The U.S./Mexico border which bisects the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez is imaginary. Sure, there are checkpoints, armed agents and the very real presence of migrants thwarted from crossing over onto American soil—but all-in-all it’s just a line drawn in the sand, an arbitrary distinction that is rooted in the colonization of Indigenous land. Documentary filmmaker Maisie Crow’s At the Ready depicts the robust Latino population existing in this borderland and the vested interest that the U.S. military industrial complex has in recruiting young members of this demographic to police the immigrants that exist in their communities and across the border—a place that many of their families, friends and loved ones call home.
While Crow maintains that her film is not an outright condemnation of this propaganda machine, the footage can’t help but speak for itself. Copious Blue Lives Matter flags are proudly displayed in classrooms; law enforcement education courses are a common public school offering; prop guns and ill-fitting paramilitary armor are doled out to students while higher education is, naturally, discouraged. With more than 900 Texan schools offering courses that feed the prison guard pipeline, At the Ready focuses on Horizon High School in El Paso—finding particular interest in three Latino students enrolled in a law enforcement education class who become increasingly uneasy with their career prospects. Particularly with their recruitment to serve as border patrol agents.
The film’s strength lies in documenting the contradictions of the institution itself. The class is run by a cohort of Latino teachers who all work in law enforcement, emblematic of the conservative streak that has often marked the larger diaspora of Latin Americans living in the U.S. At the Ready often finds compelling dynamics in the students’ home lives—interestingly, most parents (many of whom do not speak English, were themselves deported or otherwise crossed the border) have no qualms with their child’s career choice, many of them supportive and enthused by the $50,000 starting salary.
It’s incredibly easy for those who support police abolition to see the malevolence of embedding law enforcement training in public schools, but Crow’s direction and her identity as a white woman omit cultural context surrounding an ongoing struggle for power among Latinos in the U.S. Specifically, the film fails to interrogate the long-standing history of minority recruitment into military and carceral systems as a rudimentary path to opportunity within these communities.
At the Ready claims to be unbiased, yet the various soundbites documenting former President Donald Trump’s most egregious anti-Latino sentiments inserted for dramatic effect suggest a different mindset. Not to say that criticisms of the Trump administration and its demonization of immigrants and the broader U.S. Latino communities aren’t necessary, but pinning such a large and far-reaching crisis solely on an openly, famously antagonistic presidency feels particularly weak-kneed.
The film’s comparatively less incisive view of the Democratic party comes into perspective when it follows a student to Beto O’Rourke’s Senate campaign rally on election night, with O’Rourke on stage offering empty platitudes as phone notifications—alerting Ted Cruz’s win—begin pinging through the largely Latino audience. While Beto’s loss is unsurprising in retrospect, it’s ultimately indicative of the Democratic party’s inability to foster true inroads among the broader Latino demographic, which for generations has been encouraged to identify with conservatism as a way to assimilate in a nation that would otherwise malign them along racial lines.
It’s clear that At the Ready cares more about hailing Democrats as overarching defenders of civil liberties, a designation which is as reductive and harmful as the law enforcement course teachers that routinely categorize lawbreakers as “narcos.” When the ruling class as a whole ceases to profit from Black and Brown bodies being implemented as crude bulwarks to further the agenda of U.S. imperialism and violence, then we can entertain frivolous altruistic arguments about “good” and “bad.”
Director: Maisie Crow
Stars: Cesar Avila, Mason Daniel Heath Garcia, Christina Martinez
Release Date: January 31, 2021 (Sundance Film Festival)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.