Migrating Through Hell: Quemada-Diez’s “La Jaula de Oro”

Opening at Village East Cinema in New York on September 4th, “La Jaula de Oro” (The Golden Dream) is the latest in a series of films I have seen about immigration going back to 1983 when I was deeply moved by “El Norte”. Like that film, “La Jaula de Oro” is about Guatemalans going to the USA but under circumstances far more dire. With the three main characters in their teens, they are far less able to navigate the treacherous path toward an illusory freedom and prosperity. All that sustains them is solidarity borne out of a need to move collectively toward an elusive goal as an older man from Mexico on the trail with them articulates in the very beginning of this gut-wrenching film:

You learn a lot along the path. Here, we are all brothers. We all have the same need. What’s important is that we learn to share. Only in this way can we move ahead, only in this way can we reach our destination, only a united people can survive. As human beings, there is no place in the world where we are illegal.

In the opening scene we meet Sara (Karen Martínez) who has entered a public lavatory in a dusty slum somewhere in Guatemala. The looks of the neighborhood are all you need to understand why she is risking everything on a trip north. After she locks the door, she begins cutting her hair until it is a boy’s length, wraps a sash around her breasts to flatten them, and finally changes into jeans and a t-shirt. It is obvious that appearing male will lessen the risks but only somewhat as she will learn.

She heads to the railway tracks with her boyfriend Juan (Brandon López) in order to hop a rail going north. On the way there, the two run into a Guatemalan Indian named Chauk who does not speak a word of Spanish and who Juan dismisses as a “stupid Indian”. His hostility is likely a mixture of bigotry and alpha male defense of his sexual prerogatives. For his part, Chauk will show little interest in prying the two apart and much more in finding traveling companions in LJDO_lowthe arduous trek in front of them.

Like the 2009 “Sin Nombre”, another film about immigrants headed north, passage is made on trains just as was the case in the 1930s when millions of Americans became hobos for the first time in their life, mostly out of the need to survive rather than to satisfy wanderlust.

Whether set in the Western Hemisphere or in Africa like “The Pirogue” that traces the path taken to Europe in leaky boats, the story is a variation on the “road” plot that is as old as written literature and even older if you go back to Homer’s Odyssey. When Jack Kerouac hopped a train in “On the Road”, it was a way of finding himself. For the poor people heading north on railroad trains from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico, it is a way of finding a job.

Like Odysseus fending off the Sirens or the Cyclops, the three teenagers have to deal with gangsters on and off the trains whose intentions range from petty larceny to murder. Some of the gangsters, it should be added, are in uniform. In a number of these encounters Chauk shows his mettle and gradually wins Juan to his side. The broader lessons for Latin American politics could not be more obvious now that the interests of progressive governments bent on development based on mineral and petroleum extraction clash with indigenous rights to land and water, as well as cultural survival.

Given the tender age of the protagonists, it would not be reasonable to expect them to have the psychological depth or complex motivations of adult characters. Writer/director Diego Quemada-Diez aspires to realism, so it is totally appropriate that the three youngsters have simple tastes and aspirations, mostly revolving around the hopeless “Golden Dream”. (See Doug Valentine’s interview in CounterPunch with Quemada-Diez.)

Quemada-Diez was born in Spain but has lived in the Americas for the last 20 years. “La Jaula de Oro” is his first feature film. It is not surprising given his social consciousness that he has worked as a cameraman on two of Ken Loach’s films. In the press notes he defined his goals in making this film:

The social reality in Latin America requires cinema to be deeply engaged with the world as it is. I am interested in making films firmly rooted in our contemporary society. true realism has it all: fantasy and reason, suffering and utopia, the happiness and pain of our existence. I want to give voice to migrants – human beings who challenge a system established by impassive national and international authorities by crossing borders illegally, risking their own lives in the hope of overcoming dire poverty.

There is obviously no better time for such a film to be showing now that Donald Trump’s campaign has ignited a xenophobic flame that has by no means reached its peak. While most of the outrage against Trump has come from Democratic Party leaders, it should never be forgotten that Barack Obama extended a number of Bush administration anti-immigrant policies, including a “zero-tolerance” program that jails immigrants caught crossing parts of the U.S.-Mexico border as well as constructing an a $8 billion “virtual” fence of tower-mounted sensors and cameras. Filmed on location, “La Jaula de Oro” shows the intimidating walls that separate the USA and Mexico, reminding one of those that have been erected in the West Bank. They, like the men and women who made them possible, are hideous.

There is a tendency to characterize the thousands of people dying in boats or trailers as refugees from wars in the Middle East and Africa even though many had just as much to dread from economic ruin. As such, many have been eligible for political asylum in Western European countries in years past but largely due to the growth of nativist parties like Marine Le Pen’s, there is now a much more hostile environment.

