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).

The missing link: using new data for migration governance

Autor: Guest Contributor

The lack of consistent data and collection techniques among countries inhibits the accurate identification of migration trends, as well as the impact that migration has on the institutional framework, economy and wellbeing of people in a country or region.

What are the challenges in migration data?

The first objective for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration stresses the importance of investing in the collection and use of accurate data to conduct evidence-based policy-making.

However, due to lack of technical resources, human capacity and/or funding, many states share limitations in the systematic collection and management of migration data.

According to IOM’s Migration Data Portal, there is more data collected on topics like migrant stocks and remittances, whereas topics such as migration flows, smuggling, migrant health, integration and the impact of migration policies have significant data gaps.

Many developing states simply don’t have the capacity to collect and systematize data at a nationwide scale. For example, according to IOM’s regional report, all ten Commonwealth Caribbean countries have departments or offices dedicated to the development of statistical information, but Jamaica is the only country which has collected migration data that can be systematically disaggregated.

Disaggregated data is particularly valuable, allowing states and organizations to have information on people that is comparable by sex, age, migration status and other relevant characteristics. This way, needs for specific migrant groups like children or women can be made visible and addressed.

The gaps in migrant data can also be largely attributed to the lack of mechanisms that facilitate information sharing between different government agencies and organisms.

All countries maintain records on entries and exits, visas, and permits, but many of them implement different data collection and management practices. Thus, policies between and in states are sometimes incoherent, and countries must work with only patches of information, which restricts their ability to apply a holistic government approach to migration governance.

Amidst these challenges, countries and the international community continue to work towards effectively filling these gaps to attend peoples’ needs.

The promise of new data

In the past, the main method of collecting data was through traditional sources like household surveys, national censuses and administrative records. These sources have a high cost and limitations, like inflexible designs in surveys for example.

Today, new or innovative data sources such as geospatial data, satellite imagery, mobile device data and social media data are gaining momentum fast. These sources represent a huge opportunity given the increased availability of digital records, wider coverage, timeliness, and practically no limitations on how frequently the information can be updated.

The potential applications of new data for migration seem promising. Big data in particular can help anticipate migration trends and movements based on data from social media platforms like Facebook or even from online searches. This same data can also contribute to monitoring public opinion and media discourse on migration at a much lower cost than public surveys.

Nevertheless, the use of new data (especially big data) presents several challenges:

  • Ethical and privacy issues: Automatically generated data raises concerns about confidentiality, misuse and security risks such as surveillance. In the case of IOM, our Data Protection Manual outlines our principles and standards for data governance.
  • Information bias: Big data is inherently biased. Social media and mobile phone users naturally do not represent the entire population, since some segments are over-represented, while other segments don’t use or have access to technology due to factors such as age, sex and economic level. 
  • Technical challenges: Data held by private actors or government entities may be difficult to access or use due to security or legal reasons. One could also encounter weak security systems and inappropriate infrastructure for data collection and management. Additionally, technological change and innovation occur at a fast pace, leading to issues of data continuity.

The way we process and share information is changing, so it’s only responsible that we also work on integrating new and traditional methods with new ones, while improving expertise in new types of data, data analytics (such as machine learning) and use. For management and use, interagency coordination is key, as well as the collaboration with both private and public sectors to transform data into policies that impact real people’s lives and contribute to sustainable development.

Along this line, IOM is currently in the process of implementing a project financed by the International Development Fund (IDF) to strengthen the institutional capacities for migration through the development of a migration information system that will allow Mesoamerican and Caribbean countries to have data on migration relevant for the design of migration policies. 

One of the main activities of this project consists of creating a Regional Network for the development of a Virtual Information Platform for Migration Governance (VIPMG). This Network will work on the exchange of migratory information (records of international arrivals and departures, residences, returns and other administrative data), as well as strengthening coordination and information flows between countries.

This platform aims to include preliminary statistics and analytics of administrative data to provide decision-makers with evidence-based information to support policy-making, thus assisting in improving data management capacities in order to use administrative data to its full potential, and provide information to monitor the Sustainable Development Goals related to migration.

The Northern Triangle Migration Information Initiative (NTMI) also aims to fill gaps in data migration(such as data on returning migrants and registration coverage) and enable informed decision-making, but is focused on populations in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). NTMI has generated reliable information on migration, displacement and its relationship with development for its stakeholders in the region. 

Other resources:

IOM’s Migration Data Portal: https://migrationdataportal.org/

IOM’s Migration Information and Data Analysis System (MIDAS): https://www.iom.int/sites/default/files/our_work/DMM/IBM/updated/midas-brochure18-v7-en_digital-2606.pdf

UN Global Working Group (GWG) on Big Data for Official Statistics: https://unstats.un.org/bigdata/

IOM report, More than numbers: How data can have real impact on migration governancehttps://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/public%20sector/our%20insights/how%20migration%20data%20can%20deliver%20real%20life%20benefits%20for%20migrants%20and%20governments/more-than-numbers.ashx

 Northern Triangle Migration Information Initiative (NTMI) project (Gestión de Información de Movilidad Humana en el Triángulo Norte): https://mic.iom.int/