Out of the FrameHow News and Pop Culture Obscure Immigrant Women

Illustration by Kristin Rogers Brown

This article appears in our Spring 2014 issue, Maps & Legends. Subscribe today!

Who would ever have thought that Dora the Explorer would become the poster child for the undocumented immigrant female? But in May 2010, there it was, plastered all over the Internet—a photoshopped Dora posing for her mug shot with a black eye and bloody nose, holding a sign that read “Illegal Border Crossing, Resisting Arrest.”

The controversial image was created for FreakingNews.com, a news-oriented Photoshop-contest site, and it sparked a national debate between pro- and anti-immigration advocates over Arizona law SB 1070. The law, passed in the spring of 2010, required the state’s law-enforcement officials to inquire about a person’s legal status if they had reason to believe that the individual entered the United States illegally. Both sides of the debate inscribed their own narratives onto the fictional Hispanic girl in order to advance their separate causes. For immigration-reform advocates, Dora’s doctored image was a satirical commentary on just how ridiculous anti-immigration laws have become.

For anti-immigration boosters, the criminalized Dora was symbolic of a larger conspiracy to desensitize children to the dangers “illegal” immigrants bring to this country. The debate provoked by the criminalized Dora revealed how tightly media attention, pop culture, and developing legislation are intertwined, and it was a testament to how placing a recognizable, likable face on the issue allowed the public to more closely identify with the actual people that laws like SB 1070 affect. At the same time, mainstream media sometimes places its heroes on pedestals, ignoring the crowd surrounding them below.

Depictions of immigrants in the United States have regularly been shaped by legislation and political rhetoric. One reason female immigrants have been so invisible in pop culture and news media is that immigrant men simply outnumbered their female counterparts in the United States until the 1960s. Over the years, various political maneuvers were employed to build an immigrant male workforce while curbing immigrant families from taking root. The Page Act of 1875 limited the immigration of Chinese male laborers and forced Chinese women to undergo arbitrary “virtue” tests before entering the country.

The midcentury Bracero Program allowed Mexican men to become temporary agricultural workers in the United States but prohibited women or children from accompanying them. As Judith Ann Warner writes in an article for the Journal of Social and Ecological Boundaries, immigrant men used organized crime as an “alternate ladder to social mobility in populations under economic strain,” which gave rise to the stereotype of the Italian mobster and the Mexican drug trafficker, among others. After 9/11, not only did media transform the popular image of the undocumented male immigrant from career criminal into terrorist (see: nemeses of 24’s Jack Bauer), but legislation such as Secure Communities, a program in which local and state police offices cross-referenced their databases with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was implemented.

This program allowed ICE to expand its reach in terms of identifying undocumented immigrants, which meant any misdemeanor—even running a red light—could be grounds for deportation. Various stories of unfair detention, deportation, and family separation spread. As outrage over Secure Communities grew, news media sought to find a new protagonist in the story of immigration reform. In the mid-2000s, various undocumented activists—many of whom were young and educated—banded together to encourage the passing of the DREAM Act (an acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors).

The legislation, which would create a path for undocumented immigrants to apply for legal residency through rigorous selection criteria and enrollment in higher education or the military, was highly championed by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin after he met Tereza Lee, an award-winning concert pianist who couldn’t attend college because she was an undocumented immigrant. The media soon picked up on the engaging narrative of hardworking and high-achieving immigrant youths vying for their right to American citizenship. This media attention, coupled with social-media reach via Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, have become the primary tools for various DREAMer activists fighting to stay in the country.

Dora the Explorer as an undocumented immigrant

Dora the Explorer as an undocumented immigrant

Dora the Explorer as an undocumented immigrant (Illustrated by Kristin Rogers Brown)

In turn, the media found a fresh, compelling central character for the story of the undocumented immigrant. Daniela Pelaez of Miami, who was brought into the United States at only 4 years old, is one such undocumented youth. After applying for a green card, Pelaez, a straight-A student and valedictorian, was notified in early 2012 that she would be deported. The media soon picked up on her story, and in an interview with NBC Miami, Pelaez stated, “I know the national anthem. I know the laws. I know what it is to be an American.” The media attention pressured ICE into delaying Pelaez’s deportation while she pursued other legal options. Stories of other DREAMers followed, with young women often at the forefront.

The media spotlighting of such stories galvanized President Obama to enact the June 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which stipulated that immigrants could be eligible to remain in the United States and have proper work authorization if they met certain guidelines (among the requirements: being under the age of 31, having continuously lived in the United States for at least five years, having obtained or at present working toward a GED or high-school diploma, having been honorably discharged from the military, and having no serious crime record).