And even when a country like Sweden continues to welcome those fleeing wars or persecution, the road there has Homeric challenges as Aljazeera reported in January 2014 about a dentist named Hussein’s exodus from Syria:

He paid a Turkish smuggler $2,750 for the 30-minute boat ride to Kos, the trip that left him stranded in the sea, clinging to life. He was sent directly to a detention centre after being rescued. After being freed, Hussein travelled to Athens and paid $2,000 for a fake Spanish passport and a plane ticket to Stockholm. The badly fabricated document, however, was exposed at the airport and he was not allowed to board the flight. With no other recourse, Hussein took a ferry to Italy, and then paid $2,000 for a 30-hour car ride with several other Syrians from Milan to Stockholm, finally arriving in the country on December 14.

On September 2nd the New York Times reported on the immigration crisis roiling Europe that put Germany in a good light. Angela Merkel was depicted as a virtual Oskar Schindler for standing up to racists in her nation who favor closed borders just like Donald Trump. Buried within the Times article are the hard economic facts that dictate German policy. With its aging society averse to large families, Germany is shrinking quickly and will ultimately become economically unviable insofar as reduced tax revenues might threaten benefits for the retired, the disabled and the unemployed. “Germany needs more immigrants,” one woman told the newspaper.

Economics usually determines immigration policy, even to the point of unleashing the Ultimate Weapon that Donald Trump probably fantasizes about in his more demonic moments: genocide. . In 1967 when I was first coming around the Trotskyist movement, I asked a party intellectual why Nazi Germany persecuted the Jews. He recommended that I read a book titled “The Jewish Question” by Abram Leon, a revolutionary who died in Auschwitz in 1944.

For Leon, it was an influx of Eastern European Jews into Germany during the post-WWI economic turmoil that allowed Hitler to single them out as a scapegoat just as Trump is doing with Mexicans. For the Jews, leaving Poland or Hungary to go to Germany was like going from the frying pan into the fire. Leon writes:

After the first imperialist war, the countries of Western and Central Europe: Germany, Austria, France, and Belgium, saw tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants, in tatters, lacking all resources, pour in from Eastern Europe. The seeming postwar prosperity permitted these elements to penetrate into all branches of business and artisanry. But even the Jewish immigrants who had penetrated into the plants did not remain there for long.

The economic catastrophe of 1929 threw the petty-bourgeois masses into a hopeless situation. The overcrowding in small business, artisanry and the intellectual professions took on unheard of proportions. The petty bourgeois regarded his Jewish competitor with growing hostility; for the latter’s professional cleverness, the result of centuries of practice, often enabled him to survive hard times more easily. Anti-Semitism even gained the ear of wide layers of worker-artisans, who traditionally had been under petty-bourgeois influence.

You don’t have to think too deeply about what happened in Nazi Germany to realize that political persecution and economic hardship are intertwined. Hard times are the ideal breeding ground for nativism as should be obvious from a study of 20th century history. No peoples are above it, not even the Vietnamese who after making a revolution were driven by economic duress to scapegoat the Chinese—or the people of South Africa who are now organizing pogroms against their brothers from Mozambique or Zimbabwe who are there “illegally”.

Since “La Jaula de Oro” is a character study, you wouldn’t expect it to delve into the recent history of Guatemala but the film will have added poignancy for those aware of the hell that was visited on its people in the 1980s, one equal to that which has driven the dentist Hussein from Syria into an uncertain future.

As an El Salvador and Nicaragua activist in the 1980s, I had high hopes that the guerilla army might have toppled the genocidal Guatemalan dictatorship that singled out the kind of community Chauk lived in. Indeed, it was the failure of guerrilla movements to succeed in El Salvador and Guatemala that largely explains the flight to the north today.

Even an imperialist institution like the World Bank is forced to admit the facts. Over 75 percent of the population lives beneath the poverty line with 90 percent of indigenous peoples living below it. 2.5 percent of Guatemala’s farms control 65 percent of the land, while 88 percent of the farms control only 16 percent of the land. The Gini Index for land distribution was calculated to be 85.9. (100 percent is most unequal; zero is perfect equality.)

Although the film did not allude to the nation’s crime rate, it might have been assumed that one of the reasons the three teens were fleeing to the north was to avoid getting killed just as was widely reported about the 62,998 Central American young people who sought refuge in the USA in 2014. The New Yorker reported that a 2007 joint UN and World Bank study ranked Guatemala as the third most murderous country in the world. Between 2000 and 2009, killings kept increasing, finally reaching sixty-four hundred. If Guatemala were as populous as the USA, the number would be 128,000. Guatemala’s murder rate was nearly four times that of Mexico’s. In 2009, more Guatemalans were shot, stabbed, or beaten to death than civilians reported killed in the war zone of Iraq. Given these numbers, it is safe to say that the three protagonists of “La Jaula de Oro” had much more in common with the dentist from Hussein than might have met the eye.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.