(In)visibilities, (De)humanizations and Globalizations: The Migrant Body in Border Film of the 2000s

Stephany Slaughter,

Alma College, USA

“What can account for the fact that certain bodies are hyper-exposed, brightly visible, and magnified, while others are hidden, missing, and vanished?” Monica Casper and Lisa Jean Moore, Missing Bodies: The Politics of Visibility

“The category of the ‘human’ retains within itself the workings of the power differential of race as part of its own historicity. But the history of the category is not over, and the ‘human’ is not captured once and for all. That the category is grafted in time, and that it works through excluding a wide range of minorities means that its rearticulation will begin precisely at the point where the excluded speak to and from such a category.” Judith Butler, Undoing Gender.

“I want to humanize migrants” says Rebecca Cammisa, director of the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning documentary Which Way Home (2009). “With my film, I want to humanize migrants in a dehumanizing system; put a human face on discourses of immigration.” She wants to “vizibilize” invisible migrants, specifically children, through the vérité style documentary that follows unaccompanied child migrants. These children travel by freight train across Mexico in their quest to reach the U.S. for reasons such as longing to reunite with family members, planning to work to send money home to help support their families, and hoping to be adopted and to be “re-born.” I worked with Rebecca on this film as a field producer and translator—my first foray behind the scenes of a film rather than sitting in the audience or viewing a film from behind a scholar’s critical lens. Working with a film and a director with such goals—humanizing the dehumanized; making visible the invisible—inspired me to question the representation of migrants on the big screen. Not wanting to analyze documentary (for fear of being too close to my own film), I wondered how similar questions might play out in fiction films. Through examples from primarily Mexican films (and co-productions) from the past ten years that take up the topic of immigration, this article analyzes the participation of recent border fiction films in the discourses of (de) humanization and (in)“visiblization” of celluloid migrants. [2]

What does it mean to be human? Humanized? Dehumanized? Even if we can agree upon the universal category of human as referring to the scientific species of Homo sapiens, we must also concede that the conceptualization of what it means to be human is far from universal, but rather (re)constructed through time and space according to specific socio-cultural (and economic) lenses. Colonial (and neo-colonial) discourses are rife with the suggestion that some humans are more or less so than others (questioning whether a particular group has a soul, cognitive functions, animalistic qualities, etc.) as justification for the domination of one group of humans over another (the Conquest, the slave trade, and the Holocaust come immediately to mind). Parting from a contemporary gender studies perspective, Judith Butler asks, “Which populations have qualified as the human and which have not? What is the history of this category? Where are we in its history at this time?” (38). [3] And, I would add, what is at stake here? How do the images around us, like those we see in film, help shape contemporary conceptualizations of categories of humanity? I frame this essay with Butler’s reflections that expand questions of gender to broader considerations of humanity, reminding us that there are populations that, at this moment in history, are dehumanized.

A New York Times photo from April 24, 2010 of a young girl holding a “We are human” poster at a march in Phoenix to protest Arizona’s SB 1070 (Archibold) and the ubiquitous signs declaring “No human being is illegal” at various pro-immigrant marches, [4] offer telling responses to Butler’s query (especially considering the latter phrase’s origin in the discourse of Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel). Arguably, government policies, some of which date back to the 1800s, have contributed to public discourses that, intentionally or not, have contributed to the dehumanization of different groups of immigrants at different points in time. I suggest that recent policies and anti-immigrant attitudes stem in large part from the failed promises of NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement), a trade agreement signed in 1993 that was sold to the public as a panacea to reduce illegal immigration, but instead has contributed to its increase. [5] For this essay I concentrate on fiction films that reflect concerns of the post-NAFTA era and that in this context offer alternative representations of migrants than those portrayed in main-stream media where they are often reduced to political talking points, statistics, and gross generalizations. I am particularly interested in considering how these films, some of which explicitly dialogue with government policies, work to rearticulate the category of “human” to include migrants from South of the Rio Grande first by showing them to us—making migrants visible, and then by “humanizing” them through a variety of cinematographic techniques.

Visibility through erasure: invisible labor forces

Since it took effect in 1994, NAFTA has opened borders for products, but not for human beings [6]—something that hasn’t changed under the last two administrations in spite of discussions suggesting possible renegotiations. [7] Arguably a side-effect of NAFTA on both sides of the U.S. Mexico border has been an increased sense of the invisibility of the human aspect of the labor force where the product is valued over the person that makes it, grows it, or constructs it. The same year that the trade agreement took effect, California saw anti-immigrant movements like the famous proposition 187 supported by Governor Pete Wilson. [8] This legislation, also known as “Save Our State” (or SOS), inspired the short film, “Un día sin mexicanos,” (Sergio Arau, Mexico, 1997) which used a “mock-documentary” or “mockumentary” style to imagine what would happen if all the Latinos (regardless of their immigration status) suddenly disappeared from the state. Clearly contextualized not only by references within the film, but also by the final text that dedicated the film to the governor—to whom the filmmakers sent the film as a Christmas gift in 1997 (Arau 26), the short film sought to enter the immigration debate through satire and comedy. Several years later, the same team of Sergio Arau and Yareli Arizmendi took their idea to the big screen with Arau’s first feature film, A Day Without a Mexican / Un día sin Mexicanos (Sergio Arau USA/Mexico/Spain, 2004), whose goal was to “visibilize the invisible”[9] and to emphasize Anglo ignorance of immigrant contributions to California’s economy.

Once again in “mockumentary” film style, A Day Without A Mexican envisions what would happen if all the Latinos in California disappeared through following the stories of Senator Abercrombie (an anti-immigrant senator named governor when the Latino governor disappears), ranch owner Louis McClaire (friendly to immigrant concerns, though his son is a member of an anti-immigrant group that resembles the Minute Men), teacher/housewife Mary Jo Quintana (whose musician husband has disappeared), and reporter Lila Rodríguez (presumably the only Latina inexplicably left behind) interspersed with “experts” who offer testimony regarding possible explanations for the mass disappearance (an “alien” abduction, a form of apocalyptic ascension, a protest for having been taken for granted, etc.). As they day goes on, the state of chaos progresses and the California economy comes to a halt as fruit and vegetables rot in fields or in delivery trucks, trash overflows, children are left without teachers and nannies, restaurants cannot serve food, stores close, lawn mowers are left abandoned, and the border patrolmen complain of boredom and resort to hiring actors to apprehend. Eventually, “the realization that what has disappeared is the very thing that keeps the ‘California Dream’ running—cooks, gardeners, policemen, nannies, doctors, farm and construction workers, entertainers, athletes, as well as the largest growing market of consumers—has turned Latinos and their return into the number one priority in the State.” [10]

The film aspired to humanize “Mexicans” and other Hispanic migrants, [11] however, scholars Marambio and Tew suggest that the film failed to meet this goal, in part due to the decision to use a collective character and in part due to the use of a pseudo-documentary style with talking heads and titles to inform the audience of the many contributions of Latino workers, with the criticism that “the titles […] are impersonal and do not put a human face on the Latinos who are missing” (483). Although I do agree that the film is flawed in its humanization of migrants, especially in its overuse of hyper-stereotypes, I would argue that the choice to use “mockumentary” serves to question the transparency of “truth” in the documentary film genre. [12] The film also questions “truth” and representation in mass media with the inclusion of satire of news broadcasts within the film, complete with the “whitening” of the character of reporter Lila Rodríguez who has been advised to go by “Lyla Rod,” thus “invisibilizing” her ethnicity (until, of course, it becomes useful from a ratings standpoint for her to “come out” as Latina).[13] Together, these questions of “truth” in representation highlight the ways in which migrant bodies are figuratively “disappeared” in dominant media discourse.

