Act of Love
“They wanted to make sure their family was intact, and they crossed the border because they had no other means to work to be able to provide for their family. Yes, they broke the law, but it’s not a felony. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.”
“When I was young, we weren’t deluded like they are now.” As the old man speaks, you see a freight train loaded with young men, piled on the tops of cars as it snakes its way toward the US border. The train is called La Bestia (the Beast), infamous for the wild ride it offers as well as the many would-be migrants who begin that ride but don’t make it to the “promised land.”
As La Bestia recedes from view, its passengers remain desconocidos, unknowns. And here the film Who Is Dayani Cristal? cuts to the old man’s face, weathered by the sun, his hat pushed back from his forehead as he speaks: “People were afraid of the trip and jumping on the train,” he says, but because survivors have described the thrill and beauty of the ride, “Now, 14 or 15-year-olds are ready to risk it all to get to the United States.” You see the train again, shot from a low angle, so see are no people, just battered cars and the rusted wheels that so frequently catch riders who fall from the train as it travels.
Here the frame cuts again, to a shot from inside the train on Gael García Bernal, the movie star. He’s climbing up onto the train, cameras positioned variously to record his ride, which does, briefly, look wild and beguiling, like an adventure. The riders with Bernal welcome him to the top of their car, they remember previous rides, they sing with him as the sun sets. If the transitions in Who is Dayani Cristal? are sometimes clumsy, the point is clear, that the film means not to celebrate this brief moment of seeming adventure, but to emphasize the risks it represents. For the journey Bernal undertakes for the film—on which he has collaborated with director Marc Silver—reimagines the one taken by the man referenced by the title, the man who was found dead in the Sonora Desert on 3 August 2010, his chest tattooed with the name “Dayani Cristal.”
“In life, he was considered invisible, an illegal. Now in death, he is a mystery to be solved,” begins Who Is Dayani Cristal?, which follows Bernal’s journey (“I will never understand the extent of the dangers he faced,” Bernal concedes, “I can only try to retrace his steps and see where they take me”) and also another sort of journey, the attempt to identify the body. For this part, the film—part documentary, part poetic meditation, part indictment of a system designed to lose people—observes the stark daily work of search and rescue officers, collecting remains (whether these be bodies or bones) and medical examiners, inspecting arms and legs and teeth, sorting through effects, searching databases for records and fingerprints and names that may or may not be clues. “Dayani Cristal” is rather a striking first hint, even as its reference is unclear.
Working in a center where remains are stored and catalogued, missing persons investigator Lorena Ivon Ton-Quevedo explains that she feels an obligation to families, to help them to know what’s happened to someone who’s missing. “I try to put myself in the shoes of this person,” she says. Forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson plays another part in the process, seeking evidence of a life in death. As he’s seen a tenfold increase in the numbers of bodies found in Arizona since 2000, he also has ideas about why people take such risks. “The problem is all economic,” he notes, having to do with US needs for workers. “We’re dangling the carrot in grocery stores, in hotels and service industries,” he says, and yet we have yet to admit that we “benefit from a blue collar labor force that has brown skin.” As the story is turned around to blame the workers for crossing the border, to turn them into criminals, the stories of their lives are lost.
These stories are the business of the Missing Migrants Project, whose executive director Robin Reineke points out immediate, practical limits. “These are just bodies that have been found by accident,” she points out, “Nobody’s out there looking for them.” This because their journeys must be secret, because they travel without identification papers, because they can’t possibly be prepared for the dangers they face. Even those migrants who have made the trip before, who have been arrested and sent back and return to the border, can’t anticipate all the vagaries of weather and illness and dehydration, the perilous tilt of a train or what happens if you fall asleep at the wrong moment.
Bernal imagines vagaries from Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico, traveling on buses and on foot. As he travels, his red baseball cap becomes a helpful identifier, whether he’s shot at a distance or, more often, when the camera follows closely, over his shoulder as he crosses a street, makes his way through a market, kicks a soccer ball or converses with unnamed travelers. One person who does have a name is Alejandro Salalinde, a priest who maintains the shelter Hermanos en el Camino in Oaxaca. The shelter’s mission seems daunting, as the padre explains: it’s located near railroad tracks, in order to “catch them as soon as they come off the train.” There’s no way of knowing how many he doesn’t “catch,” how many take a next step into an unknown future, into the desert.
The desert too often produces skulls and spines preserved in drawers, torn photos or handwritten notes or cash money saved in plastic bags. If Bernal’s retracing must be incomplete, can must only gesture toward what’s been lost, the John Doe toe tags tell another version of this story. “The dehumanization of migrants is something that has allowed this to happen,” Reineke says, “We see a law and we see a lawbreaker, the illegality comes first, before someone’s life or someone’s health or someone’s little kids.” The lawbreakers may or may not be “deluded,” as the old man near film’s start suggests. But they do have reasons for taking their journeys, and these reasons make more like us than “we” might imagine. While Who Is Dayani Cristal? begins with its titular question, it ends with many others, including who this “we” can be, the we who see laws and lawbreakers instead of people.