Freighted Refuge

Sin Nombre
Cary Joji Fukunaga, 2009
Scion/Canana/Creando/Primary Productions

Clouds dominate the upper half in one of Sin Nombre‘s (2009) theatrical release posters, as though a tropical storm is tracking the freight train below, carrying passengers on its rooftop through lush-green countryside. This poster’s centre of gravity is a face, of a young woman looking straight at us, framed in delicate fortitude; and immediately behind her is a young man whose line of sight appears engaged on thoughts that vegetate on the tropical landscape the train is passing through.

A native of Honduras, Sayra is the young woman in the poster, played by rising Mexican-actor Paulina Gaitán, and the young man is Casper of Chiapas, Mexico, portrayed by non-professional actor Edgar Flores from Honduras. Two years before this film was released, Gaitán had worked with Kevin Kline in Trade (2007) as a Mexican girl auctioned online for paedophiles. There are vague traces of that girl’s fragility in Gaitán’s Sayra, whose solemn sweetness and strength provide illusions of respite against the script’s controlled accretion of violence embodied in La Mara Salvatrucha, a transnational gang with a chapter in the city of Tapachula in Chiapas, which Casper is a member of.

As a marero, Casper is wary about cultivating a private life; but he pursues one anyway, to nourish a budding romance – as Willy, not Casper – with Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), whose fragile beauty appears out-of-place in the film’s harsh world, and is soon discarded after following Casper to a gang meeting in a cemetery. Casper immediately suffers punishment before his homies for hiding Martha from them, while their leader – Tenoch Huerta Mejia’s menacing Lil’ Mago – absconds her to a semi-private enclosure under the intimate shade of a tree. Fukunaga takes advantage of this scene for something that complements our perceptions of Lil’ Mago whose face and naked upper-body presents a delirious labyrinth of tattoos, dripping of death, religion, brotherhood, and other icons of pride. When Martha hits her head on a tombstone after resisting his advances and never moves again, the brief shock that freezes Lil’ Mago’s face appears like a seed for an apology to Casper later, who would never know her death was an accident. Instead, Lil’ Mago simply informs Casper that “the Devil took her,” after leaving Martha under the tree.

Martha’s death enrages Casper quietly, as Lil’ Mago continues to hold the plot’s momentum, when he chooses Casper and a new recruit named Smiley for a routine robbery on a freight train carrying US-bound migrants. Obligation and pride simmers in the new recruit’s sense of focus in collecting wallets and other material possessions, sentiments not replicated in Casper. Still mourning over Martha, Casper’s concentration to be in the robbery has been faltering, which Lil’ Mago has noted with friendly nonchalance, ever since the triumvirate boards the train discretely. However, the object of Casper’s concentration acquires a new focus when the gang leader puts his hand on one of the female passengers they are robbing. This harassment punctures Casper’s rage, and inspires him to rescue the girl. Soon, the energy of the script shifts into a narrative of escape after Casper raises his machete and lands its blade on the gang leader’s neck. Smiley’s flight from the interrupted robbery is burdened with confusion, fear, and the image of Lil’ Mago’s dead body with a leg now sliced in half on the tracks, after Casper pushes him down the boxcar rooftop they are on.

Now alone, Casper takes refuge on the train he once terrorized, and survives unsuccessful attempts against his life. Over time, the girl Casper saves – Sayra – develops feelings for him that forces her to separate with her father and uncle, to follow Casper who secretly leaves the train one morning. Casper and Sayra’s moments together deepen against Mara members in Mexico and the US now searching for Lil’ Mago’s assassin, a hunt that ends where Casper’s blood converges with the color of the setting sun on the Rio Grande River, while Sayra crosses its dark waters alone.

There’ll be someone to take care of you

Our first five minutes into the film is a visual appetizer of blood, tattoos, baggy jeans, and naked upper-bodies, which wows aspects in our attention that, at least, have modest regard for action-packed, Hollywood productions. We are in a gang initiation, akin to rituals in fraternities high on mythologies of manhood and brotherhood. Close-up shots that magnify facial expressions further highlight this spectacle; indeed, an introduction to the grit we are in for.

