Central American migration in Cinema, an infinite journey

Central American migration in Cinema, an infinite journey

2300 people stood up on May 22, 2013 at the Festival de Cannes to applaud the guatemalan performers Brandon López and Karen Martínez, as well as Rodolfo Domínguez, from Mexico, during the premiere of La Jaula de Oro, debut feature film of the Hispanic-Mexican Diego Quemada-Diez. In the center of the room, the young actors did not know how to respond to the avalanche of applause having won the Joint Prize for Best Performance in the section Una cierta mirada of Cannes.

Four years earlier, the Sundance Festival, also among the most prestigious in the world, awarded the American director Cary Jogy Fukunaga for another debut film, Sin Nombre (2009). Both films deal with a common theme: the long journey that Central American migrants face to the United States. These films, like others that characterize the most recent production, show how the most dangerous part of the journey is to cross Mexico, either on the train known as the Beast or through the desert. The sum of the components that involve corruption, coyotes, gangs. as well as the risk of getting onto the train on the move, means that few of these migrants reach their destination.

The Mexican director Luis Mandoki, known for Voces inocentes (2004), a film about children in the Salvadoran civil war, ventured into this new problematic with the feature film La vida precoz y breve de Sabina Rivas (2012), in which a Honduran teenager travels to Guatemala with the desire to continue north and falls prey to a network of prostitution and deception. This film crudely reveals the complex web of corruption and violation of human rights that migrants face. On the border drug trafficking, gangs, child abuse, human trafficking, rape, torture and murder coexist under impunity.

Mexican actor García Bernal has been personally involved in the issue. As he said in the presentation of the Oscars 2017 awards: "I am opposed to any wall that tries to separate us". With this objective he made four short documentaries under the title Los invisibles (2010). The first, Seaworld (for the water park of which many migrant children dream of) was filmed in a Mexican shelter in which Central Americans narrate the robberies, abuses, tortures and murders survived through Mexico. 

Seis de cada diez shows Honduran women fleeing poverty and machismo, as they learn first hand that "6 out of 10" suffer sexual abuse during the journey. Those that remain refer to the suffering of relatives who remain behind, without knowing the fate of their loved ones, amid images of common graves and corpses scattered along the way.

Los Invisibles  is not only clear and direct in its approach, it uses an original cinematographic writing and a visual language that mixes beautiful images with others of intense rawness and brutality.

The direction is shared between García Bernal and British director Mark Silver. Together they also made the feature-length documentary ¿Quién es Dayani Cristal? (2013), from a corpse found in the desert with a tattoo with that name. From the forensic search to identify the body, the directors made a film that includes dramatizations in which Garcia becomes another migrant: "... my new friends take me to the border of my own country, Mexico, and they explain to me how to cross ".

The tour is interspersed with interviews with the family of Dayani Cristal's father, Yohan. The leukemia of his eldest son forced him to emigrate, he fell ill in the desert and, as the migrant law says, "he who stays stays." The documentary concludes with the epitaph: "Dilcy Yohan Sánchez Martínez died 20 minutes by car from the city of Tucson. He was 29 years old. He left behind his wife and three children. Elvin, Yohancito and the youngest, Dayani Cristal. "

Juan Carlos Rulfo is another of the prestigious documentalists who has dealt with the subject. Los que se quedan (Rulfo and Carlos Hagerman, co-directors, 2008), winner of the best documentary at the Festival de Guadalajara, present the consequences of the departure of the men who leave and the anxiety that sets in the lives of those who remain , the uncertainty of not knowing if they arrived, if they survived, or if someday they will return.

La Bestia (2010) by Petro Ultreras focuses on the journey of the freight train that travels 5000 kilometers to the United States, a horizon of uncertainty that another documentalist, Juan Manuel Sepúlveda, calls La frontera infinita (2007).

This film, along with El camino of the Costa Rican Ishtar Yasin, a film about Nicaraguan migration to Costa Rica, was one of the two from Latin America that appeared that year at the Berlin Festival and coincided on the same theme.



The approach to migration as a theme has a long trajectory in the regional audiovisual production. In 2001, Félix Zurita, a Spaniard living in Nicaragua, made El Chogüi, about a poor boxer who wants to live in the United States.

