‘Harvest of Empire’ Highlights Struggles of Latino Immigrants and U.S. Interference Overseas

Sam Chapin


The idea of someone breaking into your home and taking your things fills one with feelings of fear and unease. And rightfully so. You’ve worked hard to live where you do and own what you have. For someone to invade your space would be...criminal. This is how most of America has viewed the issue of illegal immigration for more than 100 years


“Once again the streets of our country were taken over by people who don’t belong here. America’s illegal aliens are becoming ever bolder—march through our streets and demand your rights. Excuse me, you have no rights here.”


The provocative documentary, Harvest of Empire, opens with this quote by John Cafferty on his CNN segment, The Cafferty Fire. The sound bite is offered by directors Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez in an effort to present the opposition of their film’s core message: the United States is a nation of immigrants.


“To call people illegal,” says journalist, Mario Hinojosa in the film, “is the beginning of dehumanizing.”


Based on Juan Gonzalez’s book which bears the same name, Harvest of Empire is a journey of Latino immigration into the U.S. Using Gonzalez as a guide, Harvest of Empire explores much of Central and South America, exposing the truth surrounding illegal immigration, and bringing its culprits to light.


The first word that came to mind after viewing the film was, for this reviewer at least, shocking. Harvest of Empire methodically digs into the pasts of several Latin American countries, and, through interviews with a diverse swath of political figures from Jesse Jackson to Junot Diaz, unearths how and why their people sought out new lives in the USA, with or without its consent.


After the first 20 minutes or so, a common thread emerges between each country’s histories: at one point or another, the United States intervened. Time after time, the U.S. would enter into a conflict that was waging within a Latin American country, and “settle” its dispute. The United States would leave the country with a new, American-trained, leader in its stead, with the hopes of improving trade relations with Latin America. Each time the new leader would turn against his American advisors and establish a brutal dictatorship, causing the people to flee to the United States, where they were met with open arms. However, time and time again, the United States rescinded their offer and shut its doors, expelling many of the immigrants it had once welcomed.



“The instability we have contributed to creates the kind of chaos and disarray that leads to more immigration,” Melvin Goodman, former CIA Division Chief says about U.S. involvement in Latin America. “You can argue that if we move into these societies and contribute to the dysfunction, we have a moral obligation to its people who feel unsafe in the situation that we in part have created.”


Harvest of Empire expertly moves from country to country without the aid of a narrator, relying exclusively on individual testimonies from its many pundits, and occasional guidance from Juan Gonzalez. Among many others, we hear from Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Rigoterla Menchu, 1992 Nobel Prize winner, Gonzalo Garza, WWII and Korean War veteran, and Maria Guardalo, a Salvadorian immigrant and torture survivor.


Directors Peter Getzels and Eduardo Lopez pair the interviews with a seemingly endless collection of contextually relevant visuals.  There’s footage of Che Guevara surrounded by rebels, Harry Truman addressing the nation (“I had to sit there and either let Puerto Rico go to hell, or do something about it.”), the U.S. military on patrol during the Mexican-American War, and countless photos of bodies lying lifeless in the streets. They add up to reveal a continent rife with poverty and turmoil, for which the United States is, the documentary suggests, largely to blame.


The evidence mounted against the U.S. is certainly hard to ignore, but the counter argument is seriously lacking in Harvest of Empire. We hear people from all walks of life, but they all share a very similar viewpoint on the issues at hand, creating a one-sided, one-dimensional argument. Many of the points made in the documentary are irrefutable—the United State’s foreign policy is/was corrupt, deportation leads to hardship, the U.S. must oppose dictatorships, but others are less black and white. The film poses many questions that remain more or less unanswered: When is it appropriate for the U.S. to engage diplomatically with foreign countries? What is the role of the United States in Latin America today? 


These questions aside, the overall impact of Harvest of Empire is one that should be experienced by all Americans, at one point or another. It brings the viewer a step closer to understanding how their country got to be where it is today, and forces them to come to terms with reality—we are a nation of immigrants. We must never forget that.


“Approximately 500,000 Latinos will turn 18 every year for the next 20 years,” reads the screen at the end of the film. “By 2050, the Latino community will grow to 130 million—one third of the total U.S. population.”


Author Bio:
Sam Chapin is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. 

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