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).

Turn on the microphones! Five keys to giving youth a voice on migration issues

Turn on the microphones! Five keys to giving youth a voice on migration issues
Categoria: Communication & Migration
Autor: Guest Contributor

Radio is still a medium that, especially in rural areas where access to the Internet is difficult, is still very much alive and shows itself to be an accessible alternative for the population. Whether in the car, in an app on the phone or in a device that only works with batteries in the most remote areas, the radio is there a few steps away and almost effortlessly. Entertaining us, informing us and accompanying our daily activities. From the largest cities to the most sparsely populated municipalities, radio is an industry that generates jobs and is vital for the dissemination of mass messages to a wide variety of audiences.

How can radio be harnessed as an avenue to empower young people about migration?

After seeing the high impact that this media has on the culture of our communities, these are some actions to be taken that will allow us to bring the message of regular, orderly and safe migration to a youth who may be victims of crimes associated with irregular migration:

  • Find out about community radio or radio stations in your city: This will help you to know all the spaces that exist within the community and to identify the audiences they are aimed at in order to choose the right channel that connects with young people.
  • Identify young leaders in their communities with communication skills: There is no better way to communicate with youth than through voices they can empathize with and identify with.
  • Create content that connects: Talking about migration does not require a serious or monotonous tone. Try to create short but effective messages with easy to understand language and prioritizing the use of storytelling instead of communicating concepts.
  • Create your own online radio station: The radio has undergone a significant evolution in recent years and proof of this is that the number of Internet radio stations has been increasing, which has led to the democratization of radio. You no longer need big budgets to have your own radio station and broadcast different contents 24 hours a day, this is a good alternative if there are not or do not have access to have space on traditional radio stations.
  • Develop empowering initiatives: Young people possess many talents: dynamism, fast learning and, of course, a lot of creativity. Therefore generating training spaces on radio production issues will help to discover hidden talents and form new opinion leaders, without leaving behind the importance of also empowering them on migration issues, this will allow them to transmit better messages that promote a safe, orderly and regular human mobility and will help them themselves to make better decisions regarding migration.

A success story of such activities is 'Youth on the Airwaves', a workshop on radio and migration that harnesses the energy of young people who are leaders in their communities and shows them the potential of the radio industry as a method of generating livelihoods and making their voices heard.

As a product of this initiative, the young people created their own radio spots to promote a better informed migration, from the ideation of the creative concept, script development, voice-over practice, recording and editing, in all these processes they received the support of both IOM staff and a team of experts in radio production.

A few years ago, former United Nations Secretary Ban Ki-moon stressed that "radio is very important to make the voice of youth heard, it stimulates the imagination and shortens the distances between people". One more reason to bring the media closer and generate spaces for youth in order to disseminate messages aimed at providing the population with sufficient and verified information that will allow them to make better decisions before embarking on a migratory route.