Forget about the Southern strategy, blue versus red, swing states and swing voters — all of those political clichés are quaint relics of a less threatening era that is now part of our past, or soon will be. The next conflict defining us all is much more unnerving.
That conflict will be between people who live somewhere, and people who live nowhere. It will be between people who consider themselves citizens of actual countries, to which they have patriotic allegiance, and people to whom nations are meaningless, who live in a stateless global archipelago of privilege — a collection of private schools, tax havens and gated residential communities with little or no connection to the outside world.
Matt Taibbi, “Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital,” Rolling Stone, August 29, 2012
In one of the opening shots of Dana Duff’s remarkable documentary The Gringas (2013), an anonymous man arranges small bales of hay into a circle in a dusty, dry field at the base of some mountains. The man and his bales are center-frame, long shot. It could be the present. Then again, if not for the row of white polymer grow houses deep in the background, it could be a period film set in the 19th century.
Duff is a Los Angeles artist who spends part of her time in a North Baja campo. Owned and administrated by Mexican families, the campos provide an alternative form of home ownership to non-Mexican nationals. Residents own their houses or trailers but pay a fixed rent to the Mexican landowners. In The Gringas, Duff set out to record the days preceding an American girl’s quinceañera, the traditional Hispanic “coming into womanhood” celebration that occurs on a girl’s 15th birthday. The girl, Lena Davies, lives with her elderly parents in a broken-down hippie bus that has come to a permanent rest in the hills of Ejido Esteban Cantú. Not far from Duff’s campo, Ejido Esteban Cantú sits ten miles south of Ensenada on a peninsula overlooking the small town of Maneadero. As in the film El Field (2011), Daniel Rosas’s meditation on a day in the lives of Mexicali industrial farm workers, and Chantal Akerman’s From the Other Side (2002), set on the Arizona/Sonora border, each shot of The Gringas is almost painfully long. All three films capture the protracted movement of time in the global economy’s backwaters. These are places where time and space haven’t imploded but, like the Davieses’ old bus, have slowed to the point of stasis.
Born in the US, Lena Davies is an unlikely quinceañera. She has blond hair and blue eyes and the wide-open face of a midwestern cheerleader. Charming, athletic, and strong, Lena looks like an American teenager dressed for a day at the mall in her short, cutoff jeans, gold cross, and gold satin halter. Before her family’s bus came to its final resting place, she spent the first eight years of her life traveling between West Coast communal pagan “events,” where her parents supported themselves running a merchandise table. When her German-born father was arrested on charges of selling drug paraphernalia, they drove south and enrolled her in a Mexican grade school.
Now 15, Lena speaks fluent Spanish in Maneadero’s local teen dialect. She attends the town’s only high school. Maneadero has just two fully paved roads and a dusty zócalo (central plaza), but its youth is split into “north” and “south” gangs, based on a demarcation known only to them.