Kristyan Ferrer’s Smiley – or Benito to his grandmother – is the subject of the initiation, courtesy of Casper, who has mentored him to be a successful small-time thief around Tapachula. The welcome Smiley receives from Lil’ Mago is almost touching, a kiss on the forehead that seals his membership in a brotherhood with thousands of members, in which, according to the gang leader: “[w]herever [he goes], there’ll be someone to take care of [him].” Smiley gets a clearer picture of Mara’s sense of loyalty towards the end of the film, as his former mentor, Casper, takes a rain of bullets from a mob of mareros, wherein the first three shots comes from Smiley himself. An admirer of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), Fukunaga pays homage to Malick in this river-scene, particularly when Richard Gere’s Bill is shot in the back on shallow river-water by police after a chase; here, Fukunaga’s version feels grittier, since the camera appears to frame it not as a distant eyewitness but from the perspective of a marero shooting Casper.

Smiley’s facial expression, in this river-scene, explodes with surprise, confusion, and guilt, that he is able to betray and assassinate someone he looks up to as an older brother. This compression is key to Smiley’s burdened membership in Mara, that while it is a space of safety, brotherhood, and family, the gang’s identity is founded on strict codes of vengeance. In many ways, the spirit of vengeance grows in the film through the face of Lil’ Mago, especially after his death halfway into the story. He is the gang, an ever-looming specter of menace worming in the psyche of the story, as though the gang-leader’s tattooed face and body are right there on the screen, flickering like a ghostly figure, a signifier of terror, a convincing descendant of the vengeance that inspired the gang’s inception in the United States.

In No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement {1}, Tom Diaz’s account of La Mara Salvatrucha aligns the gang’s origins to the steady flow of Central Americans to Los Angeles in the 1980s. Most of these new arrivals were immigrants from an on-going war in Central America. As Spanish speakers – albeit with a Central American slant – they settled in the side of Los Angeles where they can be understood culturally and linguistically, in communities rich with fragile hybridities and contradictions inherent in immigrant experience. The experiences of male youths among these new arrivals were fraught with hurdles that only intensified when established Mexican-American youth-gangs preyed on them; a power hierarchy that would soon change, according to Diaz:

“[…i]t did not take the Salvadoran kids long to learn how to play the street game in their new home. After all, enough of them had been real soldiers in a real war. […] they burst onto the streets with a vengeance.” [p. 32]

The original members of Mara Salavatrucha in Los Angeles derived their menacing cohesiveness, in part, through organizational skills and tactics learned from being “real soldiers in a real war.” These skills helped nourish the gang’s growth and influence among Spanish-speaking youths desperate for a sense of brotherhood. Over time, the gang diversified, loosened its rule of exclusivity, and opened its pool of membership in southern California to young men in other Spanish-speaking social groups who are not necessarily from Central America. This growth puts the gang on the Los Angeles Police Department’s ever-watchful radar. Around July 1986 – according to Diaz – Robert Ruchhoft,{2} an LAPD lieutenant, found connections between growing crime by street-gangs and illegal aliens. The equation was bleak, and rapidly became a federal concern. Since then, the US federal government has been deporting undocumented aliens who are criminals and belong to gangs to their country of origin.

These deportations have contributed to the evolution of Mara in regions south of the US-Mexico border. Since its inception, the gang’s street cred has cruised and evolved on the down low in the imagination and dim alleys of urban pop-culture, especially online where information and critical studies about their relationship with the law spread their reputation. In Fukunaga’s story, the gang takes centre-stage in a feature film for the first time both as antagonist and protagonist through Casper, an addition to the ever-swelling archive of anti-heroes in gangster cinema. Undocumented migrants share this stage with the gang. Like many images in film that are vulnerable to haphazard judgments, the juxtaposition of illegal immigrants and gangs, in this film, is vulnerable to haphazard associations that equate them into problematic stereotypes.

I’m going with you

Casper’s journey on the freight train is an act of relinquishing his membership from Mara, who is now a criminal, primarily in the context of the gang, and certainly of Mexico’s legal jurisdiction. This renunciation, however, does not displace Casper into easy conditions of separation and alienation socially. Gradually, he becomes part of another group, albeit a temporal family of strangers on a freight train, at the heart of which is Sayra, the force that somehow ‘deports’ Casper’s condition serendipitously as Mara escapee to the condition of migrant. As part of Sayra’s small contingent – which includes her father, uncle, and a family friend – Casper participates in the group’s well-being, however minimal. In one instance, Casper uses his knowledge of train routes to avoid Border Patrol and Judicial Police in a certain town that arrest freight-train hitch riders; unbeknownst to Casper, that town is now crawling with mareros who are informed that Casper’s train would be passing there.

