“My body stinks of strawberries and work when I wake up,” says Ashley Solis, the teenager at the heart of the new doc Fruits of Labor. The film follows Solis and her family as they work to make ends meet as a Mexican-American immigrant family on the central coast of California. Your next bowl of berries may not taste so sweet.
Fruits of Labor is both a documentary and a coming-of-age story. It is Solis’ senior year of high school, and at the same time that she is shopping for prom dresses, she is working around the clock to afford the $200 price tag.
Picking strawberries by day and working in a food processing plant by night, Solis barely has time for high school. It is her mother’s dream and Solis’s own goal to graduate, but her education is often at odds with her role as the family’s breadwinner. She had no choice but to pick up these jobs in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, as her mother’s wages were not enough to support the whole family.
An eldest daughter and old soul, Solis’ story is a reminder of how quickly immigrant children have to grow up to help their families survive. Although Solis was born in California, her mother is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. If anything were to happen to her mother, she worries in the film, she would be responsible for her three younger siblings.
The threat of ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids hangs heavy in the air. Trump’s new policies blare on the living room TV set while the family catches wind of ICE knocking on neighbours’ doors. The film sees Solis and her mother consult a lawyer, signing papers to make Solis the legal guardian of her siblings if her mother was ever deported. She barely blinks an eye.
Fruits of Labor is bittersweet. While director Emily Cohen Ibañez captures the unthinkable challenges of a high schooler labouring in agriculture, the film is equally dedicated to capturing Solis’ kind spirit with a remarkable tenderness. The film harbours hope for Solis, despite the impossibility of what she faces on a daily basis. The doc even credits Solis as a co-writer in helping tell her own story.
Fruits of Labor has some whimsical undertones that offset the weight of the difficulties it documents. Butterflies are a motif that flutter through the film and its promotional material, as well as the bright red berries that represent both sweetness and sacrifice. Ibañez’s debut does its subjects justice by portraying the complexity of their lives with such care.
The town where the Solis family lives is also known as “Fresaville” for the sheer number of agricultural labourers working around the clock to pick and package strawberries. Their story is only one of many families working to feed North America while barely affording to put food on the table themselves.
If you were to look up Watsonville on a map, like some cruel joke, you’d see a neighbouring town called “Freedom.” Fruits of Labor is a revealing watch that pulls back the curtain on the so-called American dream, exposing the elusiveness and exclusiveness of true freedom and prosperity in the United States.
Fruits of Labor screens at Hot Docs 2021.