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Class, Healthcare and Revolution in Redes (1936)

As the rest of the world plunged into The Great Depression starting in 1929, the real value of Mexico’s exports fell by about 75% in just four years, and would continue to suffer until the Depression’s end in 1939. This level of economic devastation only brought more stress to the social fabric of a country barely emerging from its revolution against the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, a struggle which caused between one to two million deaths along with 400,000 people being displaced from their homes. Emerging from so much turmoil, Mexico began to try and establish itself as a politically, economically and culturally independent nation. This yearning was reflected in all aspects of their art, from the innovative muralist painting style of David Alfaro Siqueiros to the music of Silvestre Revueltas; but films made by Mexicans for Mexicans were few and far between. The Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP) saw this as an opportunity to utilize “the most effective medium for reaching the masses we hope to educate,” and thus commissioned Redes’ production. Having been conceived as a kind of revolutionary dialogue with the masses, released amidst times of financial hardship, it’s easy to see why this searing, class-conscious critique of privatized healthcare is relevant today, not just for Mexico but the entire globe, in the age of COVID, abortion bans and a looming financial crisis.

When his child gets sick, down-and-out fisherman, Miro, tries to get an advance in pay so he can afford a doctor; but Miro’s request is ultimately denied by his boss, Don Anselmo Herrera. From the very start of the film, themes concerning the problems of a privatized healthcare system crystallize onscreen. Directors Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel depict the injustices of non-universal healthcare when Miro’s child dies, and a steady camera captures pallbearers carrying the small casket to its grave. This scene is crosscut with shots of a mourning family, an expertly-crafted way of displaying how the consequences of class society have reverberations throughout the social fabrics of entire communities. This is a story many American readers can relate to. A recent study showed that the US could have saved 338,000 lives from COVID with universal healthcare, instead choosing to leave "millions without adequate access to medical treatment." Even before the onset of COVID, countless families have lost someone to a preventable death. To add insult to injury, Don Herrera isn’t federally required to offer his fishermen paid time off (neither is any employer in America), so Miro has to continue working if he wants to feed what’s left of his family. The lack of any policies securing workers proper mourning periods is something that’s carried across decades and borders, into present day America, as has the need for class-based resistance.

Miro, in need of money after burying his child, is hired to go on a fishing excursion. It’s grueling work, rowing to the center of the ocean and dragging his net back in the boat, and for it all he only gets a few centavos. Seeing how little he and his fellow laborers are valued, Miro becomes conscious of the system, saying “We make the nets” but “they pay us what they want” in an impassioned speech that evokes Soviet-styled editing as shots of workers and coins in a register become intertwined. This calls to mind issues of labor’s price and value, very similar to themes examined in notable Marxist texts such as Value, Price, Profit and (perhaps most famously) Capital. Though these texts are understudied in most capitalist countries, workers around the globe have recently become aware of how little their lives mean to the system. Despite the fact that billionaire’s wealth has risen more since the start of COVID-19 ($5B) than it has since wealth records began, no effective measures have been taken to fix wealth inequality. In light of this, many are refusing to work for their previous wages, recognizing both the dangers of COVID and the sheer amount of labor they put in for so little pay. Recently, San Diego fast food workers joined a statewide strike to fight for higher wages and better working conditions, a trend we see growing in all fields with increasing rapidity. Quickly, both the laborers and the elite are recognizing that the world doesn’t run without workers. This point is wonderfully explored in the film’s final minutes.

Though a few fishermen initially refuse to join Miro in strike, Redes ends with the state-sanctioned murder of the protest leader. Don Herrera attempts to place a wedge further between the sects of workers by giving the strikers’ wages to the scabs. Such a ‘dishonorable act’ makes all of Miro’s fellow laborers ban together, and in his honor, they take control of the boats, fishes and nets, now choosing to not sell, but trade with sects of workers who grow vegetables and others who sew clothes, effectively forming a communistic society. I’ve seen this part of the movie be called ‘utopian,’ which is the last thing I’ll talk about in this analysis.

Along with totally neglecting Miro’s death, to call anything about this movie ‘utopian’ completely overlooks the fact that the social context in which Redes was created was all too aware of the horrors of revolutions, the price of sovereignty and dignity, some of which I mentioned at the start of this article. Wanting a system where children (or anyone else) have life-saving access to healthcare shouldn’t be relegated to mere utopianism; it’s a revolutionary rallying cry, one that appeals to basic human dignity. If this is utopian, perhaps it is time we dare to invent utopia, especially with today’s Supreme Court decision which effectively overturned Roe V. Wade, placing the reproductive health of millions in danger. It is time workers stop accepting injustices and ban together. With wages showing no sign of significantly increasing, healthcare still not being a right for Americans despite almost three years of pandemic, and inflation coupling with a coming recession, the lessons from Redes have perhaps never been more important and necessary.

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