The Celestial Railroad: Shifting Debates on the Immigrant Experience in ‘Sin Nombre’


“Cancion Mixteca”

¡Qué lejos estoy del suelo donde he nacido!

inmensa nostalgia invade mi pensamiento

y al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento

How far I am from the land where I was born

Immense sadness fills my thoughts

I see myself so alone and so sad

Like a leaf in the wind

— José López Alavés

Director Cary Fukunaga has been making headlines these past few months. If it’s not his rumored love affair with Michelle Williams that keeps him on the radar of gossip journalists all over the world, it’s his well-received adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, and Judi Dench that keeps him in the spotlight. This star-studded cast is quite a change from his directorial debut, Sin Nombre, for which he contractually arranged the cast to consist entirely of Central Americans.

Fukunaga won the Best Director Award at the 2009 Sundance Festival for his human portrayal of illegal immigration, one of the most divisive and vexing issues in American society and politics today. Nevertheless, Sin Nombre still has not gotten the attention it deserves. It paints a picture of migration that is more realistic than a lot of documentaries have managed to, even though it at times idealizes the benefits of migration.

The story traces the unlikely alliance between Willy, a Mexican youngster and member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang known as El Casper to his friends, and Sayra, a Honduran girl who is on the way to the US with her father to join his new family there. They find themselves relying on each other as they make the dangerous trip on a freight train to the US border, as Willy is on the run after murdering his local gang leader in an act of revenge, and Sayra has become separated from her father and uncle and is vulnerable as a lone girl on a male-dominated train.

While contemporary debates on migration often revolve around the construction of the “illegal immigrant” (either entirely vilified, most prominently perhaps in 2006’s conservative documentary Border War, or victimized) and the impact of these immigrants on particularly the United States, Sin Nombre shifts the focus to the hardships the migrants themselves have to endure on the route from Central America to the US and the grief they experience when abandoning their homeland and relatives for an uncertain future. It does so in an uncompromising way, acknowledging the wide diversity of people that seeks entry into the US for a range of motives; from transnational gangs to broken families, it becomes clear through Sin Nombre that the discussion of immigrants as a monolithic group that should either be banned altogether or embraced as a whole is highly ineffective and unproductive.

The role of the US in regulating borders, not only the US-Mexican one, but also by extension the southern border of Mexico by paying the Mexican government to secure their border from Central American immigrants, is problematic: the US has introduced factories that have uprooted much of the population, but fails to take any form of responsibility for this.

The casting of local actors was only one of the ways in which Fukunaga tried to make his depiction of immigration as authentic as possible. The result was a mix of experienced actors, such as Paulina Gaitan, who plays the female lead, Sayra, complete newcomers like Edgar Flores, who plays male lead Willy aka El Casper, and migrants who feature in the film as extras. Fukunaga actually travelled on the trains himself and talked extensively with migrants, and parts of the film are even filmed on the train.

The above-quoted lyrics, from José López Alavés’ 1934’s “Cancion Mixteca”, was another way for Fukunaga to ensure that his film would have a realistic quality; he uses only traditional musical styles of the regions the film is set in, and as such strongly refocuses the discourses surrounding immigration. The film is based within the discourse of migration on the American continent, and it’s only within this context that the codes (such as the wide prevalence of the myth of the American Dream) can be decoded: the love story of Sayra and El Casper is just the top layer, as the real story is migration and the increasing interconnectedness of people and economies on the American continent. It’s insignificant that Sayra is Honduran and Casper Mexican (as is further evidenced by the fact that Paulina Gaitan is in fact Mexican and Edgar Flores Honduran), as it’s their attempt to reach America that unites them, and their nationalities are never an obstruction for identification with one another.

In fact, the allure of the United States on Latin American immigrants is so strong that not even statistics of failure are able to deconstruct the myth, and Sin Nombre accurately shows that migration occurs for a wide array of reasons, that are not exclusively economic. The film opens with a shot of Casper in his impoverished living conditions, a neighborhood of one-story concrete homes, looking at a poster of a green landscape. In the script, Fukunaga writes that the poster represents Texas. For Casper, Texas is the promised land, an escape from his misery and the site of his dreams of climbing the social ladder: “Near a highway in Texas, I saw the factory where they make [planes]. It had this huge sign, like a globe, all lit up and bright. Man, I wanted to climb it,” he tells Sayra. His admiration for the advanced technologies that he has seen while in the United States contributes to the myth of the country as a refuge, a place of unlimited possibilities, where he cannot only literally climb a globe, but rise figuratively, as well.