The Guatemalan Luis Argueta, who has lived in New York since 1988, is one whom has most focused on the subject since his second feature, Colect Call (2002), a parody on migration. His most important contribution is the trilogy of documentaries AbUSAdos, la redada de Postville (2010), Abrazos (2014) y Vuelta en U (2017).

The German director Uli Stelzner is another key documentalist with La isla. Archivos de una tragedia (2009), on the Historical Archive of the Guatemalan Police, and Asalto al sueño (2006), which tells the story of Noah and his companions, who leave the border town of Tecún Umán, threatened by gang members and the police, and they ride the Beast. In the film, women yearn for a society in which single mothers are not seen as prostitutes and being a woman is not a crime. As the artist Regina Galindo says: "Being a woman in Guatemala is an unlivable situation, an inhuman risk".

In Asalto al sueño, Noah warns of the danger they run into: "I wish nobody stays here ... the one that remains here no longer return ... here your life will not be pardoned". Days after the filming, he was murdered, as was Norman, an ex gang member who told his life to the Guatemalan-Mexican director Julio Hernández Cordón. 

The Salvadoran Tomás Guevara presents in his documentary Ausentes (2010) the tearing love of mothers who leave their children with the illusion of offering them a better life. The yearnings of economic prosperity do not prevent the consequences of the rupture. "The material is not everything," a mother cries on camera, wondering if it was worth leaving her children for 12 years. Another documentary, María en tierra de nadie (2011) by the Salvadoran Marcela Zamora, describes the journey of an old woman, in search of a missing daughter, and of two other women who want to settle in the United States.

The recent documentary Casa en tierra ajena (2017) was produced by an interdisciplinary group formed by the researcher Carlos Sandoval and the documentalist Michelle Ferris, from the University of Costa Rica (UCR), and the Audiovisual Unit of the Universidad Estatal a Distancia (UNED), from the same country.

On the other hand, the documentaries Llévate mis amores (2014) by Arturo González Villaseñor and La Cocina de las Patronas (2017) by Javier García approach the life of the patrons and illuminate with a ray of hope an unknown aspect of the convulsive situation Central American migration, solidarity. 



Migration and violence once again made the region a topic on the international agenda after it had been during the politicoal and military conjuncture of the 1980s. However, unlike the preliminary production, whose distribution channels were clandestine or reduced, the current films participate in high-level festivals, commercial networks and online streaming services.

If we enter YouTube we will find a vast amount of materials on the subject in which a complex approach to an equally complex, sensitive and multifactorial phenomenon predominates. I have selected only those works that can be considered author's documentaries and in which both a personal vision and the search for a cinematographic language of their own stand out. I have done the same with fictions.

Through the cinematographic gaze we are sensitized to an object of study and reflection that can not be treated from a single angle: the journey itself, the constant danger that involves getting on a freight train in motion, the mutilated that subsist a double frustration (having reached the middle of their destination by giving a part of their body), the disappeared and the uncertainty of those left behind, the pain that accompanies the dreams made and dreams unrealizable.

The migration and the audiovisual discourse that it generates are made of extremes, like few themes that I have had to face. It reveals the worst and the best of the human condition. Beside the coyotes without mercy, traffickers, gangs and corruption appear, like lights twinkling on the horizon of the desert, community leaders, priests, social agents and exemplary women like the patron saints, who, with hardly any resources of their own, prepare food and water for the migrants and throw them to the moving trains.

We have reviewed movies both Central American and made by directors from other latitudes. In the context of globalization, these productions represent a positive impact for the construction of a Central American audiovisual agenda. Like the population migration from the periphery to the center, audiovisual communication is part of the global exchange flows and the issue of migration is one of the most addressed by the current cinema.

María Lourdes Cortes Pacheco is a Costa Rican and Central American film historian, professor at the University of Costa Rica and director of CINERGIA. She was director of the first Central American school of Cinema and Television (Veritas University) and the Costa Rican Center for Cinematographic Production. She has won many awards such as the Joaquín García Monge Prize, in cultural dissemination and twice the Aquileo J. Echeverría Essay Prize, as well as the "Ezequiel Martínez Estrada" honorific prize and the Best Latin American and Caribbean Film Essay Prize, awarded by the Fundación del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. She has been appointed Professor Humboldt 2017, thanks to which she prepares an investigation about contemporary Central American cinema. On several occasions she has been jury at international film festivals where she has also given talks and workshops. The Government of the Republic of France has awarded her the rank of Knight of the Order of Honor of Merit (2005).