The authors also astutely problematize the passivity of the disappeared Latinos (they are not active agents—and when they reappear, they don’t even know they were gone) in comparison with the active role of the Anglos (484). I agree with this criticism, though it may come from targeting the film towards an Anglo audience (that it was released in the US rather than Mexico is telling) [14] with a goal to inspire consciousness in the public, as it does in the film. A Day Without a Mexican is more about the non-Latinos in the film coming to appreciate the contributions of Latinos—coming to see these bodies through their absence—than about Latinos recognizing their own contributions and agency. There is a sort of irony present in the suggestion that this visibility actually requires erasure, which then begs the question of whether the film is subverting notions of invisibility or reinforcing them.

All of this changed in 2006 when, regardless of the film’s actual message regarding Latino agency, it was recontextualized so that it, like the short film it is based on, entered into dialogue with anti-immigrant legislation—this time HR 4437, a law that, according to the film’s directors, “represented on a national scale what Wilson and Proposition 187 represented for California” (Arau 26). The film itself enjoyed renewed interest and many of the marches that took place between March and May spanning more than 160 U.S. cities across 40 states (Bada et. al.) are known by names (some self-selected and some given by the press) that resembled the film’s title: “A Day Without Immigrants,” “A Day Without a Latino,” etc. [15] More than three million immigrant bodies filled the streets to claim visibility for immigrant rights (documented and undocumented) and protest the anti-immigrant “Sensenbrenner Law” that had been approved by the House of Representatives in December of 2005. Part of their strategy mimicked the film with a two-fold symbolic attack on the U.S. market: first by refusing to work in the hopes that, like in the film, their labor contributions would be felt and recognized; and second by boycotting consumerism to demonstrate the role of immigrants as consumers as well. However, unlike the film’s resolution, which is full of new found appreciation for Latino contributions shown through embraces between Anglos and the returned Latinos (including final images of the border patrol celebrating and embracing the Mexicans who have just crossed the border), recent rhetoric continues to call for closing and fortifying the border in the name of security.

In 2008 a film premiered that takes the invisibilization of a Latino workforce to another level as it visualizes a time when the border is completely closed to immigrants from the South and explores the limits of an invisible labor force of “cybraceros” in a world “connected by technology, but divided by borders.” Alex Rivera, director and screen-writer of the science fiction film, Sleep Dealer (US/Mexico 2008), explains in the director’s comments on the film’s website that “This ironic reality pushed me to imagine a future in which borders are sealed, and immigrants no longer come to America. Instead, in the world of Sleep Dealer, immigrants stay in their home countries, connect their bodies to ‘the net,’ and send their pure labor to robots in America. This is what used to be called the ‘American Dream,’ five minutes into the future.” Rivera’s film interrogates the relationship between technology and a variety of political issues including immigration, global economic systems, privatization of natural resources (water), and the war on terror. It is precisely through a visualization of the dehumanization of migrants through technology that the film engages with their humanization. In the words of film critic Steve Ramos in his review of the film for Indiewire.com, “‘Sleep Dealer’ is a film with something to say about humanity and its relationship with technology. This sense of humanity, more than its numerous mind-blowing fantasy images is what ultimately sets ‘Sleep Dealer’ apart.”

This human connection comes through protagonist Memo Cruz’s physical and psychological migration from his traditional (and technologically disconnected) hometown in rural Mexico to bordertown Tijuana, “City of the future.” Memo, a young farmer from Oaxaca obsessed with technology, spends his evenings among circuits and parts listening to the radio and inadvertently intercepts a transmission between drone workers hunting aqua-terrorists. Believing the source of the transmission to also be an aqua-terrorist (who overheard the killing of an unarmed civilian), drone pilot, Rudy Ramirez, followed orders to “eliminate the terrorist intercept.” In a metacinematographic scene that problematizes our role as spectators of violence, the film’s audience sees the diegetic audience of the live reality TV show “Drones” (where “high tech heroes use cutting edge technology and blow the hell out of the bad guys”) cheer to the image of Memo’s father’s charred body as he attempts to crawl from the burning rubble and cheer even louder when Rudy, who first hesitates to follow orders when he sees his human “terrorist” target, finally complies with orders to finish the job and riddles the already mutilated body with bullets. [16] Through this scene, the film asks us to confront the media spectacle of violence (in the names of both reality TV and counter terrorism) and our role as spectators in perpetuating this violence on living bodies. After witnessing his father’s murder, for which his brother blames him and his “pinche radio,” Memo leaves home and migrates from southern Mexico to the northern border in search of work at one of the many cyber-maquilas, known as “sleep dealers.”

Rivera first introduced this invisible workforce in the short-film “Why Cybraceros?” (1997), a mock propaganda announcement modeled after those used during the Bracero Program. (In fact, the short includes some stock footage from original Bracero propaganda films.) The term “Cybracero” bears unpacking. “Bracero” directly engages with the U.S. Bracero Program of 1942-1964, a program that, taking its name from the Spanish “brazo” or “arm,” linguistically fragments migrant bodies and contributes to a discourse of dehumanization. [17] In their article “Fronteras seguras, cuerpos vulnerables: migración y género en la frontera sur” (“Secure Borders, Vulnerable Bodies: Migration and Gender on the Southern Border”), Christine Kovic and Patty Nelly refer to “Brazos sin personas” (arms without people) to describe the program and criticize it for being “based on counting arms (workers), not human beings” (74). The authors connect the attitudes of the Bracero Program with those of today that continue to look for cheap labor but without wanting “human beings with rights” (76), a concern echoed in the short film in its definition of “Cybracero”: “In Spanish Cybracero means a worker who operates a computer with his arms and hands. But in American lingo, Cybracero means a worker who poses no threat of becoming a citizen. And that means quality products at low financial and social costs to you, the American consumer.”

The short film comically represents this idea by showing an animation of a Mexican flexing his arm muscles as he bounces (in 90’s video-game style) towards a border wall, where his body bounces back and his disembodied arms detach and cross. Similarly, Rivera’s first feature film, Sleep Dealer, takes up the technological possibility of disconnecting the “brazos,” the labor, from the people that do the work. They connect their bodies to “nodes” and become part of a globalized machine and are completely dehumanized for their employers— those who receive the fruits of this labor do not have to consider human beings with rights because the body never crosses the border. In the words of the manager of the cyber-maquila, “Este es el sueño americano. Les damos a los Estados Unidos lo que siempre han querido. Todo el trabajo sin los trabajadores” (This is the American Dream. We give the United States what they’ve always wanted—all of the work, without the workers).