He’s not the only one who believes in the myth, as hundreds of Central Americans each day gather at train yards to start their journey. Capitalism and the hope of improvement pervade all Central American countries equally: Smiley, the youngest member of the Mara Salvatrucha, presents Casper with a bag full of stolen portable CD-players, MP3-players, and a digital camera that for Casper soon becomes his only keepsake of his happy life with girlfriend Martha Marlen. Besides these commodities, it’s the American dollars of her father Horatio that get Sayra to the US-Mexican border.

“Not half these people are going to make it,” Horacio tells his daughter. “But we will.” This positive attitude is present in all migrants featured in the film, who are convinced that they will be one of the few success stories in a slew of failures.

The film’s producers are equally invested in the idea of immigration as an indispensible good, for both migrants and the capitalist system: “The world — the economic situation — demands that labor comes from different places, but there’s no rules, no protection, no legality for people that just want to work,” executive producer Gael Garcia Bernal remarked. (From the official Sin Nombre Press Pack by Giorgia Lo Savio, Revolver Entertainment Group, August 2009 ) Bernal hints at the fact that the capitalist system is based on the concept of turnover: as Melissa S. Wright has argued, workers are commoditized as variable capital “The Dialectics of Still Life: Murder, Women, and Maquiladoras” , Public Culture, Fall of 2009). In this role, they are regarded as producing extra value on top of their labor for companies, but are discarded when their resources are dried out (185). It’s only through flexibility that the means of production can be perpetuated, as industries—especially those that require manual work—depend on a constant availability of labor to fill in for the vacancies through turnover.

However, Bernal’s remark about immigrants who “just want to work” is deconstructed by the film itself. “I was a baby when he left for the North,” Sayra says of her father. Her father’s second wife, Yessenia, is already living in New Jersey, and he illegally lived in the US for ten years as well, but was deported, and is now seeking to reunite with his children and wife (Fukunaga screenplay). Therefore, the migration of Sayra, her uncle Orlando and her father needs to be framed within the network theory, developed by Douglas S. Massey (Spittel, Mike. :Testing Network Theory through an Analysis of Migration from Mexico to the United States”, Center for Demography and Ecology). Migration of a family or community member can be utilized to facilitate knowledge and subsequent migration from more members of the family or community to a particular destination (7). Sayra and her uncle can rely on Horacio’s actual migrant experience, and are forced to mesmerize Yessenia’s telephone number, as she is willing to assist them once they arrive in New Jersey.

In the Hands of the Devil

Sayra’s attempt to reconstruct her family, torn apart by immigration, is paralleled by El Casper’s failed attempt to find a family in his gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, “a family with thousands of brothers.” The heavily tattooed members cement their unity with a level of unprecedented cruelty, killing a member of a rival gang with a pipe gun and feeding his intestines to the dogs, with additional shock value added in the fact that children are present to witness this.

The portrayal of the Mara Salvatrucha draws upon stereotypes regarding Latin American gangs that have been prevalent since the zoot suit riots: “[the Latin American’s] desire is to kill, or at least let blood,” the public prosecutor asserted at the time. (As Rachel Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick describe in Immigration in American Popular Culture: An Introduction, New York University Press, 2007,) However, the Mara Salvatrucha did not originate in Central America, but in Los Angeles in the ’60s, and then spread its influence to other countries rather than the other way around. Gangs constitute such an important component of identity in the lives of its members, that we only learn El Casper’s civilian name, Willy, when he subverts the bonds of brotherhood by killing the local leader. Gang life is in a sense the other mode of survival: one can either go North and make money there, or exploit the people who go North.

For the Mara Salvatrucha (MS), immigration has become the commodity to exploit: they engage in train raids and smuggling people and drugs across the border. Sin Nombre subverts its own objective of humanizing migrants in that it reinforces the fears of criminals, such as gang members—or terrorists, a discourse that has become foregrounded after 9/11—entering the US through illegal border crossings as is shown that gangs have a fairly regular pattern of circular migration. Willy and some of the other members have been to Texas, they can travel freely between countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, and the United States, and the chapters of the MS are all closely connected.

