Football is not my thing. I watch the Super Bowl only for the commercials and this year, I was eager to see how the commercials would reflect the surreal state of the world. Let me be frank, these are terrifying times for people of color and as a Latinx, I am terrified for my people. Because we all know the bully on the pulpit will come for us. First, the bully kept his promise to focus on building a wall on the border of the United States and Mexico. Soon after, he went after the Muslims with his discriminatory Muslim Ban. Thankfully, hundreds of thousands of people united in resistance. With every protest, one thing became clear: The majority of Americans do not accept prejudice, divisiveness, or bigotry. With every march came the realization that Americans are better than this new administration. That unity is a beautiful thing and comports with my idea of patriotism. For me, patriotism is marching for the protection of democracy and freedoms that are articulated within the United States Constitution. That Constitution, and the concept of equal rights for all peoples, are why I, the daughter of a Mexican waitress and a German truck driver, became a lawyer. Those equal rights are also what I fight for every day in my job as a deputy public defender.
Yet, I wonder as I turn on my television whether the Super Bowl commercials will address the hate and vitriol that permeates every act of this new administration. The recent political upheaval clearly can’t be ignored, it permeates everything in the news recently. But, the real question is whether a commercial, the epitome of a capitalistic endeavor (i.e. a corporate entity is trying to sell something to the consumer) is even a viable vehicle for a radical message about how this administration is using xenophobia to create a culture of us versus them. What could the goal of a corporation be in espousing a radical message of love and unity of all peoples of the world, a message designed to undercut the isolationist policies and anti-globalism of the administration and undermine the pernicious discourse where the immigrant is other and thus, unworthy of acceptance? Would the publicity from the advertisement alone be enough of a reward (they say all publicity is good publicity right?)? What would a company that makes a commercial with such a noble purpose be selling, a progressive image perhaps? Legally speaking, a corporation is not a person, but maybe the people who run these corporations are people too and they may decide that it is time to put profits aside and take a stand. Of course, there are risks as it is possible that it could hurt their bottom line if people who oppose immigration decide to boycott their products. But in my perhaps idealistic vision of a new world, the corporate entity might, for once, care less about profit margins and more about taking a stand and being on the right side of history. Was I hoping for too much? Was I delusional in hoping there may be altruistic endeavors in the most capitalistic of processes?
Waiting for the show to start, I crossed my fingers that the commercials would defy my expectations and find a way to confront the ugliness in the world head on. In a Super Bowl where the Patriots were expected to win, I yearned for commercials in which freedom of speech, the epitome of a patriotic endeavor, was truly free and open and created a political discourse. It would be the ultimate irony and twist of fate, if the Super Bowl commercials resulted in a collective ah ha moment where people realized that what the bully says is not true. And, that instead of letting this administration divide us into categories with their racist rhetoric, people begin to realize that we are all deserving of open hearts and borders. And maybe, just maybe, the messages could change the perceptions of at least some of the millions of people who would be watching. I realize I may have a Pollyanna type view of the world in thinking that this is even possible, but what I have learned as a writer is that compelling stories do have the power to change hearts and minds.
What I was wishing to see was a commercial that told a story about immigration with a message of open borders and an advertisement that espoused activism and resistance against this administration. Instead, for the most part, my wishes were not realized. All I saw were rainbows, flowers and fairy tale endings. Yes, the Coke ad was beautiful. A shifting portrait of people of all colors and creeds singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages. Pictures of families and friends celebrating together. A variation of Disney’s “It’s A Small World After All.” Airbnb reinforced this message with their changing faces ad, obviously trying to show the beauty of diversity. The message was simple: we should accept everyone. With a sinking heart, I came to the realization that these commercials were failing to confront the powers that be as I had so hoped they would. But, perhaps, an advertisement is not designed to be confrontational in a political sense. An advertisement’s goal is always to sell something and if you are trying to sell a Coke, showing people being gassed in the streets or beaten by police is not a happy message in line with your product line. And, upon reflection, I realized that Airbnb’s intentions may have had more do with repairing their tarnished reputation brought on by recent allegations of discrimination than with anything altruistic.
There was also the celebrated Budweiser ad which told the tale of German immigrant Aldolphus Busch’s quest to find his American dream, making a pointed analogy to the immigration issues of today. The message was clear. Love, tolerance, and acceptance wins. But, does it? Has love won thus far? Was there a truthfulness in their message or was Budweiser merely reiterating a politically correct message that European immigration was good (versus espousing a positive view of Mexican immigration overtly) in order to get publicity for their product while appeasing their primarily Caucasian and blue collar audience, many of whom support this administration and to avoid alienating those who might be even more angered with a positive view of Mexican immigration? Did Budweiser use symbolism for monetary gain, capitalizing on history and the current political climate, thereby allowing their audience to be able to ignore the controversy over the Muslim Ban and the administration’s focus on curtailing Mexican immigration with a wall? Or perhaps, Budweiser was just being realistic and giving the public consumer as much as they could handle. Maybe they knew the limits of the medium they were working within. The more I thought about it, the more disappointed I felt (I know you are thinking, I told you so).