If Fukunaga’s script alludes to the gruesome murders of women in Mexico in the late 1990s, he does it through Martha Marlene, wherein her dead body simply “disappears” in the story. In Sayra though, the female figure is protected from that femicide, not a disposable body, but empowered, perhaps existential, and makes it to Texas where she is able to call her aunt Yessenia in New Jersey to start a new life. Sayra’s ability to stop an attempt against Casper’s life on the train through a diversion that alerted him of his would-be assassins provides a window into how she positions herself in the nexus of fear and desire. Initially, Casper cautions himself from the charms of Sayra’s bravery to be with him, not because he does not like Sayra the way he does Martha, but to not drag Sayra into a chain of events that reign like vengeful gods that cloister his omens, intimate as brotherhood betrayed. In a way, Fukunaga softens Casper’s image as killer and gangster, here, to a point where Casper’s cautious attitudes with Sayra elides sexual intimacies and advances.

The death of Sayra’s father deepens Casper’s involvements in Sayra’s life. In a small church at a rest stop for migrants, Sayra’s privacy is cut short when Casper mourns with her. As Sayra leans on Casper’s shoulder, the scene is their most intimate contact in the film, as though that intimacy must first be made in a sacred space, before the last leg of their journey in Mexico: the perilous crossing at the US-Mexico border: the exit end of the umbilical cord that is the journey itself, at the heart of which is a railway system, the ultimate female figure in the script. Dreams and disillusions are inseminated into that harsh system, nourished through determinations for an alternative life somewhere, perhaps a better one. It’s a female figure in phallic form, plowing and penetrating its serpentine structure through a sensual and psychic wilderness of what might.

“Someone should tell their story”

For two or three weeks from southern to northern Mexico, the train’s operators, and administrators – at least, in the context of the film – turn a blind eye, and give hitch-riders temporal refuge that is vulnerable to robbers, border authorities, bad weather, or derailments. This refuge is a kind of blind empathy that redeems the coldness of train as mere machine, making it an instrument of humanitarianism, however accidental this role might be. Certainly, this vehicle of refuge has dangerous claws as well; while running away from the Mexican border patrol, Sayra’s father panics, and falls from a car into the tracks. His disappearance is absolute, as though the train as humanitarian suddenly shows its beastly dimension, that it devours certain travelers – as though they are sacrificial lambs – to nourish its role as transporter of desperate journeys.

Three years prior to the film’s premiere, critics embraced a journalistic account of a Honduran migrant who traveled on freight trains to reach the US; Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother {3} is an expansion of Sonia Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey”, which was serialized in The Los Angeles Times, and won a Pulitzer in 2002. The book devotes a chapter called “Facing the Beast”, and offers perspectives on the beastliness of freight trains in the imagination of Enrique, his companions, and perhaps the migrants in Fukunaga’s fictional narrative as well:

“[…] Enrique was once on a train that derailed. His car lurched so violently that he briefly thought of jumping off to save himself. Enrique rarely let himself admit fear, but he is scared that his car might tip. El Tren de la Muerte, some migrants call it. The Train of Death.

“Others cast the train in a more positive light. They believe it has noble purpose. Sometimes, the train tops are packed with migrants. They face north, toward a new land, a never-ending exodus. El Tren Peregrino, they call it. The Pilgrim’s Train.

“Enrique is struck by the magic of the train – its power and its ability to take him to his mother. To him, it is El Caballo de Hierno. The Iron Horse.” [p. 71]

Indeed, the train as object of myth colors the vocabulary of migrants, their sense of departures and arrivals, or ‘trains of thought’ moving towards “a new land.” In the film, that land is not figured in Casper’s mind, at first, even as a new passenger, until he meets Sayra whose destination is New Jersey. For Casper, the train presents a different kind of transition, an escape or an illusion of escape from Mara and its spies, which, for a while, deports him into an illusion of peace. The dark calm of that peace is no doubt captured in Adriano Goldman’s cinematography, especially as the train moves into a vast, picturesque plain, as though taken after the Fall, replete with gothic, prelapsarian sensualities that, in the film, lilts in the tropical colors and climate of landscape organically impressed in the body language of determined travelers.

