How do we responsibly depict marginalized peoples’ narratives, particularly those of immigrants, who by necessity must often remain anonymous? It’s a question that concerns journalists and filmmakers alike, and it is one that viewers should critically ask of the media they consume, whether it is a New York Times mini-doc or Netflix’s “Living Undocumented.” In “This Taco Truck Kills Fascists,” screened Sept. 27 at the Rubenstein Film Theater, director Rodrigo Dorfman addresses this question head-on in his profile of an immigrant artist who must bear the burden of migrant narratives.
The documentary, which won the best Louisiana Feature Award at the New Orleans Film Festival, follows New Orleans-based artist Jose Torres-Tama as he prepares for and ultimately institutes the Revolutionary Taco Truck Theater, an immigrant-activist performance-based project with the motto, “No guacamole for immigrant haters.” Dorfman splices together scenes from over a year’s worth of material into a mosaic that depicts an artist and activist charged with the heavy history of a marginalized people. In a Q&A after the screening, Dorfman emphasized the documentary’s non-linearity, calling it a “performative narrative” that’s “told the way the person is.”
In fact, the narrative’s circumvention of linearity is but one aspect of the documentary’s larger engagement with simultaneity, particularly the repetition of struggle across time. For Torres-Tama, black and brown struggles of the past are part and parcel with those of the present, and he actively braces his sons Diego and Darius for a future where they must continue to resist.
The film opens with Torres-Tama drawing a link between today’s immigration issues and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens of free states to cooperate in returning runaway slaves. His connection is not tenuous, but is in fact our lived reality: In November, federal prosecutors will be retrying humanitarian aid worker Scott Warren on two charges of “harboring illegal aliens,” after he provided shelter and sustenance to two Central American migrants. This case, which United Nations human rights officials have called to be dropped, could threaten humanitarian aid at the border for years to come.
Though Torres-Tama explicitly invokes the Fugitive Slave Act, other historical continuities exist that inform a present-day viewing of the film: When immigrant activists refer to immigrant detention centers as “concentration camps,” they are not referring to the Nazi death camps, but to the camps that existed in the 40 years before World War II, during the Spanish-American and Boer Wars, as well as throughout recent history in the former Soviet Union, Bosnia and Cambodia. And let’s not forget how the historical delousing with DDT of migrants at the border evokes conceptions of immigrants today as “dirty,” or how ICE’s increasing use of solitary confinement for minor offenses, such as hiding a banana under a mattress or insulting a prison guard, mirrors the indiscriminate use of this veritable form of torture at Guantanamo. As struggle is copied and pasted throughout time, a nonlinear narrative becomes not only a creative decision, but the most intuitive one as well.
“History repeats itself” seems like an adage that should apply here, but by itself it’s too passive a phrase to associate with the film. Rather, Torres-Tama politicizes it, turning it into a call to action that reaches into the future. By teaching his sons about “alternative” histories, he equips them to be critical of the typical, to become what he calls “people of conscience.” At one point in the documentary, he takes his sons on an outing to New Orleans’ Jackson Square, where he tells them about Andrew Jackson’s contentious history as a slave owner and ethnic cleanser and informs them that the historic square was once the site of public slave executions. His hypothetical “Taco Truck Resistance Network,” which reappropriates Marco Gutierrez’s infamous remark that Mexican immigration would generate “taco trucks on every corner,” finds inspiration in the Rebel Alliance of “Star Wars.” Identifying himself as Obi “Juan” Kenobi, Torres-Tama urges the viewer to be atrevido, or daring, through resistance.
But where “This Taco Truck Kills Fascists” finds its niche is in addressing the question, “How do you tell the story of another person’s pain with respect and integrity?” It’s both an ethical and personal inquiry, and it’s one that Dorfman makes no attempt to answer. Rather, the film depicts a man who grapples with the question for a living, and in doing so it tells us the possibilities that arise when we ourselves engage it.
As a Latinx immigrant artist, Jose Torres-Tama describes what he sees as a “responsibility to speak the people’s pain.” He views his art as tied up with a larger lucha de la gente — a people’s struggle — and disdains the “gringos who do experimental theater about nothing.” His Taco Truck Theater is equal parts outraged, vivacious and unapologetic in a way that captures this philosophy, as its actors’ chanting, yelling and singing arrive wrapped up in drum beats and loud cries of affirmation. The other actors involved in the project are asked to draw on their “personal truth,” one of whom speaks to the power of her pain being witnessed –– and nearly understood, for a moment –– by the audience.
“There’s a lot of lessons in this film about how one deals with pain and with witnessing,” Dorfman noted after the documentary screening. “You are witnessing other people’s pain, but you are also witnessing someone else witnessing it for you and processing it, so it gives you a slight critical distance that allows you to not be overwhelmed.”
Torres-Tama’s immense emotionality is, in its own way, a means of paying respect to the migrant stories he carries with him and performs for his audiences. In one particularly effective part of the film, Dorfman cuts between an interview with Raul, a migrant who recounts a time when he was “11 seconds from death” at the hands of a pollero, or human smuggler, and Torres-Tama’s impassioned performance of that story. By visualizing and vocalizing stories such as these through intense, raucous reenactments, Torres-Tama approximates Raul’s and others’ pain in a way that allows a glimpse of comprehension. This is where the Taco Truck Theater realizes its potential, in manifesting the power of witnessing and being witnessed.
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