Something was missing and I wanted to shout at the television “si se puede” because these all-too-shiny Hollywood tales about the power of inclusiveness did not seem enough to combat the xenophobia and hate that the administration has perpetuated. Perhaps commercials during a mega sporting event that is watched by millions of people all over the world is not the place to expect political messaging, even if they are watered down to basic scenarios of human decency. Maybe that’s too much to ask. I looked for something real and substantive inside America’s signature sporting event and came away with a beer, a Coke, and a smile.
Then, sometime during the third quarter, I was surprised by a commercial that went further. It told a compelling story about a mother and daughter trying to cross the border. 84 Lumber Corporation’s ad resembled the Budweiser ad in that it told a story of immigration. But 84 Lumber’s narrative was more than mere analogy. It did not make immigration more palatable by putting a European face on it. It confronted the issue of immigration head on, and illustrated that the face we are speaking of is Mexican. This is progress, I thought to myself while watching it. At the very least we are talking about what is at issue here and not sugarcoating it.
In the ad, a Mexican woman and her young daughter are trying to get to the United States. They only speak Spanish. Similar to the Budweiser ad, the story was one of resilience. The mother and daughter cross water, land and face fear and hunger to try and reach their dream. The young daughter picks up scraps of red, white and blue paper along the way. Walking across the desert, the mother pulls the daughter into a hug and lifts her up. The commercial ends with the two of them sitting over a campfire, their faces illuminated by light. To either spike curiosity or clicks, the ad then directs the watcher to 84 Lumber’s website for the conclusion. On their website, I read with dismay that the end of the commercial was deemed too controversial for television.
Holding my breath, I press play to watch the rest of the commercial.
A wall is being built. The camera shifts back to the mother and daughter walking through the desert and the mother asks a fellow traveler for water which they drink thirstily. The camera pans back to the scene of the wall and a brown skinned construction worker downs a bottle of water. We see more construction workers and wood being cut, along with building and welding. The implication is that these brown people (i.e. Mexicans) are our laborers who build everything with their sweat. They are such a foundation of our capitalistic economy’s labor force that they are even building the wall to keep other Mexicans out. The camera shifts back to the mother sitting with the daughter’s head on her lap. Back at the wall’s construction site, a brown skinned man operates a forklift.
The daughter finishes her flag. The work continues on the wall. The woman and her daughter reach the mammoth concrete wall and stare up at it in disbelief, disappointment coating their dusty faces. The daughter hands her mother the tattered homemade American flag she made from the scraps. They look like they are about to give up when they spot a ray of light around the corner and see a huge, wooden unlocked door that they push open. The mother and daughter walk over the border with tears of gratitude in their eyes. A Caucasian looking man is shown driving away with lumber in the back of his pickup truck and the tagline reads, “The Will To Succeed is Always Welcome Here.”
When the commercial ends, I exhale. Unfortunately for all those watching around the world, the full version of the commercial was not shown on television. I am hopeful that many watchers wanted the whole truth and wanted to truly think about what this commercial was saying. I am hopeful the public cared enough to look for the truth, to know the ending for the fictitious but symbolic mother-daughter immigration story. Unlike our administration, I am hopeful that people will want to know more. What happens to this mother and daughter after they cross? Will the mother find a job? Can people even imagine how hard the mother will have to work to feed her daughter and put a roof over her head? The mother will undoubtedly be forced to do back breaking work that no one else wants to do in order to give her daughter a better future, so that her child can embody the fulfillment of the American dream.
I had been waiting for a narrative that showed that loss of humanity is the true cost of isolationist policy, walls, and exclusion. Or was that the message? I began thinking deeper about the commercial, it wouldn’t leave my head. Who was the white man driving the truck? Was he the owner of the lumber company? Had he learned to value the hard work of his laborers, many of whom immigrated here? Did that man make his fortune with their blood, sweat and tears and is he finally taking a pro Mexican immigrant stand, albeit one that is arguably in his own economic interest? Or is he a white savior and is this commercial perhaps perpetuating a narrative that is at the core of much of American discourse, that the white man will save us people of color, when history tells us otherwise.
I did more research and found that 84 Lumber’s position is that the commercial was advocating for “legal immigration” and the door was a symbol of a “legal” pathway to citizenship. And in an obvious appeasement to the supporters of the wall, 84 Lumber said in a tweet, “We don’t condone illegal immigration. Our story is symbolic of a journey that ends with becoming legal U.S. citizens.” Yet, watching that ad, one does not come away feeling “pro” Wall. There is a humanity to the commercial that has the ring of truth and the ultimate message, no matter what Lumber 84 says in a tweet, is that the doors should open. While the message itself may have some flaws and ambiguities, at least it tried to sell us something other than lumber.
This current administration forces us to question everything around us, even the commercials we watch. It is imperative that all of us commit to truth finding and critical analysis of stories and facts that we are given over the next four years. The impact the United States makes on the rest of the world may depend on how committed we are to demand the truth and how much investigation we are willing to do to make sure the facts we are given are real. I continue to trust and be hopeful that we will be tenacious in that quest. Our very lives depend on it.