Representative Steve King of Iowa, a notorious anti-immigration hardliner, tried to combat the legislation, claiming, “For every [undocumented youth who’s] a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there…hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” The DREAMer narrative had become so effective that many Republicans—including House Speaker John Boehner—reprimanded him. As many undocumented youths “came out” about their legal status, they were asking the public to question the stereotype of undocumented immigrants. Much like the image of criminal Dora, these stories dared us to imagine the ridiculousness of a hardworking, educated, undocumented youth being branded a criminal. 

While the DREAM movement has been effective in many ways, some critics take issue with how the movement has focused mostly on halting deportations rather than exploring other complex issues involved in immigration reform.

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While the DREAM movement has been effective in many ways, some critics take issue with how the movement has focused mostly on halting deportations rather than exploring other complex issues involved in immigration reform or questioning which narratives are picked up by mainstream media and why. As Yasmin Nair (a Bitch contributor) wrote in her article “‘Undocumented’: How an Identity Ended a Movement” for the blog North Star, the movement’s and media’s emphasis on the DREAMer “has only meant the creation of a new category of immigrant activist and, paradoxically, the end of any meaningful activism around immigration.”

In January 2013, the undocumented mother and brother of prominent DREAMer activist Erika Andiola were arrested by ICE. As cofounder of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and a former board member of United We Dream, Andiola mobilized her vast network of contacts to use social media, texts, calls, and e-mails to pressure the Obama administration for her family’s release. Her mother, Maria Arreola, was on a bus headed to the Mexican border when the bus driver received a call from ICE to turn around. It’s an extraordinary story, one that was featured in the New York Times and other national outlets.

In the year since she’s been granted her reprieve, Arreola has helped other women in her situation, and she now encourages women her age to go public with their stories. Arreola was only granted one year’s stay and was scheduled to face another battle in 2014. Notably, media attention to Arreola’s ongoing struggle dropped off. It only revitalized when Andiola decided to quit her job as a congressional aide to focus on helping her mother’s deportation fight. Because of this renewed interest in Andiola, ICE officials are allowing Arreola to remain in the United States for another year. In this case, it seems like it wasn’t the story of an older, undocumented woman being deported that enticed the media but the tale of a DREAMer losing her mother.

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While DREAM activists have effectively used media attention to further their cause, that attention is often narrowly focused on the young activists, which has sidelined other people’s stories in the process. The tale of the underpaid and overworked nanny who never gets a vacation or an abused factory worker with no legal recourse is rarely the central focus of any news article. Perhaps this is because media has been hesitant to portray stories that adhere too closely to dated stereotypes of immigrants. Also, these stories usually focus on women from older generations, some of whom fear the repercussions of coming forward with their stories—the loss of a job or a call to the police.

As a result, there has been little in-depth media coverage of the difficulties undocumented women face in terms of finding work, accessing healthcare, pursuing pathways to citizenship, or navigating LGBTQ discrimination. Other difficult issues faced by immigrant women, such as human trafficking and domestic violence, have multifaceted angles, but are often reported in a simplified manner. These stories are generally told one of two ways—they either focus on the perpetrator or they focus on how the American government “saved” these women from harrowing abuse.

For example, two local news stories from November 2013, one from Topeka, Kansas, news site WIBW (“Woman Pleads Guilty in Kansas Massage Parlor Sex Trafficking Case”), another from Arlington, Virginia’s ARLnow.com (“Arlington Woman Convicted of Sex Trafficking”) merely detail the offenses of a perpetrator. The undocumented women are a mostly silent presence in these stories, the effects on their lives unreported. In a February 2012 article for the Washington Post, Pamela Constable profiles several undocumented women who, dependent on husbands with legal status, suffered ongoing abuse. The article highlights the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which allows abused immigrant women to apply for work permits and legal residency, and the U visa, which grants legal residency to abused women who cooperate with the authorities to arrest and prosecute the perpetrator.

Illustration by Kristin Rogers Brown

Illustration by Kristin Rogers Brown

Illustration by Kristin Rogers Brown

The article featured Laura Cortez, an undocumented woman who had been molested, who declared, “What happened to me was very ugly, but it had a happy ending.” In a study on media and immigration for nonprofit Opportunity Agenda, Loren Siegel says these kinds of articles “cast [the government] in the role of the protector rather than persecutor.” In addition, these cases often come to light only because women make the difficult decision to come forward with their stories—not an easy thing to do as an undocumented female.

One exception is Michael May’s June 2013 article for the American Prospect, “Los Infiltradores,” which he also explored on an episode of This American Life. The article centered on the story of three young DREAM activists associated with National Immigrant Youth Alliance, who infiltrated the Broward Transitional Center in Florida to expose the injustices of the immigration system. Their goal was to help detainees open up about their stories to the outside world, to educate them about their rights, and, ultimately, to help them petition for their release. Once one of the activists, Viridiana Martinez, was detained, she met Norma Ramirez-Amaya, who was held at Broward on questionable charges.

