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You Can't Stay Neutral on Migration

Sin Nombre: Only Part of the Border Story

by JOSEPH NEVINS

The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the film “[t]ough and beautiful,” the USA Today “a powerful and wrenching thriller,” giving it fours stars out of four. The Denver Post characterizes it as “vivid and haunting,” while The Washington Post praises he film as “an elegant, heartbreaking fable, equal parts Shakespearean tragedy, neo-Western and mob movie but without the pretension of those genres.”

The movie receiving these adoring reviews is Sin Nombre (Without a Name), directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. His first feature-length film — “[o]ne of the most memorable directorial debuts in recent memory” according to the Post  — it won the California-born Fukunaga the directing and cinematography award in the dramatic competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

There is certainly much to recommend the film. It tells a visually compelling tale that takes the viewer on a journey from the streets of Tapachula, Chiapas — a mid-size Mexican city on the border with Guatemala—to Mexico’s boundary with Texas. In doing so, Sin Nombre brings the audience into the underworld of Mexican youth gangs, one depicted as often horrifically violent, while providing a window into the grueling trip from southern Mexico taken by many Central American migrants to reach the United States.

The movie revolves around a young member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, Willy, and a young Honduran woman, Sayra, who is trying to reach the United States with her uncle and her father, recently deported from New Jersey, and whom she hasn’t seen since she was a child. The two teenagers’ paths cross on the top of a freight train, an efficient but highly dangerous form of transportation for migrants traveling to “el Norte.” On the trip, Sayra develops—rather far-fetchedly—a deep attachment to Willy as he tries to outrun his former gang brothers intent on hunting him down.

While the story in and of itself is quite engrossing, it presents a largely one-dimensional view of Mexico as a land of violence with few honorable people. At the same time, it presents no context to help the viewer understand who the gang members are, and how and why they—and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) itself—came to be.

Apart from a single reference to the gang’s presence in Los Angeles, there is no mention of the MS-13’s origins in southern California, and the U.S. government’s role in facilitating its emergence and spread. Salvadoran migrants, whose very residence there was owed to U.S. support for El Salvador’s brutal military-oligarchy alliance, created the gang in the 1980s as a form of self-protection. U.S. deportations of members helped to internationalize the gang, which now has a strong presence in many Central American countries, and in southern Mexico.

Given the focus of the film, it is perhaps far too much to expect Sin Nombre to address such matters.  But it begs the question of what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish by focusing on gang violence and its intersection with the Central American migrant passage through Mexico. It is in this area where Sin Nombre proves to be quite problematic and confusing.

A question-and-answer session with Fukunaga and Focus Features CEO, James Shamus, following a recent showing of the film at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY, helped to shed some light onto the production- and marketing-related thinking surrounding the film.

Shamus somewhat cryptically called the film “radically political” (suggesting that it was so in a progressive sense), and praised the fact that it gives voice to people rarely heard in feature films — Latinos. He also gushed about how the film is bringing large numbers of Latinos into art-house theaters, evidence of its cross-over appeal.

Fukunaga indirectly took issue with Shamus’s suggestion that Sin Nombre was political. “I didn’t write it as a political film,” the filmmaker asserted. “I wasn’t trying to change anyone’s mind.” Instead, he stated that he wanted viewers to have an “experience” and to “make up their own minds.” The question is, what is it that he wants people to make up their own minds about?

In published interviews, Fukunaga makes clear that the migrant journey—specifically the dangerous odyssey by train from the Mexico-Guatemala border to the U.S.-Mexico divide—and the violence and suffering that surround it is his intended focus.  Yet, this is at best a secondary aspect of the film, as Sin Nombre privileges the gang-related drama to a great extent. And in doing so in the way that it does, the film paints a picture of Mexico—and, by extension, its people—that is anything but flattering. Indeed, it is difficult to come away from the film not feeling a sense of revulsion toward and fear of many things Mexican, in particular the country’s men. In this regard, the film plays into some of the worst stereotypes that fuel anti-migrant sentiment—especially as it relates to Mexico.

Undoubtedly there is a lot of brutal violence—perpetrated by Mexican authorities, gang members, and bandits—associated with the migrant passage from southern Mexico to the United States. And, in addition to the deaths and injuries brought about by such brutality, innumerable migrants lose their lives or limbs each year by falling off and underneath what many call the “train of death” or “the beast.” Sin Nombre provides a valuable glimpse into these varied forms of violence, but the film doesn’t give the viewer a sense of the frequent nature of the fatalities and injuries associated with the train itself.

At the same time, Sin Nombre makes invisible the U.S. enforcement apparatus. In terms of the actual movement across the U.S.-Mexico boundary, it only shows a single unauthorized crossing, one that is successful and seemingly challenge-free. The films does this despite the fact that the size of the boundary and immigration apparatus has exploded in the last 15 years—the U.S. Border Patrol, for instance, has more than quadrupled in size (there are today 18,000+ agents) during this period. Meanwhile, more than 5,000 migrant bodies have been recovered in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since 1995, a tragic manifestation of the boundary’s “hardening.”

In addition to such misrepresentation, the movie effectively exculpates the United States for its role in helping to make Mexico a grueling zone of passage for migrants from Central America and beyond.

In the 1980s, during a northward exodus of Central American refugees, Washington put considerable pressure on Mexico, and assisted Mexican government efforts, to crackdown on third-country nationals migrating without authorization through Mexico to get to the United States. Since the 1990s, U.S. authorities have intensified such pressures and efforts, while extending them geographically so that the U.S. boundary and immigration enforcement apparatus is today effectively present in Mexico and in countries well beyond. In other words, the arduous and dangerous journey across Mexico that the film helps bring to light has been made in no small part in Washington, D.C.

Given this reality—and the almost omnipresent and highly charged nature of present-day debates surrounding immigration and boundary enforcement — it is, at best, pure fantasy to think that one can avoid politics in making a film that is to a significant degree about migration from Mexico and Central America. The title of one of Howard Zinn’s book says it best: You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train.

To pretend that you can be otherwise facilitates the myopic thinking that led Fukunaga to make a film that purports to be a sympathetic portrayal of the migrant passage, but that ends up obscuring much and inadvertently fueling some of the flames which underlie the very making of the journey’s fatal obstacles that seem to concern him.

It is easy to decry migrant deaths and the many forms of suffering endured by unauthorized migrants as they make the dangerous trek to the United States. Everyone from the Minutemen to the most ardent congressional advocates of increased enforcement does so. It is much more difficult—and important—to analyze and challenge the factors and agents that compel migrants to leave their homes and that deny them passage and entry to the relatively safety and security of places like the United States. Because it does the former without doing the latter, while reinforcing ugly images of Mexico that inform anti-immigrant sentiment, Sin Nombre is hardly progressive or radical, and is regrettably part tragedy in more ways than one.

JOSEPH NEVINS teaches geography at Vassar College. His most recent book is Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008). He can be reached at jonevins@vassar.edu