Community Organizing in Chicana/o Cinema:
Politics of Race, Class, and Gender


Leigh Johnson

Films such as From Dusk to Dawn (1913) and What Is to Be Done? (1914) “offered viewers unabashedly radical portrayals of workplace life and the ways in which collective action—depicted in the form of unions and Socialist politics—could transform the world into a more just place” (Ross 1996, 34). Films such as Norma Rae (1979) and Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) feature white protagonists, making class central to the narrative. However, labor disputes and economic injustice have become particularly urgent with regard to borders and communities of color. Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses (2001) is a departure from class-based narratives in that it features Latino/a subjects struggling to organize their communities for social justice. With a Mexicana protagonist, the film cannot tell a story only about class; by virtue of their subject matter, race and gender are unavoidably intertwined. Telling the story of that intersectionality allows Loach to present non-stereotypical images and provide ethical portrayals of the communities he seeks to represent.  

Bread and Roses (2001) is loosely based on the successful 2000 Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles. During the three-week strike, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Ted Kennedy lent their support to the janitors (Cleeland 2000). The film reflects a dramatic, yet uplifting moment in the struggle for worker and civil rights. Many of the janitors are recent immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Actual footage of the 2000 strike appears in the film. However, the film’s central narrative is the personal story of Maya’s (Pilar Padilla) rising consciousness and living conditions. However tempting it may be to write off Loach’s film as a revival of the misdirected liberalism of the Hollywood social problem film or as a simplistic endorsement of labor unions, Bread and Roses engages anti-racist modes of discourse as it resists these categories.

Ken Loach’s filmmaking history includes a number of films that engage complex societal issues. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott calls him a “tireless cinematic champion of the underdog” (2001). The protagonist of Bread and Roses is female and Mexican, yet her race and gender are subsumed under the banner of class. Maya, though, continues to function as a gender and racialized Other, even as she endeavors to bring her coworkers together under the union theme.       

Maya crosses the border from Mexico to the United States to reunite with her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), already a naturalized citizen. When the van she travels in arrives in Los Angeles, Rosa is unable to pay the coyotes who have orchestrated her sister’s trip and Maya is ultimately forced to escapes from their clutches. After she eventually finds Rosa, she begins working for Angel Cleaning Services and is supervised by Perez, an overbearing boss. She makes friends with Ruben, another janitor who aspires to attend law school. Meanwhile, Justice for Janitors has targeted Angel as the next company to face a union drive. The organizer, Sam (Adrien Brody), finds a sympathetic ear in Maya and a decidedly hostile one in Rosa. Rosa calls him one of the “fat union college boys” which he cannot deny. Her husband Bert has diabetes, and neither she nor he has insurance; without treatment, he has a death sentence. With mounting pressure on Angel, the company finally capitulates to the workers’ demands. This triumph is not without sacrifices: Ruben is fired, Maya robs a store to pay for Ruben to go to college, Rosa is promoted at the expense of her fellow workers, Sam is disgraced at union headquarters, and Maya is deported. What makes this turn of events interesting is that, according to Charles Ramírez Berg, the social problem film, “more often than not … endorse[s] the very system they set out to criticize” (2002, 112). This film does send Maya back, like so many social problem films, but it also levels important critiques on Hollywood and organized labor—both institutions it would seem to endorse.

Perhaps the most problematic plot point is that Maya must return to where she came from (in this case Mexico). In this sense, Bread and Roses follows a trajectory common to social problem films, in which the “obligatory happy ending metaphorically or actually sends the Chicano […] back to the barrio where he began, leaving him to cope with the negligible opportunity that exists for him there” (Ramírez Berg, 112). Yet as Ramírez Berg points out, most protagonists are male, the only notable exception being Salt of the Earth, in which the protagonist Esperanza and her community effectively win a strike (120). Other critics read the end of the film as one in which “everyone wins but Maya” as a way of shoring up that she “is the exemplary political figure in the beginning, but she is a cautionary emblem at the end for taking her political fervor too far” (Fojas 2007, 51). However, it is possible to read Maya’s deportation as one more moment in her lucky life. She may or may not return to Los Angeles; the events in the film show that Maya cleverly reacts to situations, and while she may create trouble around her, she mostly remains untouched by it. That she constantly emerges unscathed and unaware of her close calls may indicate her selfishness, but it may also be the film’s way of resolving the untenable love affair with Sam. After all, even the film cannot imagine a city in which the gaps between Maya and Sam are small enough for love to bridge them. Fortunately, Maya has not staked all her happiness on him. She is grateful that the other workers are triumphant.

