The true story behind 'Nomadland,' the Golden Globes' winner movie
Hundreds of seasonal workers over 60 travel in their RVs across the country to make a living. It's not a dystopia; it's the end of retirement.
Among the workampers, there are no Latinos or African-Americans, at least not the majority. They tend to be Caucasians who once had children, normal lives, and even at one point lived comfortably, but the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 spit them out of the pension system and threw them on the road.
"It's easier for white people to live on the road, in a society where racism has taken on such a frightening force," told El País Jessica Bruder, the journalist who wrote the book on which Nomadland, the scintillating independent film that has triumphed at the Golden Globes, is based.
"When I was writing the book, every week I read a new story about unarmed black drivers who had been shot by the police. Latino drivers, too, are subject to harassment, or worse, by authorities because of this country's rejection of immigrants and xenophobia," she said.
Bruder, a journalist specializing in subcultures, found out about these nomads from an article and decided to spend three years on the road with them. Her caravan was called Van Halen - the workampers usually give names to their mobile homes -; their working days were like those of the rest of the seasonal workers, eternal.
"It's easier for white people to live on the road, in a society where racism has taken on such a frightening force."
Back and forth, endless hours picking beets in North Dakota with hands turned into aching picks; nightmarish nights in Amazon warehouses doing work so mechanical that their brains threatened to shut down every few hours - there was a sign on one of these robotic warehouses that read, "Variation is the enemy."
Jessica Bruder was the only workamper who wasn't going gray. Most of her colleagues were over 60 when she met them. And the solidarity of these people touched her; their impossible dream of having a plot of land or a house in which to spend their senior years broke her heart. And filled her with rage.
Linda May thought of committing suicide on Thanksgiving, but she didn't want to abandon her dogs. She was 60 years old when Jessica met her and had been living a nomadic life since 2010 when she could no longer afford her house.
May is one of the real people who appear in Nomadland, the film directed by Chloe Zhao and starring a splendid Frances McDormand, the scintillating winner of the Golden Globes -Best Movie and Best Director-, after triumphing in Venice and is a favorite at the Oscars.
But there are also other nomads that Jessica Bruder met in the odyssey of more than 24,000 kilometers that she undertook in 2013, traveling with these workers from coast to coast of the United States and from Mexico to the Canadian border.
Like Bob Wells, founder of cheaprvliving.com, who wrote a book and has a YouTube channel about nomadic living, where he shares tips on avoiding being stopped by the police or finding a good place to park the RV for the night.
Or Swankie, whose story doesn't appear in Bruder's essay, but who has a blog where she shares her story and talks about the experience working on the film.
There is something romantic about the idea of living a nomadic life, with no fixed destination and following, to a large extent, the spirit of the early settlers—a sort of sense of self-sufficiency that is very much present in these people who cooperate to survive.
But the vulnerability of the workampers is real, and not all of them are comfortable with the kind of life that the individualism of a highly stratified society with a declining middle class has pushed them into. That governments have failed to enforce antitrust laws properly doesn't help either.
At Amazon warehouses, where hundreds of workampers work as part of the CamperForce program, there are free ibuprofen dispensers. Also, an RV parking lot.
The Internet giant receives a subsidy for hiring seniors (between 25% and 40% of their salary), so employing these workampers is quite cost-effective.
"We need to cooperate to survive and, in the age of the coronavirus, that has never been more obvious."
Jessica Bruder worked at one of these fulfillment centers for a season, on the night shift.
"There, I met a 77-year-old worker who told me he had wrecked knees from working as a mechanic at a copper mining company. When I imagined him doing the work we did, which involved doing thousands of squats and stretches to access different racks of goods during a ten-hour shift... It broke my heart," the journalist explained.
Jessica also met workampers who worked in the summer on fairground rides, selling pumpkins at Halloween or Christmas trees.
A sign of the new times, an increasingly present future dystopia, retirement has become a mirage for hundreds, perhaps thousands or millions. Yet another problem to add to the political agenda and another challenge for citizens whose old age they want to steal.
"We need to cooperate to survive and, in the age of the coronavirus, that has never been more obvious," concludes Jessica Bruder.