Bread and Roses, the latest from British director Ken Loach, portrays with incredible precision the reality of the modern immigrant experience in industrialized nations. The film, which hit theatres in June, tells the story of Maya, a determined young Mexican woman who sneaks across the California border with the help of a coyote smuggler, a sexual predator whose exploitation she barely escapes. Once in California, she reunites with her older sister and lands a job as a janitor at an office building in Los Angeles. There, she develops a strong camaraderie with other illegal immigrants and working poor.
Maya encounters Sam, a university educated, cocky white activist with a heart for social justice. Though he's considered a troublemaker to the corporate elite, his socioeconomic position allows him the privilege of stirring things up; he spends his time sneaking around the building, organizing a labor union through the group Justice for Janitors. It's not easy; most of the poor immigrants fear being blacklisted if they organize. Yet the pent-up anger of Sam's ragtag army of janitors-with Maya serving as a liaison between him and the workers-fuels their cause.
But Maya and Sam receive a blow when a Salvadoran woman is fired from the cleaning position she's held for 17 years, punished for concealing the names of her co-workers who try to organize. "You're the leader of a janitors' union!" Maya explodes at Sam. "When was the last time you had to clean offices? How much do you make in a year?"
The film's realism is beautiful and painful. Aside from actors Adrian Brody (Sam) and Elpidia Carrillo (sister of Maya), most of the characters are played by ordinary people, many of them janitors in real life. Nothing is glamorized. And while the movie conveys the sense of triumph produced by the struggle to form a union, viewers are hit hard with the accompanying disillusionment.
Loach-the director of My Name Is Joe, Land and Freedom, and Flickering Flame-often creates sad films, and this one certainly taxes the emotions. But Loach has converted this story into a piece that pricks the conscience of its audience. Bread and Roses is a paradigm for immigrants worldwide. The film depicts the urgent need to fight not only for survival, but also for dignity.
Julienne Gage is a former Sojourners intern. See www.justiceforjanitors.org.