Maya’s luck is in stark contrast to Rosa’s. If Rosa were the protagonist, this film would be more like a typical social problem film. While Fojas thinks everyone wins but Maya, in fact, Rosa has a more tragic ending. She does not leave and so there is no place for her to return to, except her home. The New York Times review claims that “For a while the film seems to be setting [Rosa] up as a fink and a traitor, but Maya’s easy sense of moral superiority—and the audience’s—is upended by a devastating confrontation in which Rosa reveals the terrible price she has paid to support her family, including Maya, whose fervent unionism now appears a little selfish and ungrateful” (Scott 2001). Rosa’s doubly painful revelations that she has been a prostitute in Tijuana to send money to Maya and their mother, and traded sex with Perez to get him to give Maya a job, show that she has sacrificed more than her family had a right to ask of her. Rosa’s promotion at the expense of the union and the other workers provides her with insurance for her Anglo husband, but she gets nothing for herself. At the end of the film, as Maya rides off on the deportation bus, Rosa stands alone in the street watching her sister leave. The audience knows Maya will be fine; she’s plucky, crafty, outspoken, and self-assured. Rosa on the other hand is right back where she started before Maya arrived; she struggles to make ends meet, worries about her family’s health, and endures constant surveillance and sexual harassment at work. The promise of sweeping change through community organizing has not been realized.

The focus on Maya’s personal journey masks how concerned the film is with the collective working class immigrant community. The only act Maya undertakes on her own is her robbery of a convenience store; while the scene is subversively humorous, it hardly makes her a hero. Chicana/o film scholar Rosa Linda Fregoso (1993) discusses how a “sacrificial act on the part of an individual [that] leads to a collective resolution for the narrative” can be healing for the film’s story (61). For Bread and Roses, the sacrificial act initially seems to be Maya’s. She leads the other janitors to join the union and her involvement with it sends her to jail where her role in the robbery is discovered. This transgression, along with her immigration status, means she will be deported. The film begs the question of whether or not her immigration status alone would have been enough to deport her. If that had been the case, the film would have been much more explicit about the role of immigration, exploitation, and union rights.

If the character who sacrificed for the collective resolution is Sam, then the film problematically martyrs an Anglo man for a sacrifice that takes nothing from his body. Sam gets in trouble with his boss for targeting Angel cleaning services, but he continues to fight for the “poor, underrepresented” workers. He marches with them and lands in jail. When Sam answers the phone and announces to the others that they have won, his is the voice of collective resolution. But he has sacrificed very little to take credit for what promises to be so much. Fojas offers another, less flattering interpretation of Sam’s actions: “Like the heroes of the old Westerns, the cowboy vigilante who breaks the law is vindicated in the end” (51). Maya also breaks the law, yet she is punished in the harshest way allowable. This comes close to approximating a stereotypical inversion (showing how “the white hero mediates between an oppressed Chicano and a monolithically hostile Anglo citizenry”) which would undermine the credibility of the film (Ramírez Berg, 119).1 However, Sam’s mediation between capital and labor is secondary to Maya’s rising political consciousness and subsequent gender consciousness.

Sam’s exchange with his boss highlights the connection organized labor has to the Democratic Party, as well as the “choosing” of politically viable targets for action. This moderate hypocrisy is somewhat mediated by the way the film makes very little of Maya’s immigration status until the end. Instead the implicit handling of her status reflects the way that new union organizing movements “are a function and consequence of globalization and its new international workforce” (Fojas, 49). The janitors’ awareness of themselves as transnational subjects in a globalized world resists another cornerstone of the social problem film—the “undiminished stereotyping of other marginal groups” (Ramírez Berg, 119). The multiethnic janitors all have families who depend on them. They have lives outside of their workplace that occasionally intrude on their interactions with other workers. The sensitive way that Maya seems to know everybody else’s problems suggests that she has developed real, not stereotyped, relationships with them, even though the audience only sees her relationships with her sister, Sam, and Ruben. Her political consciousness does not mean that we should only read the film as politically pro-union; developing gender consciousness deserves attention.

