Donte Clark, Reyna Amaya, Santiago Rosas and Eli Marienthal (left to right) star in the Oakland web series 'The North Pole.' (The North Pole)
In the new season of the Oakland web series The North Pole, one of the main characters, Benny (Santiago Rosas), comes out. That is, as an undocumented immigrant.
Though he's known his best friends Nina (Reyna Amaya) and Marcus (Donte Clark) since elementary school, they hadn't been aware that his family didn't get their papers when they came to Oakland fleeing persecution during El Salvador's civil war. Like many childhood immigrants, Benny had found himself under pressure to assimilate. He doesn't tell anyone his status, in fact, until he faces deportation after getting arrested at an anti-eviction protest.
The North Pole, with Season Two now streaming online, follows a group of friends navigating a rapidly changing Oakland, centering on how the endearing squad's lives intersect with race, economics and gentrification. This season's plot may appear to be a response to the current administration's treatment of immigrants—including recent I.C.E. raids and attempts to gut the DREAM Act, which benefits childhood immigrants like Benny.
But director Yvan Iturriaga says that inspiration came from personal experience: namely, his days at Berkeley High School in the late '90s, when one of his friends, also an immigrant from El Salvador, went through a similar predicament.
"He used to lie to us that he was Puerto Rican, but 20 years later he got arrested and he had to tell us that he’s undocumented," Iturriaga says. "It's a process for a lot of people, especially if you've been here since you were five years old."
In The North Pole's new season, Benny's immigration lawyer (played by executive producer Rosario Dawson) tells him to raise his profile, and get his face out there by any means necessary. So the friends concoct a plan: for Benny to run for Alameda County sheriff against the incumbent who signed his deportation order.
Although this plan isn't logistically (or legally) feasible, the show's clever, sometimes absurdist humor invites viewers to suspend disbelief (after all, Sorry to Bother You director Boots Riley voices a giant polar bear who appears at pivotal moments). Throughout the season, Benny's struggles interweave with the other friends' storylines. Nina grapples with distractions, and her ego, as her social media following climbs; Marcus learns to take care of himself before he can help his community, as his asthma flares up during the 2018 Camp Fire. And Finn (Eli Marienthal) learns to put his principles where his mouth is by confronting his racist parents.
Impressively, Iturriaga and writers Josh Healy, Clark and Amaya cram all these narratives into seven episodes that total the length of a feature film. By default, The North Pole is an unconventional show: one of its executive producers, the nonprofit Movement Generation, created it with the mission of using television to raise awareness about climate justice, gentrification and other social issues. While in season one, some of that messaging felt heavy-handed, The North Pole's second season benefits from more sophisticated storytelling and a slightly bigger budget.
"I have that background. I'm able to connect, and understand, and relate to a lot of the struggle," says Rosas, who is Mexican American.
Although the conversation about immigration in California tends to focus on Mexican immigrants, Rosas and Iturriaga say it's significant that Benny is Salvadorian. Not only do Salvadorian immigrant stories rarely get screen time, but the U.S. military's involvement in the country's bloody civil war is an example of how foreign policy often creates the very conditions that force people to flee their homelands. The civil war in El Salvador lasted over 12 years, and left 75,000 confirmed dead and countless more missing. After U.S. intervention, the country descended into years of instability that its 2001 earthquake only made worse.
"The American dream exists because they created a nightmare somewhere else," says Iturriaga, adding that inhumane treatment isn't a symptom solely of the Trump administration.
"In the U.S., I think there tends to be historical amnesia. But Obama deported a ton of people," says Iturriaga. "And since the early 1900s, what happens at the border has been very problematic. So I feel like it's something we need to be talking about, and we need to address why it's happening."
Rosas' portrayal of Benny also illustrates the ways marginalized people get thrust into political battles while trying to live their day-to-day lives. In one particularly poignant scene, Benny faces off in a spontaneous debate against the incumbent sheriff, a slick talker who, like many Bay Area politicians, couches her pro-prison policies in progressive talking points. Benny gets tripped up in the debate, exemplifying one of his challenges throughout the season: learning how to advocate for himself and speak his truth.
"At the heart of it, [The North Pole is] art and a call to action," says Rosas. "We want people to see that if you want to change the conditions of the violent immigration system, we have to change the narrative. We want the audience to be bold and apologetic."
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