On Kirk Douglas's 100th Birthday, Remembering His 1990 Visit to the Mexican Border

By Jerry Kammer, December 10, 2016

This is a tribute to Kirk Douglas. It has only a tangential connection to immigration. I'll explain that at the end.

The world knows Douglas for his big-screen rolls as Spartacus, Vincent Van Gogh, and cowboy Jack Burns in "Lonely Are the Brave". He was born 100 years ago Friday, as Issur Danielovitch.

I met Douglas in the Arizona border town of Nogales in 1990, when I was a reporter for the Arizona Republic. Reporter Sandy Tolan and I had written an investigative series on the working and living conditions of thousands laborers in assembly plants known as maquiladoras, which cluster in industrial parks just south of the border in Nogales, Sonora. The plants were owned by foreign corporations – American, Canadian, Japanese – that were drawn to Mexico by $3.50-a-day wages, unenforced environmental laws, toothless labor unions, and easy access to the American market.

Douglas's assistant, Ursula Obst, called and told me he was doing research for a novel that would be partially set in Nogales. The main character would be an American woman who inherited control of a corporation whose holdings included a maquiladora. Then Douglas came on the line to tell me about his heroine's humanitarian concerns. ''When she finds out how poorly the workers live, she decides to do something about it,'' he said.

Douglas said he'd like to fly over from Los Angeles in two weeks. He asked if I would show him the places Sandy and I had written about. I replied that I would be happy to. That was an understatement. I was thrilled.

That weekend I drove to Nogales to set things up with Miguel Becerra, the leader of a squatter camp in which hundreds of workers lived with their families in flimsy shacks made from the wooden pallets and cardboard tossed out by such American giants as General Electric, Xerox, ITT, Rockwell, Memorex, and Kodak.

I explained to Miguel that I would return the next weekend with an American movie star who was interested in Mexico. ''His name is Kirk Douglas," I said. "Do you know who he is?''

Miguel's response is a favorite memory. Shaking his head in enthusiastic affirmation, he pushed a forefinger into his chin, replicating the famous Kirk Douglas Dimple. ''Si, si!'' he exclaimed, assuring me that in Mexico, Kirk Douglas was ''muy famoso.''

A week later, I greeted Douglas and Obst at the Nogales airport, where they arrived on a chartered twin-engine. We crossed the border in my ancient Chevy Blazer.

I took Kirk – ''Forget the Mr. Douglas thing,'' he told me – and Ursula to Miguel's squatter camp. Rocks anchored corrugated tin roofs against the wind. Automobile tires jammed into the hillside formed an improvised stairway. Drinking water was stored in barrels that had brought chemicals from the U.S. Raw sewage trickled down the hill from crude outhouses. In the background loomed the mass concrete box of the maquiladora where nearly 3,000 workers, some of them residents of the camp, assembled Chamberlain garage door openers in ten-hour shifts.

Miguel greeted us graciously. When Douglas wasn't looking, he tossed I-told-you-so smiles at the crowd that gathered around. Then we visited families who lived in dirt-floor shacks with walls made of cardboard discarded by Chamberlain. I had often heard the people say, with stoic dignity, "No vivimos; sobrevivimos." – "We don't live; we survive."

Douglas was courteous and respectful as he talked with the people. He asked direct questions, waited patiently for me to translate and always said ''Gracias.'' Occasionally he stepped aside to speak into a tape recorder. Several times, quietly and without show, he slipped rolls of greenbacks into the hands of mothers and grandmothers.

One member of the community, obviously a fan of Douglas' Westerns, said he wanted to give the great man something. Holding up a .38-caliber bullet, he said with playful solemnity, ''Senor Douglas, use this to kill a bad man.'' Senor Douglas was delighted.

A week later I received a thank-you note from Douglas. Attached to it was a $500 check for improvements at the squatter camp.

Two years later, I received a copy of his novel, The Gift. Douglas's central character, heiress Patricia Denniso, battled a board of directors who were indifferent to the struggles of workers in their maquiladora. She was determined, with the fierce and noble willfulness that Douglas often brought to his movie rolls, to build ''a company with a conscience.''

I was particularly struck by the passage in which Miguel Becerra appeared in the form of a character named Raphael. ''Most tourists go to Acapulco, Cancun, Cuernavaca, but this is the real Mexico,'' Raphael said, standing in that bleak landscape of industrialized poverty. They were Miguel's exact words from that day in Nogales.

Of course, I admired the generosity of this Hollywood star whose celebrity and wealth offered him a life walled off from the struggles of Mexico's poor. I wondered what had pulled him to the border. What made him want to connect with the lives of maquiladora workers?

I got an answer when I read Douglas's autobiography, The Ragman's Son. It describes his childhood poverty in Amsterdam, N.Y. I learned that as a kid, he stole food his parents couldn't buy. Ursula Obst later told me, ''Those experiences have stayed with him. He understands what it is to be poor.''

Now here's that tangential connection to immigration. Many maquiladora workers were drawn to industrialized border from the deeper poverty of southern Mexico. Some told me they were trying to save money so they could use the jobs as "un trampolin" – a trampoline – to jump illegally into the United States.

Mexican factory wages have improved since the time Kirk Douglas visited Nogales. But they remain stunningly low by American standards. That is why many more American corporations, under protections guaranteed by the North American Free Trade Agreement, have migrated to Mexico. Jobs that once sustained the blue-collar American middle class are now allowing Mexicans to survive. I hope someone as restless and determined as Kirk Douglas will write about that. In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Kirk, and Muchisimas Gracias!