'Bisbee '17' Documents Dark History Of Mass Deportations In Arizona Mining Town

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Fernando Serrano, who plays a striking miner in "Bisbee '17," a story of nearly 2,000 miners, most of them immigrants, were pulled violently from their homes and businesses in Bisbee, Ariz., for deportation to the New Mexico desert in 1917. (Jarred Alterman/4th Row Films via AP)
Fernando Serrano, who plays a striking miner in "Bisbee '17," a story of nearly 2,000 miners, most of them immigrants, were pulled violently from their homes and businesses in Bisbee, Ariz., for deportation to the New Mexico desert in 1917. (Jarred Alterman/4th Row Films via AP)

More than a century ago, nearly 2,000 copper miners — most of them immigrants — were deported from Bisbee, Arizona, to the desert of New Mexico. Those who survived the deportation were banned from returning.

At that point 1917, copper was critical for Americans fighting abroad during World War I. The miners, who were underpaid and worked in dangerous conditions, had joined the Industrial Workers of the World, which threatened a strike. Some residents saw the workers as communists who were undermining the war effort.

Authorized by the sheriff, residents dragged workers and their sympathizers from homes and businesses, forced them into cattle cars and deported them miles from town.

Although 100 years have passed, the new PBS POV documentary “Bisbee ‘17” shows how the deportation still weighs heavy on the small town.

Residents staged a reenactment of the series of events at the request of director Robert Green, trying to stay as true to the actual deportation as possible.

“The centennial was coming up, and I think that there was this general sense in the town that it was time to talk about a story that really had been buried for a really long time,” Green tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.

During the reenactment, residents “sort of came at each other,” Green says.

“They wanted to work through some tensions that are still there in town. And that was something that we probably should have been more prepared for,” Green says. “And I think ultimately, it was about the town then understanding that re-creating this 100 years later meant so much about what was going on just a couple miles away on the [U.S.-Mexico] border.”

Interview Highlights

On how Green approached Bisbee residents about participating in the film

“When we started coming around nine months before the centennial saying, ‘Hey, we're going to document what you're doing in town leading up to the commemoration of what happened and we're also going to try to restage this gigantic performance piece in the middle of town where we reenact what happened.’ There was definitely a reaction of like, ‘Thank goodness someone's coming here to document this,’ but also, ‘Maybe we don't want to do this reenactment.’ ”

On Walter Douglas, head of Phelps Dodge, the biggest mining company in Bisbee in 1917

“The Douglas family basically founded Bisbee and that's one of the complications when you think about why there could have ever been two sides to the story. The whole thing is that Bisbee was a town founded by a set of companies, [with] Phelps Dodge being the biggest one. Walter Douglas is long known or said to have been the mastermind behind the deportation. But the Douglas family of course is complicated because without them, there would be no Bisbee. People still have, even though the mines shut down in 1975, this sense of loyalty to the Douglas family, even though most people do generally think of Walter as a pretty rotten guy.”

On one resident’s involvement in the documentary

“When you see this reenactment, you have to kind of understand how everybody gets there. You need to be able to follow the characters and know where they come from before you're going to really care about how they're animating this moment in history. Fernando sort of taught us that in a way because he started talking about his own story and importantly, he knew nothing about the deportation. So what you experience over the course of the film is really him coming to understand his own history and coming to understand the history of a place that he loves. The film really asks you, should we have opened that up to him or should we have buried it? Like do the ghosts need to be brought out or do they need to be put away forever?”

On underlying tensions that emerged during the reenactment

“By the time you actually get to the day of this giant re-creation of this event on the actual 100th anniversary, we didn't really know what to expect. And then I said, ‘Action,’ and they sort of came at each other. So much so that sometimes we had to like, cool it down a little bit, because clearly it became an opportunity for people to perform a deeper thing. They wanted to scream. They wanted to grab at each other.

“We didn't go over the pretense that we were gonna change anything. That was something that we were moved by because as much as we're orchestrating it, it really had to be their decision to sort of take the ball so to speak and run with it. There's a moment late in the film where there's one white kid who says, ‘This is the largest group therapy session I've ever been to,’ and someone pointed out, ‘The people who say that it's a group therapy session are the ones holding the guns.’ There's a Mexican man right after he says that and he says, ‘You guys were good. Maybe too good.’ And I think that that's a more potent line in some ways. What [does] ‘too good’ mean when you're re-creating something where a neighbor was violently deporting neighbor? The prospect of change is something that we're still seeing.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 15, 2019.

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