Saturday, March 19, 2005

Maria Full of Grace

Since my weekend plans got foiled by a sinus infection, last night I stayed parked on my couch and made it a Blockbuster night. I heard that "Maria Full of Grace" was a good movie, so I made it one of my feature presentations ("I Heart Huckabees" was the other, also worth a rental). "Maria Full of Grace" is a must-see. The basic plot of the movie is that Maria, a 17-year old Colombian girl, finds herself pregnant and unemployed. She doesn't want to get married to the baby's father, so she needs to find a new job with a substantial income. She becomes a "mule" for the drug trade. Mules ingest small pellets filled with cocaine, get on a plane, fly into New York, and then excrete them and pass them off to dealers in America. Its extremely dangerous, because if even one opens, it will kill the carrier. The mules are paid $100 a pellet, and swallow between fifty and one-hundred, depending on their size.

The film follows Maria through her entire journey. She finds out that she is one of four mules sent at once, her employers like to send more than one, so if one gets caught, the others are more likely to get through. All four mules are young women. Throughout the entire film, they are treated as objects, walking shipping containers, whose lives are not worth the amount of drugs they are carrying within them. After one of the girls has a capsule open up inside of her and dies, the dealers in America cut her stomach open to get the rest of the drugs out, and dump her body in New Jersey.

What struck me about this movie is how well the directors capture Maria's perspective. She sees this opportunity as a way to overcome her dismal future, as a poor single mother living with various family members in a cramped house. If she crosses the border safely, and survives, she will make $6200 in one week. While the viewer knows what she is doing is illegal, and extremely dangerous, I found myself beginning to understand why, and admiring her courage. Maria is extremely intelligent, composed, and street-smart for her age, and I couldn't help but think that if she had been born somewhere other than Colombia, she would have infinitely more options for what to do with her life. When faced with a life working on a flower plantation, de-thorning roses all day for little money, becoming a mule seems like a much better opportunity.

After staying in a dingy hotel room for a couple days, Maria makes her way to Queens. Twice during the film, Maria looks out onto Manhattan, with the Empire State Building glittering in the sunlight; she is clearly not part of this shiny image of New York. Having grown up only a train ride away from New York, I've spent plenty of time there. I realized that I know absolutely nothing of the New York that Maria sees when she arrives from Colombia. In fact, if it wasn't for the scenes of Manhattan from a distance, I would not even be able to identify the city. In Sociology, we often talk about privilege, and being aware of how we as individuals are privileged. I am aware that as a white, middle-class, female who grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, I have had certain advantages. As I watched Maria navigate this New York, I realized how privileged my friends and I actually are. We walk around New York, eating at this trendy restaurant, shopping at that cool store, finding the hippest club. New York is our playground. For Maria, the New York I know is inaccessible. Because of her status as a poor woman from Colombia, she sees Manhattan from the outside. Even if she decides to stay in New York City, she will face working in a sweatshop (a job that is offered to her during the course of the movie), living in a poor, possibly unsafe neighborhood, and raising her child alone. I have always been aware that this New York exists, but somehow Maria makes it real. In actuality, I don't think Maria and I are that different, but due to my privilege, I am working on a Sociology PhD, on my way to becoming a professor. She is a human shipping container for the drug trade.

The film ends with Maria deciding to remain in New York. We have the sense that she will be okay, that America offers her opportunities that she did not have in Colombia. However, the hurdles she faces as a new immigrant to this country are many. But that is material for another post...

9 Comments:

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Erin said...

We watched this film over the weekend too. It was refreshing because the film was shot through her perspective, which gave a sense of how her choices took some serious courage. She was resourceful, stubborn, practical, naive (which in this case probably helped with her courageous choices in the face of globalization), and had an incredible sense of self. All traits that can be crucial in success and even in finding yourself in a situation where success is to be had, however "success" is defined.

Your readings of the human shipping container and different ways of "seeing" New York are great points.

 
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