(Im)Migration and Our Neighbors

Pop Theology contributor Richard Lindsay reviews Sin Nombre and its implications for our understanding of who our neighbors are and how we should treat them.

Berkeley is the kind of place where you can get recommendations for independent films along with your turkey guacamole at Quizno’s. So it was that my Guatemalan sandwich artist, with whom I’ve struck up a friendly acquaintance, slipped a napkin into my hand one day along with my receipt. Written in all block letters were the words SIN NOMBRE. He caught my eye as he handed me the napkin: “You have to see it; it’s about my people, it’s about our world.” How could I not watch it?

Directed by Oakland native Cary Fukunaga, Sin Nombre won two awards and a distribution deal at Sundance 2009. It was passed over for the Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. Should an American film made by a native English speaker who speaks and writes successfully in Spanish be considered a “foreign language” film? Nevertheless, the film addresses an issue for which there has been a profound lack of empathy in America—the inhumane and violent conditions that exist in our neighboring countries to the south, issues that lead directly to our immigration “problem.”

Sin Nombre is set in the midst of a precarious journey on top of a train from southern Mexico to the Texas border, where dozens of migrants will try to evade Mexican and American border patrols, pay rapacious “people smugglers” to be trucked into America, or else will attempt a deadly swim or crawl through the desert to get here. This is, of course, both dangerous and illegal. But the film illustrates graphically why people are willing to continue to take this risk—sometimes over and over again if necessary.

About a quarter of the way into the film, three teenage boys, members of the brutal “Mara Salvatrucha” gang, stalk the roof of the moving train armed with pistols and machetes and shake down the already impoverished train riders. The leader, ‘Lil Mago, finds a Honduran girl, Sayra, and threatens to rape her. One of his lieutenants, El Casper, knows ‘Lil Mago has a habit of doing this…in fact, in an earlier scene he did it to Casper’s girlfriend before brutally killing her. Casper, either still overcome by grief or possessing some spark of justice, slices open his leader’s jugular with a machete and kicks him off the train. The third gang member, a 12 year-old runt named Smiley, can’t bring himself to shoot Casper, so he retreats from the train. Casper sits alone on top of a boxcar, at risk from the other riders who plot to “remove” him from the train, unintentionally having set loose a 12 year-old time bomb who will do anything to get in good with the gang.

The scene, among many others, demonstrates the extent to which death and brutality become commonplace in the world of south-of-the-border street gangs. Lord of the Flies organizations, they are run by boys, none of whom make it out of their twenties before they are killed or incarcerated. They know they must recruit young, like the 12 year-old Smiley, and as part of their junior initiation for their little cub scout, Smiley gets must endure a beating by his fellow gang members for 13 seconds and is then required to shoot a rival gang member. “The pain will subside,” Mago tells the young initiate—pain from both the bruises of his beating and from having taken another’s life. The turf wars of these gangs have made Mexico a war zone and migration a perilous process, fraught with robbery, kidnapping, and murder.

Back on the train, after being saved from sexual assault, Sayra, traveling with her uncle and father, and perhaps raised under more innocent circumstances, befriends Casper. Anyone, even a romantic, can see that this is bad news. She sunnily tells him that a psychic in Tegucigalpa told her that she would get to America not in the hand of God, but in the hand of the Devil. And for a time, Casper does help, instructing Sayra and her family on how to evade Mexican border control and how to construct a fire from twigs and branches snapped from the trees as they rumble by on top of the train. These are star-crossed lovers, indeed: once word gets back to the gang about what he did to their leader, Casper is a marked man. He tries to leave the train and escape into a town along the way, but Sayra is too young not to follow her heart and flees with this troubled boy. She seems to see his mystery and danger in the most romantic terms, whereas he understands all too certainly that he’s paying a deadly game that he’s not likely to survive. It’s not giving away the ending to say that innocence and young love do not win the day in this film.

Sin Nombre is about what people in America call illegal immigration. Another way to put it is that it’s about migration—of refugees from poverty and violence. If you had to live in a place with the same kind of violence and lack of opportunity as the characters in this film, you’d leave, too. You’d be stupid not to if you had the chance. Americans worry about losing jobs to these so-called “aliens.” They complain about having to “press one for English and two for Spanish.” They believe lies from politicians like Arizona governor Jan Brewer who said that people were being beheaded on the American side of the border as part of Mexican gang wars. Americans don’t realize that compared to the Third World—that is to say, most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere—we’re living in Disneyland. And most of us didn’t do a damn thing to earn the right to be here; we were just born lucky. Sin Nombre rips the border band-aid off the gaping wound of suffering that our southern neighbors go through every day.

We can say immigration to the United States is not the answer to Central American poverty. Yet faced with the kind of human misery featured in Sin Nombre, you have to grapple with the problems that lead to illegal immigration. So what’s the solution? Is it greater foreign aid? Is it ending the destructive “War on Drugs” that increases the level of violence as gangs fight for turf? Is it strengthening labor requirements for American companies that outsource across the border to find cheap workers?

We have to think about this because Jesus gave us only two commandments: love God and love your neighbor. Then he told a story about a good Samaritan that made it pretty clear the term “neighbor” is to be defined ridiculously broadly. By both the common definition of proximity and Christ’s expansive definition, the suffering people of Sin Nombre (tr. “no name”) are our neighbors. So if letting them come to this country with some measure of human dignity to find jobs and to find ways to become citizens legally and pay taxes and live the Disney dream we all take for granted is not the answer, then what is?