Maya is an active presence in the film, but rather than fitting a stereotype of the ethnic woman as “an overprotective matriarch, the ‘other woman,’ or a harlot” she uses her activity to subvert gender roles (Ramírez Berg, 120). She moves independently through the world, and while to some critics, her actions may appear selfish, Maya attempts to dictate her gendered behavior on her own terms. She cleans with women and men. She falls for Sam, but she doesn’t need him. She speaks with logic and passion, subverting gender driven binaries. La migra deports her because she is an undocumented Mexican who has robbed a store; however, the narrative deports her because it cannot assimilate an outspoken woman of color into a relationship with a “fat union college boy.” Maya allegorically represents “worker-based ideology and cultural identity that are rooted in a pre-Columbian mythopoetics and a 500-year history of indigenous and mestizo resistance” (Noriega 2000, 11). Her name signifies the pre-Columbian Mayan culture, but her thoroughly modern actions show her connection to Chicana resistance. For Maya and Sam, the differences between them are more than class-based. There is a gap in citizen status, race, and education. Their conceptual and felt experiences are vastly different. For Sam, organizing is a thrilling adventure of “getting the man,” but for Maya, organizing is a way of expressing her passion for her coworkers and her belief in dignity they should have as humans. The distance in the relationship also reinforces Rosa’s accusation; perhaps Sam is “slumming” with the janitors and, more problematically, Maya.

Bread and Roses resists the social problem film trap by self-critiquing. The Hollywood producers are among those who have their wastebaskets emptied by the Angel janitors. While some of the metaphors are heavy handed, Maya keeps consciousness-raising activities fresh by forming relationships with those around her. Maya’s ending is not bleak, but Rosa’s is—and it is Rosa’s sacrifice that leads to some sort of collective resolution for her family. The dichotomy between the two sisters may be explained by the gendered violence Rosa has experienced and Maya has escaped. Their roles in their community are affected by their relationship to organizing and familial care. If, in the age of globalization, women and men without families (or anything to lose) are the only ones who can risk community organizing, it presents a bleak future indeed. Bread and Roses presents several options for the future of union organizing but recognizes the challenges facing the exploited workforce as well as the union organizer.

1 Maya’s deportation also calls to mind another aspect of the stereotypical inversion which occurs when the “Chicano protagonist makes the sound ethical choice when he recoils from such a thoroughly venal Anglo universe and retires to the moral haven of the barrio” (Ramírez Berg, 118-119).


Bernstein, Lee. 2003. “Screens and Bars: Confronting Cinema Representations of Race and Crime.” In Reversing the Lens: Ethnicity, Race, Gender, and Sexuality Through Film, edited by Jun Xing and Lane Ryo Hirabayashi, 169-184. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Bread and Roses. Directed by Ken Loach. 2001. Lions Gate Films.

Cleeland, Nancy. 2000. “Justice for Janitors: Janitors Victory Galvanizes Workers Across the Nation.” Los Angeles Times, April 25.

Fregoso, Rosa Linda. 1993. The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Fojas, Camilla. 2007. “Borderlined in the Global City (of Angels).” In Urban Imaginaries: Locating the Modern City, edited by Alev Çinar and Thomas Bender, 37-54. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Noriega, Chon. 2000. Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ramírez Berg, Charles. 2002. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press.2014.

Ross, Steven J. 1996. “Beyond the Screen: History, Class, and the Movies.” In The Hidden Foundation: Cinema and the Question of Class, edited by David E. James and Rick Berg, 26-55. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Scott, A.O. 2001. “On the Bumpy Road of a Union Drive.” Review of Bread and Roses by Ken Loach. New York Times, June 1.


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