In many ways, Nazario’s account can be a fitting companion to the world of desperation behind Fukunaga’s story. Enrique is an approximate microcosm of the train passengers in the film, which inspires assumptions that Fukunaga had collaborated with Nazario to authenticate his work; they didn’t. But Nazario’s piece in the LA Times did catch the attention of the young director and Amy Kaufman, his producer, and they “were moved”{4} by it.

Thus, Fukunaga was inspired to explore the life of migrants who travelled on freight trains, a task that in itself is a story about refuge in one’s artistic vision, one that insists not to rely on second-hand sources to realise it. Even though Fukunaga has tackled the undocumented immigrant story in his short film Victoria para Chino at NYU, he understood that story is not his, and decided to see it for himself. Accompanied by two friends, Chiapas was Fukunaga’s first stop,{5} where no stone was left unturned for anything related to what he wanted to tackle in a feature film. Face-to-face contact with gang members and migrants comprised the heft of his research, which in itself was a journey that evolved into an actual journey on Ferrosur’s{6} trains without his friends from the US, and intensified the experience when he befriended two Honduran migrants on that trek. Fukunaga would use these trains for his feature film. On an interview at Indiewire, Fukunaga writes:

“[…] My first train had 700 Central American immigrants on it. The same trains marauded by the gangs and bandits, exploited by the police, and at the mercy of the weather which saw fit to derail two trains that same summer.

“[… ] At first, I felt awkward on these trips, the immigrants looking at me like a clown in a courtroom. But soon I was accepted as a strange, but somehow acceptable presence amongst my travelers.

“[…] When I told the immigrants that this was for a film rather than a reportage, they were amused. They agreed it was an interesting idea, that someone should tell their story. And I promise that on more than few assured me that even though I was a gringo, it was okay I was going to tell it, and that I better tell it like it is.” {7}

If Fukunaga’s physical characteristics and body language made him stand out on these trips “like a clown,” his knowledge of Spanish probably minimised that difference – which he speaks fluently in addition to French – since language, used with calculation, has a way of dressing up one’s facial expressions and body language and affect a sense of affiliation in a culture. Tri-lingual, Fukunaga’s background may give us hints of his interest in the immigrant story. This gringo is of Asian and European extraction. Born to a Japanese father and Swedish mother, he has also lived with a Chicano stepfather and Argentine stepmother, not to mention a “recombination of relatives and step-relatives, blood kin and surrogate kin”{8} – according to the LA Times – that sliced his California childhood into a class spectrum of barrios and suburbs.

Fukunaga’s train research in Mexico was fraught with danger. Journalists{9} have died researching about Mara and their rivals,{10} even though most of these crimes took place in Central America. Thus, besides bravery and determination, how Fukunaga pulled off this research unscathed or unharassed inspires curiosity. Perhaps Casper’s sense of adaptability and street smarts among strangers provide a clue, wherein the equilibrium of survival is weighed between the depth of one’s fears, and audacities that can migrate into possibilities.

Michael Caylo-Baradi read English at UC-Berkeley, and is currently employed at an information centre in California. He is an alumnus of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center (CUNY).

1. Diaz, Tom. 2009. No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement. The University of Michigan Press.
2. Ibid., 116.
3. Nazario, Sonia. 2007. Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with his Mother. Random House.
4. Reed, Johnson. “Crossing borders with Sin Nombre.” Los Angeles Times. 2009 March 8.,0,4485259.story. Web: 2 Oct 2012.
5. “Cary Joji Fukunaga on “Sin Nombre”: Border Crossings, Authenticity, and Authorship”. Indiewire. 2009 January 11. Web: 8 Oct 2012.
6. Eagan, Daniel. “Risking the rails.” Film Journal International. 112.4 (2009): Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web: 8 Oct 2012.
7. Indiewire, 2009.
8. Reed. “Crossing.”
9. “IFEX members welcome rare conviction in journalist murder”. 13 June 2012. Web: 6 Oct 2012.
10. “Filmmaker who documented Salvadoran gangs is slain”. 3 September 2009. Web: 3 Oct 2012.