are often the bare facts.

But so much more is lost and gained in the process.

Immigrating is often a slow succession of actions and consequences, rather
than one marked moment of decision.

And immigrants are a self-selected group. Despite increasing numbers, they
are not the masses.

Even with hope for abundant opportunities in America, only a relative few
are able to tear themselves from the familiar.

A reader once suggested that Latin America and North America are locked in a
parasitic relationship.

Latin America, he said, is the parasite. America, the host.

Latinos, went the belief, are sucking America of jobs and prosperity,
infecting the country with crime and underachieving masses.

"Maria Full of Grace" could be said to support that analogy; but through a
broader, more honest, portrayal.

Yes, the two lands are locked in a complicated dance of deceit and contempt.

But each needs the other for the relationship to work.

Maria uses her body to ferry drugs to American dealers and users. Before
that, her job was packaging roses, much like ones American women happily
received on Valentine's Day.

A Latino worker doing the bidding of an American boss?

Or someone stupidly falling prey to her own mistakes?

Maria is both.

Who knows what mixed bag of good and bad her decision to leave Colombia
would become.

Choices most Americans, thankfully, never are asked to make.
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