As a worker for the “Cybracero” company, the migrant body, invisible in the U.S., becomes a “cyborg” “bracero.” What are the implications here? What does a migrant body cum cyborg mean? [18] Donna Haraway, in her landmark essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” claimed that the cyborg would transgress borders and hierarchies. No longer defined by the material body, for her, the cyborg represents the possibilities of a post-gender, post-race/ethnicity world. More recent scholarship questions this utopic vision, suggesting that the division between human and machine must be considered in terms of gender and class by calling into question who has access to machines versus who is expected to behave like them (González 60). Afro-Cuban performance artist and scholar Coco Fusco argues that technology repeats the colonization of the subaltern body: “The digital divide is not just about access to computers and phone lines—it is about how subaltern bodies are positioned vis-à-vis technology. Colonialism abjected the subaltern body through militarism, forced labor, and scientific objectification—new technologies elaborate and diversify these strategies of domination” (Fusco xvi).[19]

These concerns manifest themselves in the film Sleep Dealer through the images of the cyber-braceros where the portrayal of multiple characters suggest not the post-hierarchy vision espoused by Haraway, but rather a subjugated cyborg that repeats hierarchies of class and gender. The work performed by these cyborgs mirrors that of their bodied selves in contemporary U.S.: José is working at a slaughterhouse in Iowa, María as a nanny in Washington, Memo works construction. We do not see examples of women working construction or men taking care of children—the labor follows traditional “gendered” expectations. Nor do we see doctors, lawyers, professors, or other “white-collar” professions, but rather a repetition of socio-economic division of labor. These cyborgs are not post-hierarchy and, in fact, due to the risks to the body through the cyborg existence, they are not post-body, but rather they highlight the vulnerability of the human migrant body that continues to exist in this world of virtual border crossing.

Visibilizing vulnerable bodies: children crossing borders

In Sleep Dealer, the danger to the migrant body comes through crossing the border virtually through the use of nodes. Long-time node workers go blind, not to mention the risk presented by computer viruses and short circuits that Luz, an aspiring writer with a “coyotec” ex-boyfriend, describes before she installs Memo’s nodes. However, the migrants who are drawn from around Mexico to Tijuana express no desire to physically cross the border to the U.S. Other films, such as the feature films La misma luna / Under the Same Moon (Patricia Riggen Mexico/USA, 2007) and Sin nombre (Cary Fukunaga Mexico/USA, 2009), and short films Victoria para Chino (Cary Fukunaga, Mex/USA 2005) and El otro sueño americano (Enrique Arroyo, Mexico 2004) take up the physical dangers to the body in the physical crossing itself through scenes that depict the vulnerability of migrant children’s bodies.

Patricia Riggen’s first feature film, La misma luna / Under the Same Moon (Mexico/USA, 2007), tells the story of nine-year-old Carlitos’s journey across the border to try to find his mother Rosario (Kate del Castillo) who has been working as an undocumented domestic in Los Angeles and sending $300 dollars a month to Carlitos and his grandmother for the past four years. [20] The film quickly sets up the human bond between mother and son who talk on the phone every Sunday morning at 10am. As director Patricia Riggen explains in the director’s commentary, this is a love story, and like all love stories, the “lovers” long to be together. Both director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Ligiah Villalobos emphasize that the story is about love and the separation of families. In fact, Villalobos explains that her goal with the screenplay was to “explore the theme of abandoned children” and “only years later did she realize that setting the story against the background of illegal immigration would allow her to ‘introduce the public to all of these people that are working in this country and see them as human beings instead of an issue’” (Johnson). By framing the story in this way, the film establishes empathetic connections between the audience and the characters—especially Carlitos. Through his story, the film puts a human face, a child’s face, on immigration and its effects on families.

When Carlitos’s grandmother dies, he decides to find his mother using money he’s been saving and contacts he’s met through his part time job helping shop owner and coyota, Doña Carmen. When Doña Carmen refuses to cross Carlitos to respect a promise she had made to his mother and grandmother, he seeks out two Chicanos who, with their broken Spanish, had come to the office to offer to smuggle babies. These inexperienced nervous smugglers are not part of any organized crime operation, but rather two students looking for a way to pay their college tuition. Martha (America Ferrera) asks for Carlitos’s money and gives it to her brother as she opens up the back seat of the van, revealing a small compartment in which Carlos will hide—contorting his body to become part of the car. Through the positioning of the camera with extreme close-ups of Carlos’s sweating face, juxtaposed with a close-up of his disembodied eye peeking through a small hole in the leather, the audience gets a sense the claustrophobic conditions. The use of close-ups helps remove the distance between the spectator and the “Other” (in this case, a child migrant) while at the same time, this cinematographic technique also fragments the body. Ironically, it seems that the only way to embody fully is to disembody. These images, combined with the audio of Carlitos complaining that is it “too hot,” and the strong beat of menacing music, contribute to escalating our concern for his well-being when the car is impounded for unpaid parking violations and we imagine the danger of this child’s entrapment inside a closed vehicle in the desert sun in El Paso. Fortunately (and somewhat unrealistically), Carlitos is fine and easily works his way out of the car later that evening, only to find himself in the hands of a junkie who tries unsuccessfully to sell him into sex work. [21] Through these two narrow escapes, the film introduces the theme of the child migrant body as commodity that can be bought and sold (a theme that we will see again in El otro sueño americano).

Through the portrayal of Carlitos, the film successfully captured audience (and some critical) support, achieving the rank of highest grossing Spanish-language film in the U.S. in its premier weekend (Hernández), but it met with mixed reviews in both Mexico and the U.S., especially due to its “blunt[ing of] the hard edges of immigration with a thick coating of preciousness” to cater to “middlebrow movie audiences [who] prefer their thorny social issues served lite and with a side order of ham, an opportunity to shed happy tears and enjoy a guilt-free drive home to the (let us hope, legal) baby sitter” (Catsoulis). Several critics point to the narrow escapes described above as unconvincing. In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan writes:

Unfortunately, once ‘Under the Same Moon’ gets past the central mother-son relationship, it relies too heavily on coincidence and obvious plot devices. Obstacles suddenly appear and then magically disappear, crises come and go, and nothing feels as real as we’d like it to. This problem is especially acute when it comes to the film’s few but pivotal English-speaking characters, who come across as evil or feeble or both. Not only do the Anglos tend toward caricature, none of them have the slightest idea of how to have fun. The Mexicans, hard-working as well as fun-loving, come off much better.

Both Turan and New York Times film critic Jeannette Catsoulis draw attention to the film’s portrayals of Anglos. The latter sums up the film’s portrayal of race as depicting “bad white people, hard-working brown people and morally ambivalent people of mixed race.” Catsoulis astutely observes that, “the movie lines up a succession of nasty gringos to block [Carlos’s] path. As he evades the clutches of a drug addict, child traffickers and the United States Border Patrol, nonwhites rally to protect him in the form of kindly migrant workers and traveling musicians.” At the same time that the film humanizes migrants, it dehumanizes Anglos—a characterization that repeats in other films with similar concerns (for example, the truck driver in “Victoria para Chino” and Tim in El otro sueño americano).