While in detention, Ramirez-Amaya suffered excessive and painful menstrual bleeding and was not given the proper medical help. In a later interview with May, Ramirez-Amaya relayed how “[guards] were making jokes like ‘She’s probably like that because she got raped.’ And that hurt me bad because that was right. I’d told them about that when it first happened.” Martinez informed Ramirez-Amaya that she qualified for protection under the VAWA and also helped her go public with her story. Within a month, Ramirez-Amaya was released from Broward. Stories like these, which reveal how even those that have legal protection under the American government can still suffer under our faulty immigration system, are rare.

100 women marching from Pennsylvania to Washington, DC in September 2015 (Photo credit: Miriam Folgelson/womentogether/Flickr)

Still, these depictions of individual stories are sometimes buried in the detention centers where women aren’t lucky enough to have someone tell their story to the world. Ramirez-Amaya’s tale was merely an anecdote within a larger story focused on younger DREAM activists. While DREAMers like Andiola and Martinez have become the public face of a broad spectrum of undocumented people, the question of depicting a multiplicity of stories remains. One variant activist framework is to project a diversity of women banded together in campaigns such as “We Belong Together,” a pro-immigration movement comprising both documented and undocumented activists of different generations from all over the country.

The campaign coordinated a peaceful protest on the Capitol on September 12, 2013, with all 104 women (including 26 undocumented women who risked deportation in order to participate) arrested together, united in their cause. This action allows a woman to fight for a cause without having to be a singular voice in public. But again, few undocumented women are activists, and even fewer wish to offer themselves up for arrest. We Belong Together estimates that 70 percent of immigrant women will eventually gain legal status in the United States. While the numbers of immigrant women have grown, their visibility in media and the diversity of their narratives remained limited. Pop culture can play an important role in terms of examining more nuanced depictions of undocumented women, but film and TV have struggled to adopt new images of the undocumented woman.

Movies such as Babel (2006), The Visitor (2007), Crossing Over (2009), and The Girl (2012) all feature undocumented women—but never as the protagonist. Instead, these movies choose to tell the story through the lens of a white American protagonist. Devious Maids, a TV show produced by actress Eva Longoria and written by Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, has an all-Latina main cast. The show aims to transform the role of the non-English-speaking Latina maid into the protagonist of a story, rather than the usual supporting role. However, the show glamorizes the life of the housekeeper with its Beverly Hills setting and cast of gorgeous, sexy Latina women. While the show fails to identify and explore the complex social and economic situations of these women, it does feature an undocumented immigrant in the major character of Rosie, a woman trying to reunite with her son. However, this interesting aspect of her story gets sidelined as the show focuses more and more soap-operatic plots of sex and intrigue.

Bread and Roses (Photo credit: Lionsgate)

One of the most complex renderings of the undocumented female experience is presented in Bread and Roses, a groundbreaking independent film released in 2000. The film follows Maya, an undocumented woman who illegally crosses the border to live with her sister Rosa, who is a U.S. citizen. They both work as janitors in an office building, employed by a tyrannical boss who pays them low wages and offers no health insurance. While Maya is eager to fight for her rights, Rosa is reluctant to do anything that could harm her job, which supports her ailing husband and two children. The film mostly focuses on Maya, the youthful, idealistic activist, rather than Rosa, the older woman who struggles to stay under the radar.

Rosa is a character who sacrifices everything to help those around her—she turns to sex work in order to send money home to Maya and their mother, and she also must sleep with her boss in order to get Maya the janitorial job. But because Maya chooses to rail against the system, Maya’s the hero—even though Rosa represents an female immigrant experience sorely in need of further attention from both news media and popular culture. The film aptly demonstrates one struggle of the current immigrant rights movement—the difficulty in finding a balanced way to share the complicated realities of undocumented women.

When I ask Martinez what she thinks about  media portrayals of undocumented women, she recalls how she got arrested in order to infiltrate Broward. The Customs and Border Protection officer was skeptical about why Martinez was turning herself in. In order to convince the officer, Martinez “got into character” and played the role of a crying undocumented woman explaining in Spanish that nothing was left for her in the United States since her husband was deported. The officer tried to point out the benefits of staying, but Martinez refused to be deterred. Not knowing that Martinez could speak English, the officer joked to his friends, “This is one of those submissive Mexican women.”

Ironically, Martinez had to inhabit a misguided stereotype about undocumented women in order to perform an action that would prove that very stereotype wrong. Perhaps the answer to how we might diversify the narrative lies in embracing certain frameworks in order to subvert them—much in the way the DREAMers have expanded their focus to helping other undocumented stories permeate mainstream media. As Longoria wrote in HuffPost, defending Devious Maids, “The only way to break a stereotype is to not ignore it.”

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