North American cinema – Immigration and escaping Mexico’s gangs

Sin Nombre – Cary Fukunaga (2009)

Disclaimer: I realise this isn’t the most Christmassy of posts, but this Mexican-gang road movie happened to fall on my schedule on Christmas eve, so there we are.

Anyway, as we move on once more to the another corner of the world, I need to specify something. Wikipedia tells me ‘North American Cinema’ is a term that is commonly used to refer to films made in Canada or the U.S. But I’m on a quest to see new things from new countries so the U.S has no place on this blog. That subsequently made this continent a pretty difficult one to find films for since, apart from Mexico and Canada, it appears the U.S kinda sucks the life/money out of any other North American countries’ film industries. It’s not so much that there weren’t any films in existence but rather they were almost impossible to get my hands on without having to pay (which I obviously can’t do for every film please, I am a student) for them. BUT I got there in the end, so all is well.

I am not sure what you’d class this film as (nation-wise) since Fukunaga is from the U.S, one protagonist is Honduran and one is Mexican. But nevertheless, the bulk of the film takes place in Mexico so I guess I’ll categorise it that way. I’ve actually watched a fair few Mexican films (Amorres Peros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, La Zona etc. films you’ll likely be familiar with if you studied ALevel Film) and I really enjoyed them, the country clearly has a lively film industry. But out of those I’ve seen, this one stuck with me the most. Scrolling through Letterboxd lists (I think I spend 80% of my time doing this) you can see a lot of people feel the same, listing it as a hidden gem, melancholic, an unbelievable debut, underrated etc. I’m glad these users feel as strongly about the film as I do.

The film is an important one because although illegal immigration is an incredibly hot topic in the U.S right now, here in the U.K it’s the ins and outs of Central to North American immigration aren’t so explicit (well, not to me anyway) and before I studied it I was, personally, pretty oblivious to the variety of issues/push or pull factors for these migrants.

It follows two teenagers, Sayra and Casper on their different, and eventually shared, journeys through central America to the northern border. In the film’s opening, Casper, a member of the infamous ‘Mara Salvatrucha’ gang, is in the southern Mexican city of Tapachila, in close proximity to the Guatemalan border. Sayra is with her family in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, preparing to take the long, life-threatening trip to the U.S border  with her recently deported father who has a home and new family there. Though she is somewhat unenthusiastic about the trip, her Uncle tells her “there is nothing for you here, Sayra”, and being that the only background knowledge I have about Honduras is the Stacey Dooley Investigates episode on ‘World’s Worst Place to Be a Woman’ I think I’d agree. (Her father’s map of their route below)


In Tapachila, a lie sparks conflict between Casper and the other gang members. After lying to gang leader Lil Maggo about his whereabouts things begin to spiral out of control, Lil Maggo accidentally killing Marta during an attempt to rape her and then threatening Casper with the same fate. His death inevitable if he doesn’t follow orders, Casper then accompanies him on a gang related trip to Tonalà, miles away in central Mexico. The two stories meet here, as Casper climbs atop the train jam-packed with thousands of hopeful immigrants, including Sayra, her uncle and father.

The films most notable themes include fate, without giving too much away I think the melancholy opening sequence kind of foreshadows what is to come. Death too, is everywhere in the film and it is casual and violent, a seemingly everyday occurrence for those on the long journey to the north, along with the corruption of the border control who steal from poor, vulnerable migrants in exchange for passage. The film shows the harsh realities for those fleeing in hope of a better life. It also shows a seemingly lawless world, in which none of the violent gang members face no consequences for their crimes and life goes on as normal, a scary, violent normal. Whilst considering it is of course, a work of fiction, it does perhaps play into the failures of Mexican policing and the country’s high homicide rates, a small percentage of which are investigated.

‘Sin Nombre’, the film’s title means in English ‘Nameless’ which might play into this idea Americans have of immigrants as a swarm of people, easy to think of as numbers of lawbreakers rather than Sayras that have homes, stories, fears and experiences, who just want somewhere safe to live. As Sayra’s father says as they sit on the stationary train In Bombilla, less than half of these people will make it. Yet they’re likely aware of what they’re risking, so the dangers of the journey are clearly worth the end goal: safety in the U.S.

I really loved this film and would definitely recommend watching it because it’s super relevant and important right now. Also, Fukunaga’s own research/contexts of the film are really interesting too: information about how he gained access to the real life Mara can be found here.


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