While some films, like Patricia Riggen’s La misma luna / Under the Same Moon (Mexico/USA, 2007), hint at physical dangers to migrant bodies,[22] others, such as short film Victoria para Chino (Cary Fukunaga, Mex/USA 2005), are more explicit. The film also follows a minor on his journey across the border, though his experience is far more harrowing than Carlitos’s border crossing. Like La misma luna, the film’s use of child protagonists helps to humanize the migrant experience, though as a 13-minute short film it has less time to create an empathetic connection between spectators and characters.

The film attempts to establish this connection quickly, first identifying us with the teenage protagonist, Chino, who walks into the frame brushing his teeth, followed by a pan of the group as the film opens. It offers us glimpses of people doing everyday activities with which viewers can identify (Chino’s friend uses an inhaler, a father plays with his son, a man talks on his cell phone, a woman eats while another man seems to be trying to pick her up, etc.) and that are key to set up the humanity of the group in contrast with the inhumane treatment they receive from the coyotes (both Mexican and Anglo). The smuggler’s call that it is time to go interrupts these activities and the frame opens to a wide shot as we see some seventy people stand in response. As they all climb into the back of a tractor-trailer, a young man expresses concern that there are too many of them, only to be reminded by the coyote that he paid to cross—it seems the smuggler is merely providing a service.

The doors close and the screen goes black.[23] For the next several minutes, the film imagines what happened inside that trailer and we are witnesses to their journey through fragmented glimpses that visually create a sense of a chaotic and even dizzying experience for the viewer. A close up pan of sweating faces contrasts with the opening pan of the group. Instead of laughing and playing, we see a close up of the young boy’s worried face; instead of talking on cell phones and brushing teeth, we see close ups of hands clawing through the insulation around the tail lights to try to reach air and raise to boy to the open hole. As they near a checkpoint, the boy cries and one man threatens to kill him. The child appears to be convulsing and though Chino wants to call for help, the others won’t let him, telling Chino that “many of us aren’t going back to your Mexico. If we die, we die.” The father continually tries to convince himself, his son, and the group that they will all be fine, but the boy’s condition continues to deteriorate and as a woman begins to cry out “el niño,” we know that he will not be as lucky as Carlitos. Perhaps more than the character of Chino himself, this boy (who is named in the credits if not within the film) is key to the humanizing project of the film. The relationship that the film establishes between this child and others in the trailer (his father and Chino who try to protect him, the migrant who threatens to silence the child to protect himself and the group from discovery, reactions to his condition and death) are integral to establishing a human connection that ranges from empathy, fear, and sadness (even mourning), to outrage. Like La misma luna, the film counts on the parent/child connection to elicit a primal, visceral reaction in the audience, though unlike the former, Victoria para Chino takes the potential vulnerability of child migrant bodies to its extreme consequence: death. Through this child’s death, the film visibilizes risks to migrant bodies by showing us a human face that we can connect with on an emotional level that circumvents political leanings regarding immigration policies.

Unlike La misma luna that seems to want to humanize the smugglers as well through Martha and her brother, Victoria para Chino is an indictment of the cruelty of the smuggling system. The migrants are transported like goods—human merchandise—in the back of a tractor trailer with no ventilation and no consideration for their basic needs (such as water). For the coyotes, these are not human beings, but a product, something emphasized by their mode of transport. The film visually represents the commodification of migrant bodies that has been occurring along the border, at least in part, according to Raymod Michalowski, due to government policies that have increased border militarization, which in turn has fed the human smuggling business:

This system has transformed unauthorized migrants from human beings into commodities. Groups of migrants are now a valuable load, a cargo, to smugglers. All of the practices connected with transporting and protecting shipments of illegal drugs now apply to human cargos of irregular migrants: loading as much ‘product’ into transport vehicles as possible, jettisoning anything that might increase risk of capture (i.e. migrants unable to keep up the pace of marching across the desert), and in some cases, raiding rival syndicates to steal their loads. (Michalowski 67)

The film emphasizes that coyotes on both sides of the border treat migrants as Michalowski describes. When the American driver finally pulls over, he is more concerned about his truck, an object that represents his economic livelihood, than for the human life it carries. An image of the driver inspecting the truck is followed by a cut to the inside where bodies are piled on the floor. Before opening the doors to check on the passengers, the driver calls his contact to complain that “your people are destroying my trailer!” and ignores the calls from inside that announce what the audience has suspected “el niño, el niño está muerto” (the boy, the boy is dead), responding with “I don’t speak Spanish!” He opens the door and bodies of migrants (some alive, some dead) fall out on him. The driver, instead of trying to help them, first tries to convince them to get back inside to continue the journey in the back of the truck. Later, he closes the door and abandons them. Though the film also includes Mexican smugglers, its treatment of the Anglo smuggler seems to suggest not only US complicity in the commodification of migrant bodies, but also a complete lack of consideration for their humanity.

The last image of Victoria para Chino is one of the abandoned trailer accompanied by the text that confronts the spectator of the reality of what we have just witnessed: “In May 2003, a Truck carrying 90 illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America departed Southern Texas for Houston. The trailer never reached its destination. When the Highway Patrol discovered the abandoned trailer in Victoria, Texas, they found 19 people dead. Among them, a five year old boy and his father.” By ending in this way, the text emphasizes the death of the child, as well as the connection between father and son that was present throughout the film, visibilizing the reality of the dangers posed to migrant bodies that were only hinted at in La misma luna. In the context of pure fiction (like La misma luna), a viewer might dismiss the driver’s actions as lacking verisimilitude, but the text forces us to confront the reality that a driver, who had it in his power to help save (at least some) of the immigrants suffering in his truck, instead abandoned them to die. The focus, at least to an extent, shifts from the illegal act of undocumented entrants crossing the border without documents, to the heartlessness of the Anglo driver.[24]

Like several of the other examples in this essay, the issues raised related to immigration in Fukunaga’s short film serve as the nucleus for a later feature length film, Sin nombre (Mexico/USA, 2009), a film that from its title, addresses questions of invisibility.[25] Director Cary Fukunaga explains, “Sin nombre” means “without a name,” or “nameless.” And that in all honesty came because there was a scene with one of those crosses on the border that said “Sin Nombre,” and it has to do with people who died on the border and they don’t know who they are, like a John Doe. […] But I also thought that thematically it had a lot to do with immigrants and the gang members not really having an identity besides what their group is” (Fukunaga, cited in Smith).

Like “Victoria para Chino,” Sin nombre follows a teenage migrant, in this case Honduran-born Sayra, on her journey north and exposes dangers to migrant bodies as they strive to reach the U.S. border. This time, rather than transported like cargo in a truck, they travel like cargo by freight train across Mexico. While riding atop the train with her father and uncle, Sayra meets Casper, a gang member who joins the migrants to escape certain death at the hands of his gang after he kills fellow-member Lil’Mago and throws him from the train. Although most of the violence we see in the film is directed at bodies of gang members (gang bodies are foregrounded in the film via tattoos, beating, sex, etc), the brief scene that starts with Casper, Smiley, and Lil’Mago robbing migrants and ends with Smiley’s discovery of Lil’ Mago’s mutilated body beside the tracks also reveals the vulnerability of migrant bodies.

