One of my favorite movies of all time is El Norte. Filmed in 1983, El Norte recounts the story of a brother and sister from Guatemala who make a dangerous and arduous trek to the North in search for a better life. Each immigrant who leaves his or her country in search of a better life from Latin America has a story, and El Norte puts a face to these immigrants.
Sin Nombre, Spanish with English subtitles, is in the same genre as El Norte with a twist. Even the title Sin Nombre, (without a name) aptly describes the film about the faceless immigrant struggling to survive in a dangerous world. Sin Nombre tells the story of a young Honduran woman, Sayra, (Paulina Gaitan) who escapes the destitution and poverty of her hometown. She heads north with her uncle and father clinging to the hope for a better life. Sayra's facial expressions reveal a sadness that is a result of an impecunious life of poverty she has already had to endure for her young age. Sayra is tenacious and indefatigable in her resolve to cross the Mexican border as she embraces the hope for a better tomorrow. Her father leads Sayra and her uncle to the place where they will begin their journey, and he forces them to memorize a phone number to his family in New Jersey should they become separated. They hike to the rails where they will hitch a ride on the cargo trains that will take them up north.
Sayra begins the dangerous trek with her father and uncle. As the train traverses the country of Mexico, the cinematography is nothing but spectacular. Cary Fukanaga, the director captures the plight of the immigrant in stunning detail. We are all too familiar with the scenes of immigrants waiting in the dark of night to cross the border from Mexico illegally into the United States. In Sin Nombre the moviegoer is presented with a gritty portrait of the dilapidated conditions the immigrants have to endure between Guatemala and Mexico as they await the trains that will lead them hopefully to their new lives. Immigrants encamp in squalor conditions during the night lying on the ground in the open air exposed to the elements awaiting the cargo trains that pass. As the trains pass, hundreds of immigrants hungering for a brighter future hitch a ride. The trains meander through the mountains as the immigrants cling precariously to the tops of the moving trains. The immigrants head north in search of a better life, but atop the trains is a host of nefarious characters that prey on the most vulnerable.
Tragedy befalls Sayra's father, and her uncle is deported leaving Sayra to fend for herself. The notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) plays a predominant role in Sayra's journey. The film encapsulates the danger of the journey when the MS-13 gang takes advantage of the myriad of immigrants by robbing them at gunpoint. In a harrowing scene, the leader of the gang notices Sayra and almost rapes her. As Sayra cries out for help, Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), a member of the gang, in a gut-wrenching scene, slits the throat of the leader. He then shows sympathy when he lets Casper, (Edgar Flores), a prepubescent adolescent and an up-and-coming member of the gang go. Casper returns to the gang, and the word is spread to kill Smiley. Casper pledges that he will kill Smiley himself. This begins a dangerous cat and mouse gang between Sayra and Smiley, the Mexican immigration and the MS-13 gang.
There are two items of note. The Mexican government uses checkpoints and patrols in search for undocumented immigrants throughout the country. The government shows no tolerance for illegal immigrants that enter into Mexico. What is also evident is how organized the MS-13 gang is throughout Central America and Mexico.
The MS-13 gang is ruthless and it is thought to have originated in the 1980s in Los Angeles by Salvadoran immigrants after El Salvador's civil war. Its original purpose was to protect El Salvadoran immigrants from Los Angeles gang members. Membership is estimated at 36,000 in Honduras alone. The gang has branched out throughout the United States and it also has spread its tentacles throughout Mexico and Central America after members were deported back to their native country. The gang is now spread throughout the United States, Mexico and Central America. It is well-organized and well-financed. Throughout Mexico and Central America, the gang operates with impunity and in virtual lawlessness. The gang is involved in any type of criminal activity including gun-running, illegal drugs, assassinations, etc.. Members often have military training. The MS-13 is a feared gang. It is also a well known fact that the MS-13 gang has been paid handsomely by terrorist groups to smuggle Islamic terrorists across the Mexican border. This is a fact known by the INS and by the United States Government.
What is evident after seeing the film is the need to close our borders. If we need workers from Mexico, there are ways to do that. President Bush refused to close the borders for eight years, and now President Obama in his last press conference reiterated his unwillingness to close the borders. Mexico is intolerant of immigrants entering into its country, yet we leave our borders wide-open. This is a national security issue, yet we act as if nothing can happen from our southern borders. There is a lack of political will. Obama looks at these immigrants as potential votes. The safety of America is not a primary concern.
Sin Nombre is a riveting and harrowing film-going experience. I found myself feeling sympathy for Sayra hoping she makes it north, and at the same time rooting for the underdog Smiley hoping he would escape the clutches of the gang. This is Cary Fukanaga's directorial debut, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.