Migrants´ Perspective: Migration Journeys and decision-making

Migrants´ Perspective: Migration Journeys and decision-making
Categoria: Migrant Protection and Assistance
Autor: Guest Contributor


For the fifth consecutive year IOM Missing Migrants Project reports that more than 4,000 people are believed to have died or gone missing on migratory routes across the globe. In 2018 alone, 393 deaths were registered on the US-Mexico border. Likewise, the US Border Patrol has reported that, from 1998 to 2016, over 6900 people have died trying to cross irregularly.

Media, NGOs and government initiatives, such as Mexico´s “Programa Frontera Sur”, have increased the visibility of dangerous and sometimes deadly migration journeys, yet there are still migrants attempting to cross rivers, deserts and other barriers through irregular pathways. 

In the face with these risks and considering that, apparently, the decision to migrate is affected both by external factors (economic, social, cultural), and personal factors (gender, wealth, social networks), how do migrants value migration options? How do they decide where to migrate, how to migrate, a possible return, or even not to migrate?

According to the World Migration Report 2018, all migration theories consider the migrants´ “self-agency” (I.e. migrants´ abilities to make and act upon independent choice or decisions) or a lack thereof in an attempt to understand migration patterns, processes and consequences.

The following consists of a summary of some the findings in recent research, migrant-centric, on migrant decision-making and experiences that should serve as guideline to understanding decisions, about risk and risk-taking migration journeys, including risk of death:



  • The main source of information for migrants is from close social connections. Families, friends and network sources (in social, not geographic terms) are more trusted than official sources.
  • Social media and telecommunications applications (such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube) have become an important source of information. These platforms are used to share information regarding routes, potential risks and rewards of certain transits, asylum practices, political and legislative situations, welfare benefits, destinations and contact information for potential smugglers and even travelling companions.



  • In the absence of accessible regular migration options migrants opt for irregular migration and/or high risk-journeys. On the off hand, people who are more restricted in their ability to migrate internationally (determined by nationality or otherwise), migrate to less desirable, but accessible countries. This is supported by current data on international migrants, for example, although United States is the preferred destination country in the world, it has been showed that a large share of international migration takes place between south-south regions and countries.
  • Migrants are aware of the risks posed by irregular migration journeys. Studies have shown that in the face of high-risk journeys migrants adopt several psychological strategies to lessen the pain.
  • International migration as a survival strategy. For other groups, such as those marginalized in origin countries, migration provides access to resources and safety. For some communities´ the potential reward even if for the next generation or kinship needs to be acknowledged. From migrants´ perspectives, irregular asylum migration can sometimes be the only option available, despite the risks involved, for some it is a safer option than what they are leaving behind. 



  • Migration decisions have increased in social significance and a “culture” of migration has increasingly emerged. Findings show there is an increasing reliance of remittances as key components of household incomes in the origin countries. However, in some communities the “migration cultures” has extended: from a survival strategy at the lack of economic opportunities, to a social competition in which those who decide to stay behind or who cannot move, are stigmatized.



  • When possible, migrants will choose to migrate through regular pathways on visas than irregularly. It is safer and travel options are far greater.
  • In the absence of accessible protection options people sought alternatives available to them, such as labour migration. In some cases, this kind of migration is considered as an alternative for people who could be refugees in a destination country, over asylum via irregular pathways. The preference to be law-abiding extends even to their migration status after arrival, since remaining within the law may have positive implications for return to the origin country, as well as for any future international migration plans that may eventuate.

These findings help us reach a better understanding of the extent to which a person consider taking high risks under the potential reward and opportunities of a better life (however defined). As stated by UN Secretary General António Guterres, on International Migrants Day, behind every migration number there is a person – a woman, a child, a man, with the same dreams as everyone: opportunity, dignity and a better life.