Mara Salvatrucha gang members, the teenage Casper, the newly initiated pre-adolescent Smiley, and adult leader Lil’ Mago board the train with the explicit purpose of robbing migrants, threatening bodily harm with guns and machetes. When they come upon Sayra and her family, after taking their valuables, Lil’ Mago knocks out her father and grabs Sayra, throws her down to the roof of the train, pins her with his legs and holds a gun to her head, yelling, “Shut up or you die bitch!” Close ups of Sayra screaming are juxtaposed with close ups of Casper standing back and watching, presumably imagining Lil’ Mago’s attack on Martha, Casper’s girlfriend, that ended in her accidental death. Casper steps in and interrupts this display of sexual violence, cutting Lil’ Mago’s throat with a machete, then kicking the body off the train as it lurches forward to continue North. Shortly after, the gang banger’s mutilated body serves as a visual example of the dangers facing migrants who fall (or are thrown) from the train. Smiley, having followed Casper’s advice to leave the train, walks along the railroad tracks, and with a line of sight shot we see a close up of a boot on the ground between the rails. We realize that the boot contains a severed leg as the camera pans left to Lil Mago’s body next to the tracks. Through this sequence, the film ties the threat of gang violence to dangers to migrant bodies: death or sexual assault at the hands of gang members, or mutilation and possible death under the wheels of the train.

Vulnerability of female migrant bodies takes the forefront in the short film,

El otro sueño americano (The Other American Dream, Enrique Arroyo, Mexico, 2004).

This short, which frames itself within the discourse of the Ciudad Juarez feminicides, presents the female migrant as merchandise and places the spectator in the role of witness to the last 10 minutes of a young girl’s life as she thinks she has found a ride to “the other side,” but instead falls victim to the darker side of human trafficking.

Sandra, a fourteen or fifteen year old Oaxacan, has migrated to the border town of Ciudad Juárez where she has evidently been barely surviving as a sex worker and seems willing (though reluctant) to trade her body for passage to “el otro lado.” In the first few seconds of the film, the invisible driver-narrator who, due to the positioning of the camera remains out of the frame for most of the film, very quickly sets the scene and provides the spectator insights into both characters with the line, “a poco creías que cruzando al otro lado te quitabas lo puta” (You really thought that crossing to the other side would take the whore out of you). This short line sets the scene for the film: a young female sex-worker is trying to cross the border with the help of the driver/narrator. The narrator reveals his disdain for her, suggesting that being a “whore” is something intrinsic, rather than the result of circumstance or place. According to the director, portraying the main character as a sex worker caused IMCINE (Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografía) to reject this script because “everything happened to a prostitute and how the right wing thought that the dead women in Juárez had it coming to them because they were prostitutes. That bothered me a lot because before prostitutes, they are women” (Arroyo in Segoviano). Although Arroyo’s comments suggest that he wants to humanize prostitutes by seeing them as women first, I would argue that IMCINE had a point. The choice of portraying Sandra as a prostitute feeds into the myth that the disappeared women were sex workers as it has been framed by reporting and even the Mexican government. Rosa Linda Fregoso criticizes the way the state has repeatedly discredited the victims by saying they were leading double lives: factory worker by day, prostitute by night, “as though nontraditional sexual behavior justified their killings” (Towards 37). How would the film and its message change if Sandra were a student or a house wife instead of a prostitute? How would it be different if Sandra were an adult woman sex-worker rather than a minor?

These first few seconds also establish the power relationship between Sandra and the driver. She asks, “¿Adónde vamos?” (Where are we going?). After insulting her, the driver, who clearly has control of the situation, responds with, “no quieres ver la procu, verdad? Como nos vamos a arreglar?’” (You don’t want to go to the station, do you? How are we going to fix this?). This is no run-of-the-mill coyote, but a police officer who has detained Sandra for possession of cocaine. The choice, then, to cast Sandra as a minor serves to underline the power differential, as this is not just a question of police with authority over a criminal, but also an adult male pedophile who uses this power over an underage girl for his own sexual gratification.

They “fix” the situation with a corporal transaction—she “pays” the coyote-cop by showing him her breasts—although with a speed that reveals certain modesty and immaturity rather than the confidence of a woman with agency over her body and sexuality. The payment is not complete, however, and she fellates him,[26] an act that to some degree shifts the focus to the male body—though a body absent from the frame of the film due to the angle of the camera that remains fixed on the dashboard and aimed at the passenger’s seat.[27] During this oral sex act, which frustrates the potential erotic gaze by taking place mostly out of the frame, we only see the movements of the top of the girl’s head. The film juxtaposes this image with several pink crosses, such as those found around Juárez to denote graves of anonymous women, which we can see out the passenger window when the car crosses the railroad tracks at the same time as the driver climaxes. This detail links this girl with the missing women, las desaparecidas, while simultaneously visually associating this police officer, this sexual predator, with the perpetrators of the Juárez murders, who continue to evade justice. At the same time, intentionally or not, it eroticizes feminicide as male sexual gratification is connected with the dead women.

Following the driver’s ejaculation, Sandra spits out his semen, and for such a rejection of his fluids, of his manhood, he beats her. Sexual pleasure rapidly turns to violence enacted on this woman-child’s body. Moments later she tries to escape, only to be caught and handcuffed to the inside of the vehicle. This child, who was “fixing” a possible arrest for cocaine possession, becomes a victim of human trafficking. To avenge her rejection of him, the cop calls “Tim” and tells him he has a “sorpresita” (little surprise) for him, then goes on to describe to Sandra all the horrible things that these “vatos locos” (crazy dudes) have done to women (and says he has witnessed their screams).

The fixed camera shows us Tim, with his María Sabina T-shirt and his marked “gringo” accent in Spanish while he takes a “probadita” (little taste) of the merchandise by touching Sandra’s breasts without looking her in the face—he separates her body from her face, her identity; she is invisible to him. He buys her from the cop, passing him a roll of dollars. For both men this woman is a disposable product. The policeman warns Tim not to throw her body near the train tracks (where we saw the pink crosses) because he’ll have to come back for him, presumably to arrest him. With this line, the spectator knows what we have already suspected: the policeman knows that this gringo has killed other women and will kill Sandra, but he doesn’t care. He does nothing, but rather takes his money and leaves. The film overtly criticizes the role of Mexican law enforcement in the Juárez murders—they are paid to turn a blind eye and even actively participate in finding victims. They profit from allowing the feminicides to continue.

The policeman, however, has limits framed by his own particular morality. Although he doesn’t hesitate to sell this woman to the gringo, when Tim asks him for “riñones chiquitos: (very small kidneys), the cop replies, “esto es pecado” (that is a sin). Although he can dehumanize the sex worker and see her as merchandise with economic but not human value, he draws the line at selling children for their organs. While the film clearly suggests collaboration between Mexican authorities and rich Americans in these disappearances and murders, it seems to suggest, through Tim, that the U.S. is responsible for driving the actions of the Mexicans involved. Like several of the other films mentioned here, even if a Mexican character is cast in a negative light, the “gringo” is worse and often an over-the-top caricature of evil. The film paints an image of the American man as someone who sees Mexican bodies (be they women or children) in terms of their economic value and disposability.

