At the Ready: the Latino teens training to be border patrol agents

The US border with Mexico is a region unto itself, with its own culture, rules and politics. If that wasn’t clear before the 2020 presidential election, then it became so when Donald Trump, riding on a wave of Latino support, became the first Republican to win Texas’s border-hugging Zapata county in 100 years, despite getting trounced 58% to 41% among all of Texas’s Latinos. All of a sudden, Democrats were scrambling to understand how a man known for his virulent anti-immigrant, anti-Latino rhetoric and actions could appeal so strongly to this group.

This is a dynamic that film-maker Maisie Crow dives into in her fascinating and delicate documentary At the Ready, which follows the lives of high school students in El Paso as they train to become border patrol agents. We get to know Cesar, Cristina and Mason (identified by a different name throughout the movie, but who comes out as a trans man in a coda following the credits). They are all Latinos, holding complicated, often contradictory reasons for wanting to train for a career in law enforcement.

“I spent a lot of time trying to find the right characters to follow,” said Crow to the Guardian. “I look for people who are going to challenge me or challenge my preconceived notions, who have stories that are more complex than what you see on the surface.”

For a viewer, this is precisely what At the Ready does, quickly dispatching ideas that only a certain kind of jingoistic Trump fanatic would get anywhere near the border patrol. In fact, over 50% of the border patrol consists of Latinos, in part attributable to the organization’s requirement that its agents come equipped with Spanish-language skills or attain language proficiency while in the patrol’s academy. Through patient observation, Crow peels back the complex reasons that bring each of her subjects into the patrol’s orbit, showing us why else so many Latinos eventually end up patrolling America’s border against those who very much resemble themselves.

For Mason, the border patrol’s Law Enforcement Explorer Program – where high schoolers learn to perform the duties of an agent and even participate in mock competitions in things like drug raids – becomes a piece of the chosen family that he must cultivate because it is unsafe to so much as articulate his LGBT identity at home. For Cesar, whose father was deported to Mexico on a drug charge, it is about one of the only paths he has to take uncertain steps toward an idea of manhood. And for Cristina, the border patrol presents an entryway into an otherwise unattainable middle-class status: as her father so cleanly states, her starting salary as an agent would be at a level that he only climbed to after a decades of labor.

The focus on family dynamics and teens transitioning into adults gives At the Ready a mundaneness that becomes curious when it is layered over the bizarreness of mock drug raids playing out in school hallways and the febrile national politics of which the border patrol is now an inextricable part. On one level, this is a story familiar to all: teens looking to classwork and extracurriculars to build a sense of identity and community. Yet this is also a story that will feel like a window on to a strange realm that is distant from all but those who have grown acculturated to the dynamics of life on the US–Mexico border.

“Growing up in Texas,” Crow said, “the border patrol has always been present for my entire life. For instance, my closest airport is in El Paso, and to get home from the airport I have to cross through a border patrol checkpoint. Until I became an adult, this was never something that I questioned, why this is here. It just becomes a part of your daily life.”

It’s this for-granted nature of the border patrol that is one of At the Ready’s revelations. One of the reasons that Latino teens can so easily gravitate toward an organization designed to harshly and summarily deport Latinos from the US is that this state of affairs does not seem like an aberration so much as a normal fact of life. Confronted with this seemingly unchangeable reality, the individuals in At the Ready do their best to make pragmatic decisions, seeing the patrol as one of the region’s largest employers and a central fact of community life.

In Crow’s opinion, the politicization of the border patrol – and thus the harsh polarization surrounding its activities and even its very existence – is a recent phenomenon. Because of this, she finds it unsurprising that so many people in her documentary voice pronounced distaste for Trump yet also support the border patrol. “This is how you can have these people who are voting for a Democrat but are still going into the border patrol,” she said. “It just shows how complex these issues are. I’d guess there are a good number of people who are in the border patrol but didn’t vote for Trump.”

These politically inflected contradictions and complications are very much present in At the Ready, yet they sit lightly over the proceedings. Crow’s camerawork comes across as neutral and naturalistic, more of a detached observer than an invasive participant with an agenda and point of view. She gives her scenes time to play out, letting a range of perspectives and motives pile up into a satisfying richness. The many scenes set around family dinner tables and within nondescript classrooms create a lulling, calming atmosphere of quotidian life that help to tone down the weirdness that crops up at many points, such as when an ageing border patrol agent teaches his teenage charges how to correctly hold a pistol and “light up” a target.

Crow has shown herself to be a film-maker with an intuition for picking subjects that cut to the center of the national narratives that are currently up for grabs. The subject of her prior documentary, Jackson, is currently the defendant in one of the most high-profile supreme court cases of the 2021-22 docket, one that many believe could overturn the abortion rights granted in Roe v Wade. Likewise, the subjects of At the Ready seem destined to play into national politics at least through the 2024 presidential election, as Democrats come to terms with a rude awakening of the 2020 cycle: that the Latino vote is not a monolith but rather a tapestry of competing interests and concerns. At once a film as much about people as it is politics, Crow’s At the Ready is an important look into why this is true.

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