The gangs are controlled from Los Angeles, and within the gangs the American influence is apparent; members refer to each other as jomi, a variant of the American homie, they have American nicknames such as “El Scarface”, “Smiley” and “El Smokey”, and all cities alongside the railroad have a local chapter to maximize the control on immigration. Instead of humanizing policies to prevent abuse of immigrants by gangs, the film can therefore be appropriated as an argument for intensifying Border Patrol and the militarization of the border, creating a dichotomy within the film.

However, Sin Nombre signals a double exploitation: the migrants are not only victimized by gangs, but also by la migra, the border patrol active in Mexico. A study conducted in Chiapas found that criminals (47.5 percent) and border patrol agents (15.2 percent) are indeed the main culprits in abusing immigrants from Central America (Guzman “A Martínez Rodríguez, del grupo beta, ‘lo mató la mafia.” Proceso). “You’ll make it to the USA, not in God’s hands, but in those of the Devil,” a neighbor told Sayra. In the film, “the devil” stands for both the gangs—Willy is referred to as the devil by fellow immigrants on the train, and the Salvatrucha’s hand signal is the devil horn—and the border patrol, who extort money from all immigrants at the border between Tecun Uman (Guatemala) and Ciudad Hidalgo (Mexico).

Throughout their entire train ride through Mexico, huddled atop train cars, the immigrants live in fear of immigration checkpoints, and Horacio dies when he falls on the tracks trying to escape the border patrol. The presence of the border patrol in Mexico and along its southern border with Guatemala is part of El Plan Sur, or the Orderly and Secure Repatriation-program, an initiative of the Mexican government to tackle immigration before it reaches the American border . The INM (Instituto Nacional de Migracion) devised the program in 2001, and it received backing from US authorities. In 2005, the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) was formed, and a close alliance between Mexican and American authorities was devised to combat illegal immigration.

The US has often been said to push its border further south and to employ Mexico to execute a significant part of its immigration policy with economic advantages in return, a perspective to which the film adheres. Central Americans have a much longer and more strenuous journey ahead of them, and therefore a lower change of succeeding. The Mexican population is at times portrayed as openly hostile to the Central American immigrants. In San Luis Potosi, 550 miles south of the border, children throw rocks at the people on the train, and yell “Fucking immigrants, get out of here!”

While in most discourses Mexicans are portrayed as the immigrants, in Sin Nombre the roles are reversed and they are now the receiving country. Immigrants are subhuman in the eyes of many Mexicans, and therefore become subjects of exploitation. When Casper’s girlfriend asks him if he kills people he replies: “Not people… chavalas and sometimes stupid ass immigrants.” It’s moments such as these that are most innovative in popular portrayals of migration, and Fukunaga does a good job at opening up debate by offering these wider perspectives.

Indeed, Fukunaga should be commended for his realistic approach to the topic, as he himself rode on the train in preparation, and much of the film is shot on an actual train with actual immigrants, but Sin Nombre nevertheless fails to avoid some patterns that keep recurring in portrayals of migration. It contributes to the myth of the American Dream, as good girl Sayra makes it to the US and a happy future seemingly awaits her—the last time we see her, she is on the phone in front of a shopping mall, and cries with relief at hearing Yessenia’s warm voice on the other side of the line. Willy, on the other hand, is murdered, and hereby the criminal threat for the US is neutralized.

Nevertheless, Sin Nombre is a correction to the dominant discourses on immigration, and is tightly framed within the current situation and policies surrounding the influx of immigrants in the US. As international economic policy expert Wendy Dobson sums up in a report, Mexico “[will] have to weigh the potential benefits of deeper integration [in a North American alliance] against the risk of losing sovereignty” (Dobson, “Shaping the Future of the North American Economic Space”, C.D. How Institute Commentary).

The film’s essential lesson is that migration is emotional and painful and tears apart families at both sides of the border. “Your uncle has been deported, and your father is with the angels,” is the heartbreaking message Sayra gets near the border. With children incorporated into gangs—Smiley becomes the poster child of a generation lost to violence when he kills Willy—and hundreds of migrants killed during the train ride, Fukunaga effectively deconstructs the romanticized dream that hangs over the United States, and renders it impossible for Americans to decouple migrants from the exploitation they already have had to endure when coming to the US.

Migration, a process that has been theorized from numerous angles, is given an emotional counterpart, most palpable in Casper’s naïve dream at the beginning of the film: “We could go to Six Flags.”


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