Where several of the films discussed in this article frame themselves within the context of U.S. policies and events, this short film overtly enters into discourses surrounding Mexican policies and the handling of the feminicides in Ciudad Juárez by authorities by including a corrupt police officer who remains invisible for most of the film, echoing the invisibility of the perpetrators of these crimes since to date most remain unsolved. Additionally, the film ends with the following text before the credits roll:

It would be a pleasure to say that any resemblance to actual events is a mere coincidence. Certainly, our characters are fictitious, but it is not fiction that 11 year old girls, students, house wives, prostitutes, workers, all women, have been victims of impunity for over 10 years. The PGR [Procuraduría General de la República or Federal Attorney General’s Office] has reported 258 dead women as of August 2003. Amnesty International reports 370-500 disappeared women…[28]

This concluding text clearly situates the film in the discourse surrounding “las desaparecidas,” the disappeared women of Ciudad Juárez, and interrupts the spectator’s potential voyeuristic positioning by confronting us with the reality of the violence (often sexual) enacted on the bodies of women[29]—many of them migrants from other parts of Mexico and Central America who travel to the US/Mexico border with hopes of crossing into the U.S. (like Sandra) or with the promise of economic opportunities represented by the global companies, often referred to as “maquiladoras” or “maquilas,” that operate (or operated) on the border and exploit the cheap labor that comes from economic necessity. [30]

“El otro sueño,” like all of the films analyzed here, strives to bring light to current issues related to immigration. Like the others, it struggles with the tensions between advocacy, storytelling, and exploitation. These films raise questions about responsible representations of human bodies as well as responsible looking. How to represent violence and suffering in a responsible way? How to visibilize and humanize without falling into the same trap of either inadvertently contributing to the same rhetoric one proposes to contest, or to humanize one group at the expense of dehumanizing another? In spite of their shortcomings, all of these films endeavor to participate in speaking against dehumanization of migrants through making them visible by depicting migrant experiences on the big screen.

As has been recognized in many contexts, film can have a powerful impact on perceptions of the “other” (which, as we know, can have positive and negative effects). I personally had never considered why immigrants came to the U.S. illegally until, as a college student, I saw the film El norte (Gregory Nava, USA/UK, 1983). In class we had touched on debates regarding California’s Proposition 187 (though from across the country in a liberal arts college on the East Coast), and I wasn’t really sure how I stood on the issues. Over sixteen years later, I still remember how that film brought tears to my eyes as it opened them to realities I had never imagined. Witnessing the celluloid journey of the Mayan brother and sister from Guatemala to Los Angeles made me think less in terms of political rhetoric and more in terms of human rights. Now that I am a professor, I can see similar reactions in my students after viewing and reflecting on many of the films in this essay.

Without wanting to suggest that film representations of migrants (be they fiction or documentary) are unproblematic, offer a perfect solution to the complex issues surrounding immigration, or are a magic bullet to change the way spectators stand on these issues, I do maintain that they impact conversation on a variety of levels. I have witnessed these conversations following screenings of the films mentioned in this essay (both in Mexico and in the US), in classrooms, in film festivals, and even among policy-makers. Perhaps if the public and politicians alike come to see the human impact of current policies (in the U.S. and in sending countries) they might also realize that “Los cuerpos, no las fronteras, son puntos vulnerables” (Bodies, not borders, are vulnerable points), [31] and perhaps, just perhaps, we might see humane immigration reform.
[1] I presented an earlier version of this essay, “(In)visibilidades, (des)corporalizaciones y globalizaciones: El cuerpo migrante en el cine mexicano de la frontera de los 2000,” at SEPANCINE’s “5o Congreso Internacional de Teoría y Análisis Cinematográfico” in Morelia, Mexico on October 2, 2009. I would like to thank the organizers of and participants in the conference for their feedback, as well as my colleagues Amy Schneidhorst, Kate Blanchard, Amy Sarah Carroll, and Joanne Gilbert. I especially thank the editors of FIAR, Wilfried Raussert and Yolanda Campos García for the opportunity to expand the original piece and present my work in this forum.

[2] I begin with this personal anecdote because my experience working with the documentary truly inspired this line of questioning. However, documentary is not the focus of this essay, in part because I want to resist analyzing my own film (I know I am too close to it to be objective), even if I do use it as a starting point and find some commonalities between Which Way Home and some of the fiction films I analyze here. I ask the reader to indulge this choice and to understand that I realize that documentary and fiction, even if they share common goals, use very different methodologies and theoretical frames to reach those goals. There are many noteworthy Mexican documentaries (and co-productions) from the 2000s that deal with immigration including, among others, Los que se quedan (Carlos Hagerman and Juan Carlos Rulfo 2008, Mexico), Little immigrants (Frances Lausell and Miguel Picker 2007, Puerto Rico/MX/USA), De Nadie (Tin Dirdamal 2005, Mexico), Al otro lado (Natalia Almada 2005, Mexico/USA), Cheranasticotown (Dante Cerrano 2005, Mexico), Sueños binacionales (Yolanda Cruz, 2005 Mexico/USA), La sexta sección (Alex Rivera 2003, Mexico)—not to mention U.S. productions such as Farmingville (Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini 2003). For theoretical approaches to the concept of visibilization through documentary, see, for example, Collecting Visible Evidence, edited by Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov, and Patricia Zimmerman’s States of Emergency: Documentaries, Wars, Democracies.

And indeed, there are noteworthy Mexican fiction films (and co-productions) not included here such as Los Bastardos (Amat Escalante 2008, Mexico/France/USA), Norteado (Rigoberto Perezcano 2009, Mex/Spain), El viaje de Teo (Walter Doehner 2008, Mexico), 7 soles (Pedro Ultreras 2009, Mexico), among others. The films included in this essay were chosen for the ways they engage with (in)visibilization and (de)humanization of migrant bodies, particularly in terms of the two foci here: visibility through erasure: invisible labor forces; and visibilizing vulnerable bodies: children crossing borders. Practical factors also contributed to defining the corpus as films were chosen in part based on their availability at the time of this investigation. Additionally, I chose to include films that I have used in my college classroom. I have taught all of the films analyzed here with particular success and, at least with my classes, have found that they were instrumental in opening discussions regarding broader immigration issues. My pedagogical analysis is fruit for another essay; nevertheless, I hope that this article might provide some background for those interested in teaching film or teaching through film. The shorts analyzed here can be particularly attractive in a classroom as they can be shown in their entirety without the need to break the narrative flow even in classes with time constraints where showing complete feature films is not practical.

