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).

In a distant country, Erick daydreams - #MigrantsDay

In a distant country, Erick daydreams - #MigrantsDay
Categoria: Return and Reintegration
Autor: Laura Manzi

Story based on the testimony of Erick Galeas, a returnee.

The outbound journey

The heat was suffocating, as if the breaths of fresh air had forgotten that point in the world, where an immense dryness permeated every corner. The ground burned, the sun gave no truce. And this was no small matter: Erick hated the heat, which only made him feel tired and weak.

On those long days with his skin so exposed to the sun, he would try to find some place in the shade to relax for a little while, alone with his thoughts. It may seem absurd, but at that moment, instead of worrying and being overcome by fear and agitation due to the long-awaited trip, the only thing he could think of was that sweater that he intended to buy once arrived in the United States. He wanted to live in a cold place, this was clear to him, to buy a lot of coats and scarves, and to have frozen hands. Wasn't that part of the American dream too? To be able to escape that dryness and have a closet full of sweaters?

The city of Tijuana, in Mexico, served as the setting for Erick's mental wanderings. It had been also his temporary residence for almost a month. Residence, not home. Erick had been living far away from home for nine months, since he left Honduras and began his journey: one day in Guatemala, one month in Chiapas, six months in Veracruz, then Ciudad Juárez and now there, Tijuana. Nine long months treasuring the desire to be able to find better economic opportunities and support his family that he left behind, which was enthusiastic about the idea of being able to receive some remittances.

To fight for his wish, Erick had to pay for his trip by working, doing whatever job he could find, often up to sixteen hours a day for a paltry salary. But that was not a time to be discouraged, because the next day Erick was going to cross the Mexican border into the United States, after having paid 7 thousand dollars  to a smuggler who promised to finally take him to his destination. This is how Erick's last trip to the north began: early in the morning, on any given Tuesday.

You may have noticed that Erick's imagination led him to daydreaming very often, and at the beginning of his journey, after months of malnutrition, he was wondering what his first meal in the US would have tasted like. Surely it would have been the most delicious meal of the last nine months, a meal that tastes of success ... And then wham!, his reverie was suddenly interrupted. An immigration police officer instantly nullified all of Erick's efforts, who was arrested shortly after. But that was not the end of his journey; little did he know that he still had six months to spend in detention: first in California, then in Arizona, Ohio, Louisiana, and Michigan. In his fantasy there were no police officers or detainees; however, this was the only image that Erick could capture from the United States.

How angry he felt when the comments of people who said "it is easy to get to the United States" and "it is a matter of one, maximum two weeks" came to mind. The lack of truthful and adequate information had been an accomplice to his misadventure. Erick was tired, disappointed, and alone. He was also afraid, because in the detention centers there were not only migrants seeking a better life, but also some common criminals who intimidated others, exacerbating their feelings of discomfort. For Erick, the only chance for peace was those few minutes of calls that he could share with his family. He told them that he was afraid that the US authorities would deport him to Honduras, and on the 175th day of his arrest, that was precisely what happened.

The return journey 

A bittersweet taste marked Erick's return. Not being able to fulfill his long-awaited American dream made him feel frustrated, almost ashamed and humiliated. His overwhelming sense of failure disappeared for a moment when, after almost a year and a half, he could finally hug his son. "Children grow up so fast," Erick thought. But the little boy was not the only one who had grown up in all that time; Erick had also gone through an enormous process of personal growth, and he had acquired an incredible strength.

Oh, and there was also the Honduran food. That really made his return happy!

It was not easy, it was not quick, but after a long path, on a day like today we can imagine Erick dealing with his daily tasks at his handicraft company in Honduras. His small family-run atelier became a company that sells its products nationwide: souvenir-type crafts that include a large sample of boats, helicopters and airplanes, all made of wood. It is a business that allows him and his family to live with better economic conditions than when Erick decided to venture to the United States.

His work activity was also able to flourish thanks to the help of the IOM (International Organization for Migration), which provided him with the necessary machinery for his work, and also to the CASM (Mennonite Social Action Commission), whose course on entrepreneurship strengthened Erick's management skills. The feeling of frustration that he experienced when he returned to Honduras has been transformed step by step into a feeling of satisfaction and happiness a he saw his business growing and gained greater confidence in himself, in his talent and ability. The training courses and the support provided helped him through a difficult process of return and reintegration, and empowered the young migrant on his return home.

Erick was able to build his economic subsistence and his professional fulfillment in Honduras, and among so many complex and unfortunate stories, this is a story with a happy ending. Even so, from time to time, he cannot help but daydream, thinking about what it would be like to travel to the United States again, this time legally, and stay there, even just for one day: to eat at a different restaurant and buy a thick winter sweater.