Reviews Short Documentary

Las Rosies (2022) – 3.5 stars

Director: Sandra O’Neill

Running time: 38mins

A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Pleasants Effect – a documentary which featured a veritable treasure-trove of historical testimony, but which squandered that in favour of telling a sensationalist story about a single man. I am happy to say that Las Rosies provides a very welcome antidote to that – director Sandra O’Neill understands very well that the most important element of her footage is its eye-witness accounts of a time that is rapidly fading from living memory.

This understanding means that O’Neill rightfully places the testimony of Mary Fierros, Francisca Miranda and Connie Rangel Gomez front and centre of this production. They are, after all, living history. The three of them served as riveters helping to produce military vehicles after the US’s entry into the Second World War – but contrary to the iconography that that reflexively brings up in popular consciousness, none of these ‘Rosies’ are white.

Rosie the Riveter is a famous allegorical cultural icon in the US – and has since become a feminist symbol too. She represents the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, sleeves rolled up, hair tied back, ready to take on work which the men away at war could no longer do. It was a landmark moment for women entering the labour pool – many doing jobs they were entirely new to. That image does not reflect the diversity of those women, however – including the Latinx community, who often suffered racism and discrimination while performing such crucial tasks.

According to the film, as many as 4% of “Mexican and Latin American nationalities contributed to the World War II effort” – though as there were no official statistics on this (and the fact, as noted by several sources here, some employers refused work to Latinas who could “pass for white”, until they took on “Anglo” surnames), this may have been much higher. According to Francisca Miranda, “all of Tijuana” crossed the border to work in US factories, while Connie Rangel Gomez – born in the US – recalls many other first and second-generation Latinas were present in the factories of Pittsburgh.

Despite this, while many photographs were taken of them for war-time propaganda, Mary Fierros – a lively and lucid 102-year-old at time of filming – tells the camera she has never spotted herself in any imagery celebrating the women powering America’s war-effort, and until now, she has “never been nosy” about it, laughing to her daughter off-camera. She also tells O’Neill’s team that she is happy that someone finally “listened to me”.

While historians Dianna Smeloff and Laura Oviedo are used to add broader social context (editors Andres F. Pruna and Alejandro Mendoza might have done a little more to streamline these sections), there is never any question that Fierros, Miranda and Rangel Gomez are the stars of this show – and they light up the screen whenever they offer their insights. Considering part of that broader context is the explanation that many women were told never to discuss their work, and have also spent another seven decades having their place in US society called into question by a political class keen to find someone to hate, it is remarkable that they seem so at ease here.  

O’Neill – a news anchor, reported and producer based in California – deserves credit for this too, having made her subjects comfortable enough to discuss what were very difficult times. On top of worries that they might become targets as war escalated, the women also had to contend with discrimination relating to both their gender and ethnicity.

For example, while the demands of her employer to arbitrarily have her tonsils removed if she wanted to work were not based on any medical grounds, Miranda realised her current station in society meant she could not afford to refuse. And while segregation laws had to be suspended to staff factories adequately, hostilities from white society continued – with other stories including being made to sit at the back of the bus, and of white people joining hands on the sidewalk to obstruct Latina pedestrians, forcing them to walk in the street.

All this shows a picture of society which is worryingly similar to our own historical moment. It paints an America relying on the talents of Black and Latinx labour to face extraordinary challenges – but eternally hostile to those groups. In the years since, US soldiers – having participated repeatedly in unjust occupations – are increasingly deified, while thank you for your service has become a reflexive reaction to their potential complicity in war-crimes. In comparison, the fact the country’s success in the Second World War, and possibly its very survival, rested partially in the hands of Latinx women has been increasingly glossed over.

Telling the story of what Las Rosies went through is important on that basis; not necessarily because they are wondering “where’s the thanks for my service”, but because it skewers the dog-whistle racism that pervades American – and indeed, Western politics. Several of these women took on crucial work while they could not speak English. Two of them speak only in Spanish during the film. Whenever anti-immigrant sentiment rears in the US, UK, etc, however, “they have to learn the language” is seen as a disturbingly normalised bar of entry. The work of Las Rosies rubbishes that kind of argument by displaying the immense debt white society owes to the people it still vilifies – whatever language they speak.

Indeed, the interviews point to a belief that talking about Las Rosies is not just a matter of claiming due credit for these three women. When asked if she would like to be talked about more often for her work, Miranda responds, “With what you know now, that’s enough.” It is at this point, I feel, one of Las Rosies’ biggest shortcomings comes into play, however. While it is hard to know what the interviewer did or did not ask, it might have been worth following up on what she thought of the current political conditions Latinx workers face in America – especially those migrating from Mexico – and how she felt her story related to them.

At the same time, we don’t hear what the intervening 78 years held in store for any of the interviewees. As valuable as the insights into what they did during the war are, it is just as valuable to know what they did after – how they were treated, and what they think about the present or the future for their friends and family. We do not hear those things – instead, we hear rather broad platitudes from the accompanying historians, noting the work of Las Rosies ‘opened doors’, led to ‘progress’, and proved women could contribute to the workforce – which seems to be a rather rose-tinted view of things.

Whatever the message of this documentary is, it subsequently seems like it is holding back. Paired with the most banal ‘inspirational’ stock music (played relentlessly on a 30-second loop), the take-away seems to be a meek nod to those who came before us, to encourage young Latina women to take advantage of what they previously won. It is less a call to arms, to build upon those victories, and push back against the remaining bigotry still directed at Latinx people in America.

As if to underscore this last point, the final image before the credits is a still of the famous Rosie the Riveter poster. In a film which set out to update this white iconography, and challenge the lack of appreciation which Latina women received or receive for their contribution to the survival of the US, it is telling that this is not new imagery, revised by a modern artist (and such work does exist – Rosie the Riveter Trust recently published photos of an event, at which Connie Rangel Gomez, now 98, was among those honoured, and where posters with Rosies of various ethnicities were prominently pictured), its last shot simply settles for the norms which grew out of the war – rather than striving to progress them. The rallying cry of We can do it comes across a little underwhelming in that sense.

Las Rosies has its flaws, but there is a lot here that should be treasured. Since filming, Fierros and Miranda sadly passed away, something which shows just how important completing and distributing this project is – even if it might be imperfect.  This is a remarkable historical resource, preserving testimony which might otherwise have been lost in time, and enabling future generations to look back on the past. While it might leave a little to be desired in terms of applying that testimony to present-day affairs, there is enough here that it will still provoke discussions – and hopefully actions – on those issues among modern audiences.  

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