Roberto (Domingo Ambriz) is out toiling in his field when he is called away home to find that his wife has given birth to their daughter. He is delighted, but that joy is tempered by the fact that he knows he will soon be out of money and will not have enough to feed his entire family with what he makes on the farm. Looking for a solution, the only one he can think of is to do what so many of the poorest Mexicans do, and head north for the border, hoping to get through the fence and the patrols and find work in the United States, so he may send funds back to his wife...
Robert M. Young took the subject of this film very seriously, having spent around a year living with illegal immigrants to the U.S. by way of research into the background to Alambrista!, his first film. As a result, as you can imagine, a feeling of authenticity shines through every frame, and Ambriz is especially good at portraying his non-English-speaking character without making us think Roberto is an idiot for carrying out such lawbreaking actions. Indeed, America as shown here does look as if it is a great place to live, so much so that you can fully believe he would want to stay there.
Of course, it ends up with Roberto having learned his lesson, but what this film actually needed was a righteous anger: for too much of the time the situation and the politics that have created it are simply taken for granted and the drama has an almost matter-of-fact quality. Because of this, the protagonist comes across as undergoing something of an adventure, as if he were a character out of Huckleberry Finn rather than an example of a modern and oppressed underclass. He does get furious at how he has ended up at the finale, but it's too little too late for the rest of the movie.
And yet, Alambrista! holds the attention because for all the lack of true fire in its belly, or any that translates into dramatic expreriences on the screen at any rate, it does have an interesting story to tell, and one illuminating even decades after it was released as there has been hardly any change in this immigration problem. Roberto does make it through the fence and gets a job with other illegals picking fruit - we see that these people do the jobs that most others would not consider, and are a necessary part of the food industry among other things.
Our hero also makes friends with a diner waitress, Sharon (Linda Gillen), after his other friend, the foolhardy Joe (Trinidad Silva), falls off the train they catch a ride on (who knows if he survived or not?). When Roberto nods off in the diner after working hard without sleep for over a day, she takes pity on him, and after saving him from a pickpocket she takes him home and adopts him as her pet project. She teaches him some English, takes him to a revivalist preacher's meeting, and generally looks after him until, just like that, they are split up and never see each other again without even the chance to say goodbye. Such is the unsteady life of an illegal immigrant, the film tells us, and while Young is sincere, Alambrista! has been somewhat superseded by the British version of similar events thirty years later, Nick Broomfield's Ghosts, which leaves you far angrier than the more reflective conclusion reached here. Music by Michael Martin Murphey.