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This week Marilyn Hernandez explores two films that use the individual experience as a vehicle to discuss Latin American immigration to the United States. She also enters into a discussion about how film images mold our understanding of both the individual and collective experience of crossing the US-Mexican border. Marilyn’s conversation adds an important dimension to our larger social and political discussion about immigration to America.


-Marilyn Hernandez

Being an American-born Latina with ancestry tracing back to Mexico and El Salvador, it is important to me to understand the migration chapter of my family history. Over the years, family and friends have shared many personal stories about crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. I have come to realize that regardless of whether the story dealt with legal or illegal immigration, immigrating to the United States is an intriguing story.  Films help us to both understand and personalize the complex subject of immigration.

Sin Nombre (2009) is a film that shows the intensity and realness of the journey “up North”.  Sin Nombre, which means nameless, is a gritty dramatic thriller that follows a Honduran teenager named Sayra who reconciles with her estranged father. She decides to immigrate to America with her father and uncle to start a new life.  The three of them come across a young member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, Willy (nicknamed El Casper). This encounter occurs on top of a freight car headed north of Mexico. Casper is on the run after murdering a local boss leader.

Sayra & Casper

Sin Nombre can be described as a gang film, but I choose to internalize it as a film about the immigration experience. The film creates a visual narrative of a gritty experience of the journey “up North”. Robbery, rape, treacherous weather conditions, la migra, (border patrol) and death are daily occurrences. The little towns along the route act as a representation of attitudes surrounding the issue of immigration. Some are very lenient, helping travelers by providing them with fruit and water. Others are not so kind. In one particular scene, children run alongside the trains and throw stones and yell derogatory terms at the passengers on the train. The focus on the vivid details of the journey is what helps me to internalize and relate to these types of film. The grittier the tale, the more authentic the expedition feels.

Sayra with her father and uncle [Source: “http://focusfeatures.com/uploads/image/mediafile/1238169919-df48b62c3e2087ba352f82304d4216d9/950.jpg”}

El Norte (1983), considered a classic by many, is another film that explores the dark journey of immigration to America. In El Norte, two indigenous youth from Guatemala decide to migrate to the United States because of ethnic and political persecution in Guatemala.  One horrifying scene from the film is the actual crossing of the border.  The main characters, Enrique and Rosa, hire a coyote (immigrant smuggler). The coyote tells Enrique and Rose that if they crawl through a sewage pipe, he would meet them on the other side – in America.  Armed with flashlights, Enrique and Rosa crawl through the sewage pipe only to encounter a heap of rats. The rats viciously attack them.  The image of Enrique and Rosa crawling through sewage captures how desperate people are  to travel to the United States. Films like El Norte do not allude to the struggles, but actually show them in graphic detail. These dark images help highlight the realism of the journey. It invokes strong emotions and it is up to the viewer to decide what to do with these emotions.

The scene I discuss above starts at 50seconds. {This scene contains graphic images and may not be appropriate for viewers under 17}

Sin Nombre and El Norte are narratives. The characters are not real but the stories are. Whether one regards immigration as a curse or a vessel for prosperity, it is important to understand immigration on a human level. We can disagree with the methods that many people endure to make the journey, but immigration and migration are realities. The immigration experience  not only shapes the history of United States, but also the history of mankind. Moving images give us the liberty to choose what side of the debate we land on and help us to understand this social phenomenon.

Film has the amazing power to present realistic images about immigration. In this blog, I have chosen to discuss Latin American migration.

Do you know of any other films that deal with the African, Asian, or European migration?

Do you think film helps public perceptions of immigrants or reinforce negative images of immigrants? 

Can you relate on a personal level to stories that are presented in such films?  

I know these graphic images pierce my mind and changed many of my attitudes about immigration, in general.

It may not be the case for you, tell me what do you think?

Thank you for lending me your eyes.

Until next time,



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