I also chose to restrict my corpus to recent films. However, there is a long history of films that take up immigration and the representation of Mexican migrants that remains outside the scope of this essay. For a history of the representation of Mexican migrants in border film, see for example, Rosa Linda Fregoso’s The Bronze Screen: Chicana and Chicano Film Culture (1993); David Maciel’s “Visions of the Other Mexico: Chicanos and Undocumented Workers in Mexican Cinema, 1954-1982” in Gary Keller’s edited volume, Chicano Cinema: Research, Reviews and Resources (1985); David Maciel’s “Pochos and Other Extremes in Mexican Cinema; or, El Cine Mexicano se va de Bracero, 1922-1963” and Alex Saragoza’s “Cinematic Orphans: Mexican Immigrants in the United States since the 1950s” in Chon Noriega’s Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance (1992); Norma Iglesias’s Entre yerba, polvo y plomo: Lo fronterizo visto por el cine mexicano, Vol 1 (1991).

[3] I recognize that Butler has been accused of neglecting issues related to race and ethnicity in her writing and nods to these criticisms, though somewhat superficially, in Undoing Gender.

[4] These posters were seen most recently May 1st of this year when groups met across the country to protest Arizona’s SB 1070 (a law that gives police officers powers to demand proof of citizenship—something previously reserved to immigration officers) and more famously on May 1st 2006 to protest the “Sensenbrenner law” HR 4437 (that included, among other aspects, construction of additional border walls, a redefinition of undocumented migrants as criminals, and criminalization of any kind of aid given to undocumented migrants). Both laws were interpreted by migrant groups as anti-migrant and by more conservative groups as part of increased border security measures. At the time of this writing, HR 4437 has been defeated and did not become law, and SB 1070, a law “which proponents and critics alike said was the broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations” (Archibold), is being contested from some groups and at the same time applauded by others. While U.N. experts question the “law’s compatibility with relevant international human rights treaties to which the United States is a party” (Nebehay), others, such as Michigan State Representative Kim Meltzer, are proposing similar legislation (Hornbeck). For more information on HR 4437, see the Library of Congress website at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:h.r.04437; for more on AZ SB 1070, see the Arizona State Legislature website http://www.azleg.gov/ .

[5] Joseph Moriarty, writing an opinion piece responding to AZ SB 1070 for the Minneapolis Star Tribune entitled “Immigration problem? Blame NAFTA,” would agree. He writes, “It’s time to face the truth. We, the United States, brought this calamitous situation on Mexicans and on ourselves when Congress passed the NAFTA treaty in 1993. NAFTA was sold as a magic formula that would improve the American economy while at the same time reducing poverty in Mexico. At the NAFTA signing, then President Bill Clinton said this: ‘Pass NAFTA and we will have jobs for Mexicans in Mexico. Defeat NAFTA, and there will be a tremendous flow of Mexicans in the United States.’ In practice, NAFTA accomplished exactly the opposite.” (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/92546759.html). Ted Lewis, writing for The San Diego Union Tribune explains in his article, “Linking NAFTA and Immigration,” “Even the most conservative estimates make it clear that during the first decade of NAFTA the annual number of undocumented immigrants arriving in the United States from Mexico nearly doubled.” (http://www.signonsandiego.com/uniontrib/20080229/news_lz1e29lewis.html). See also Louis Uchitelle’s New York Times article, “Nafta Should Have Stopped Illegal Immigration, Right?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/18/weekinreview/18uchitelle.html)

[6] The agreement does have provisions for business visas (where visa holders are not permitted to enter the US labor force but are paid by their home country) and for a non-immigrant TN (or Trade Nafta) Visa. According to the U.S. Department of State Website, TN Visas are available for “Professional” Canadians and Mexicans, requiring “evidence of professional employment” and “educational qualifications or appropriate credentials demonstrating professional status” (“Visas”). The agreement has no provisions for the vast numbers of non-professional immigrants that represent the majority of undocumented workers who take manual labor jobs in fields such as agribusiness, construction, domestic services, etc.

[7] For an idea of the stance of Mexican president Felipe Calderón and George W. Bush regarding NAFTA reform, see for example, Myers’s 2008 New York Times article, “Next-Door Neighbors Back Bush on Trade.” For an idea of President Barack Obama and President Calderón’s recent meetings in which NAFTA reform was discussed, see for example, MacGillis’s Washington Post article “Mexico not worried about Obama campaign pledge to renegotiate NAFTA” from May 2010, in comparison with articles that report on the Jan. 2009 meeting of the two leaders: Gillman’s Dallas Morning News article “Obama talks of ‘upgrade’ to NAFTA with Mexico’s Calderón”; and Marshall’s Guadalajara Reporter article “Obama-Calderon Talk Overshadowed by Nafta Discord.”

[8] Passed by California voters in 1994, Proposition 187 (also known as “Save Our State” or “SOS”) included the denial of public benefits to illegal aliens in California and measures for public officials (including police, healthcare workers, and teachers) to verify legal migratory status before providing service. A federal court found it unconstitutional and in 1999 Governor Gray Davis helped end appeals to that finding.

[9] All translations from Spanish are by the author unless otherwise indicated.

[10] http://www.adaywithoutamexican.com/

[11] The film addresses the common assumption that all Latinos are Mexican when Senator Abercrombie erroneously refers to the men his wife hired to paint the house as “illegal Mexicans […] from Guatemala and Honduras.” The film uses text on the screen to correct the error, informing us that “Guatemalans and Hondurans are not Mexicans.”

[12] For an in-depth study of fake or “mock-documentaries” as a subgenre of documentary film, see F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing, edited by Alexandra Juhasz and Jesse Lerner.

[13] We later find out that she is not, in fact, Latina, but rather that she was an Armenian adopted by a Mexican family, a somewhat disappointing resolution that explains why she does not disappear with the other Latinos. She finally does disappear, live on “Lila Cam,” after finding out she was adopted and claiming that blood doesn’t matter: “I was raised Mexican and I was treated like a Mexican […] Love is thicker than blood. You belong to the people that taught you the world, and my heart, my heart is Mexican. Please don’t take that away from me.” This seeming attempt to question identity politics divorces cultural association from the body.

[14] The marketing in México actually excluded Anglos through its tagline “Nadie sabe lo que tiene un día sin mexicanos ¡los gringos van a llorar!” (No one knows what a day without Mexicans has in store, The gringos are going to cry!) which many “gringos” would feel as offensive if not outright aggressive as it suggests that the film (and Mexicans) will inflict suffering on them, making them cry.

[15] Marambio and Tew make the relationship between the film and the march names explicit when they explain that the Milwaukee march “was organized as ‘A Day Without a Latino,’ borrowing its name from the title of the movie” (477).

[16] This scene also works to humanize “terrorists” and casualties of war. What is at stake by showing (or not showing) the toll of war on bodies? I am focusing on the humanization of migrants here, but am also intrigued by Rivera’s inter-weaving of multiple dehumanizing discourses into his film. Through the character of Rudy, a node-worker and drone pilot, the film suggests the impact of visibilizing the “enemy.” When he sees his human “target,” something that the T.V. narrator tells us is uncommon in his line of work, Rudy hesitates to follow orders. After he complies, he, like Memo, begins a physical and psychological journey that leads him to question his role as node-soldier and to attempt to make amends to Memo’s family. The film seems to question discourses that dehumanize more than one side of the “War on Terror” with its treatment of both soldiers (Rudy) and suspected terrorists (Memo and his father).

