Since federal helicopters raced over cornfields on May 12, 2008, en route to arresting 389 illegal workers at a sprawling kosher meatpacking plant, what was a center of commerce in northeastern Iowa teeters toward collapse as the plant sputters in bankruptcy, its managers face prison time and the town fights to stay solvent.
The anniversary of Postville provides a segway to a movie that you should try to go see. Sin Nombre is a Focus film that is playing in select theaters around the country. Like the other great film of its genre El Norte, Sin Nombre is about two groups of people who make their way north from Guatemala through the border crossing in Tapachula. One immigrant is a member of the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha, while the others are a poor family looking for a better life.
One of the great benefits of this film is the insight it gives us into the life of some of the great Central American gangs. References are made to the Chavalas and to Mara Diesyocho, both notorious gangs spanning Central America to the United States. I would rather not steal the thunder of the movie from you, since it does such a graphic job of describing internal gang life. I had heard of these gangs before. While I was in El Salvador, I was told that there was a time when Salvatrucha and Diesyocho controlled whole states or "departamentos" of the country to such an extent that they exacted a tax from anyone who traveled through these states. They continue to wield a tremendous influence. Documentation has been done on how deportations of gang members from Los Angeles has contributed largely to their dramatic growth and influence. Deported members who become experts in gang warfare in Los Angeles have in turn taken this expertise back with them to Mexico and Central America. The drug demand in the United States is almost rivaled by the demand for guns in those countries south of the border. And so we both feed one another's addictions.
A Jesuit friend of mine recently led a group from Guatemala to the United States, staying along the way in homes for immigrants who make this hazardous trip. One of the most profound moments of the movie for me was seeing La Bombilla, a train station where immigrants by the thousands hang out waiting for passing trains. Human limbs, I am told by this Jesuit, dot the tracks where people have slipped and fallen and been sliced to pieces. Simply the reality of this dangerous journey. Seeing this spot actually shot on film was a profound moment. I have never seen this actual station, but when I went to El Salvador, I took a bus through Mexico and crossed into Guatemala in Tapachula. Sadly, it has become a city of tremendous violence and suffering.
I'll let Ebert have the last word on Sin Nombre:
"Sin Nombre" is a remarkable film, showing the incredible hardships people will endure in order to reach El Norte. Yes, the issue of illegal immigration is a difficult one. When we encounter an undocumented alien, we should not be too quick with our easy assumptions. That person may have put his life on the line for weeks or months to come here, searching for what we so easily describe as the American dream. What inspired Fukunaga, an American, to make this film, I learned, was a 2003 story about 80 illegals found locked in a truck and abandoned in Texas. Nineteen died.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