[17] The most important fiction film from either side of the border to deal with the Bracero program is undoubtedly Alejandro Galindo’s Espaldas mojadas (México 1955). An analysis of this classic film is, unfortunately, outside the scope of this article.

[18] I first consider the implications of a Chicano-cyborg body in my article, “Entre las palabras y el cuerpo: estrategias performáticas fronterizas en las obras de Guillermo Gómez- Peña.” Mexican-born performance artist Guillermo Gómez –Peña has played with notions of the cyborg in various performances and videos over his career. Although in my article I consider the commodification of the Chicano-male body in Gómez-Peña’s Binational Boxer video (in Ethno-techno: Los Video Graffitis, USA, 2004) in terms of sexuality and gender roles, I do not expand upon implications of the racialized cyborg and hope to begin to address that here, though in a different context.

[19] The subaltern does, of course, talk back through technology in unexpected ways. I am considering, for example, the strategic use of technology by the Zapatistas in Mexico, “hactivism” performance interventions by artist and scholar Ricardo Dominguez, and Alex Rivera’s own use of technology to make, market and distribute his independent film through his webpages http://www.cybracero.com/ and www.sleepdealer.com, but also the use of technology to reach a broader audience by releasing the film on cable “On Demand” networks the same day it opened in select theaters in the U.S.

[20] One more than one occasion our film, Which Way Home, has been compared to La misma luna since both look at the separation of families and the journey of undocumented migrants through the experiences of children. When I first saw La misma luna, I was immediately reminded of three Salvadoran children, brothers and sisters aged 9, 10, and 11, whom I had met while working on the documentary. Their mother had been working legally in Los Angeles for seven years and, like Carlitos, they had been living with their grandmother. When the grandmother passed away, the mother, not knowing that she could have applied to bring her kids legally, sent for them using a coyote. The kids had crossed El Salvador, Guatemala, and part of Mexico when they were picked up by Mexican immigration agents, having been abandoned by their smuggler.

[21] In the haste of his escape, he leaves his money behind, which places him in another situation where we fear that bodily harm will come to him. When he is unable to pay a junkie the 100 dollars he had promised so that the man would help him buy a bus ticket, the junkie sells the boy to a pimp. Fortunately he is saved yet again as a concerned bystander, Reyna (María Rojo), steps in.

[22] In fact, the film has been criticized by Mexican audiences for making light of these dangers since we see no actual harm come to any migrants at any point in the film. I believe that the film wants to humanize the migrant experience for U.S. spectators and to that end has made choices to avoid alienating potential viewers through graphic images.

[23] This film brings to mind similar scenes that open and close the film, Raíces de sangre (Jesús Salvador Treviño, Mexico/USA 1979). Both are based on actual events—this kind of transportation did not begin with NAFTA, though a principal difference is that “Victoria” takes us inside the truck and Raices does not. Film Scholars Rosa Linda Fregoso and David Maciel have signaled Raices de sangre (with Espaldas mojadas) as one of the most important Mexican films to deal with immigration and the Chicano experience in the U.S.

[24] The actual driver was a Jamaican immigrant from New York that in this film was cast as a light-haired “gringo” with no indication that he might be a non-citizen.

[25] This film has also often been compared with Which Way Home as a fictional representation of the perils of the freight train journey across Mexico. Erik Davis, in the context of the Tribeca Film Festival, writes, “Which Way Home and the recently-released Sin Nombre would make for an excellent double feature, as the former — currently screening in the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival — is a riveting documentary that taps into the same concept and themes of Sin Nombre, except it’s all real and it’s all heartbreaking to watch. Like Sin Nombre, Which Way Home follows the stories of several children attempting to illegally cross the Mexican border into the United States by way of riding on the tops of trains. But while Sin Nombre works in a fictional plot involving love, friendship and gang violence, Which Way Home covers the topic from several different (and fascinating) points of view. From the boys and girls riding the trains to the kids who’ve already been caught and are on their way back home, the film brings us everything we’d expect from a solid, well-made documentary — injecting passion, honesty and heart into a topic that certainly needs more attention drawn to it.”

[26] These two moments shocked the students in my film course. They were concerned that the age of the actress (though as it turned out, she was not a minor when she made the film) might make this film akin to child pornography and brought up questions of the tension between exposing violence to women’s bodies and the risk of repeating the violence to the woman’s body through the act of filming. This kind of tension is present to different degrees in many of the films discussed here.

[27] The film has a flavor of a home video due to the quality of the image and the fixed camera—it remains positioned towards the passenger seat throughout the film. Some explanation of the quality and positioning of the camera comes at the end when the policeman yanks it out of place and turns it off—he knew the camera was there and recording, but why? Since we know he is a cop, we might suspect that it is a surveillance camera in his squad car, but the positioning doesn’t support this (it is focused on the front passenger seat, not the back where a suspect might be held). At the risk of projecting today’s technology into the past, it feels like a web-cam (although at the time of the making of the film, it would have been difficult to imagine broadcasting over the internet live from the dashboard of a truck), and I question my position as a spectator—am I a cybernetic voyeur? Or is this a personal video that the policeman will view later, but why? For pleasure? Is this a sort of a snuff film? After all, pornography and snuff films have been suggested as possible explanations for the missing women.

[28] The statistics are often disputed and vary widely from source to source. Guadalupe Loaeza, writing in Mexico’s Reforma newspaper in March of 2009, sets the number at 1060 deaths considered feminicides in the last 15 years with 544 in 2008 alone. She does not include the number of missing women in her statistics (nor does she cite a source).

[29] Rosa Linda Fregoso notes that “many of the murdered women had been gagged, raped, strangled, and mutilated, with nipples and breasts cut off and buttocks lacerated like cattle, or they had been penetrated with objects. The number of murders tabulated as sexual killings is disputed because city authorities don’t count penetration as rape when an object is used; for example, a woman found with a blanket in her anus was not recorded in police investigations as having been raped” (Toward 62).

[30] The recent award winning fiction thriller—five Ariels, including best direction and best actress for Asur Zágada (Juana), and Mexico’s submission for the Oscar for best foreign film of 2009)— Backyard / El traspatio (Dir. Carlos Carrera; screenplay Sabina Berman, Mexico 2009), also addresses the Juárez feminicides (reminding us that they continue to this day) and the topic of the disposability of women through the stories of co-protagonists police detective Blanca Bravo (Ana de la Regera) who arrives in Juárez to investigate the murders and indigenous migrant Juana (Asur Zágada) who travels to Ciudad Juárez from Chiapas to work in a maquila. I am very interested in the tensions I see in this film between humanizing and dehumanizing, between advocacy/subversion, and exploitation/reinforcing the status quo; however, a detailed analysis is outside the scope of this essay. Much has been written on the Juárez murders and feminicide the past few years. For a recent example that considers media representation (including several films), see Hector Domínguez-Ruvulcaba and Ignacio Corona’s 2010 anthology, Gender Violence at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Media Representation and Public Response.

[31] These words are spoken by the narrative voice from the short documentary that focuses on female migrant experiences along Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, Bajo el Tacana (Isabel Vericat, Mexico, 2007)


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