In the Borderlands […] you are at home, a stranger.
– Gloria Anzaldúa
THE ROAD, THE MIGRANT, AND THE BORDER
The postmodern attention on cultural identities established ‘on-the-run’ has been popularized in the road movie genre of film. For the most part, the road movie represents a genre marked by various cinematic and thematic elements that highlight the themes of movement and migrancy.1 In road films, for example, vehicles of transportation such as cars tend to become props, male characters are often seen as the “drivers” or protagonists of the film, and the road becomes the climactic setting of the film. Furthermore, narration is often episodic with constant transitions between the pit stops and segments of travel. The characters in this genre are often in flight or on the run from a particular place no longer considered safe. At other times they are pursued by people representing a threat to their safety or way of life. In the words of Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, the road movie genre tends to set “the liberation of the road against the oppression of hegemonic norms” (1). Cohan and Hark’s description inserts the migrant into a state of placelessness, whereby they are cast between the departure from their homeland, now a lost place of refuge, and their consequent desire to escape its hegemonic oppression via the road. Often, the migrant’s journey is inspired by the failure of utopian dreams that are now abandoned on the road. In some cases, such as in Jack Kerouac’s classic work On the Road (1957), the road itself can be seen as a means of self-discovery. The two films presented here—La misma luna (2007), by Mexican director Patricia Riggen, and Sin nombre (2009), by California-based director Cary Joji Fukunaga—exemplify these characteristics of the road movie genre. La misma luna is about the illegal border crossing of a young boy named Carlitos from Mexico to Los Angeles in search for his mother, while Sin nombre details the journey of a Honduran girl named Sayra and her travels in Mexico towards the United States border with a Mexican ex-gang member named Willy (otherwise known as ‘Casper’). That both these films center on Carlitos and Sayra’s journeys on the road to the United States border brings the films into dialogue with the road movie genre originally developed in the United States. North American road movies such as Author Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), or Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991), for example, represent a film genre that in the words of Cohan and Hark “catches peculiarly American dreams, tensions, and anxieties… [that are also found] even when imported by the motion picture industries of other nations” (2), something that is reflected in both the Mexican films in discussion here. What makes La misma luna and Sin nombre unique is that while they are ‘imported’ from Mexico, they are co-produced by both Mexican and United States production companies: Potomac Pictures with Creando Films and Fedecine for La Misma Luna; and Scion films and Primary Productions with Canana and Creando Films for Sin Nombre. Sin nombre was shot entirely in Mexico, but produced by an American. La misma luna, produced by a Mexican, was shot in both Tequisuíapan, Mexico and Los Angeles, California. The latter film is also prone to switching between both the English and Spanish languages. As a combined national effort, these two films provide interesting details on both Mexican and American identities and the perspective of the ‘American dream’ as perceived from the southern side of the border. Consequently, the North American notion of dreams, tensions, and anxieties that Cohan and Hark speak of are very much evident in both these films, but are subject to a Central American twist: the border. As in the North American road movie genre, the road (or the train track in Sin nombre) provides the setting for these films; however, it is the U.S.-Mexico borderlands that become the road’s ‘horizon’ or utopian objective. The emphasis of the border as a gateway between the binaries of the past and the future, dystopia and utopia, poverty and riches, and death and life make these border-crossing narratives unique in their ability to transition away from the focus of a departure on the road and towards the expectation of an arrival past the border.
For Carlitos, the nine-year-old protagonist of La misma luna, the border represents a place of reunion with his mother, Rosario. Following the death of his grandmother in Mexico, Carlitos takes it upon himself to venture north across the border in search of his mother who has been an illegal immigrant working in Los Angeles for the last four years. Carlitos, fearful and untrusting of his aunt and uncle in Mexico who attempt to ransack the money his mother sent him, seeks out two ‘coyotes’ (illegal immigrant smugglers) to help him cross the border. In the process, he is separated from them and left to fend for himself across the border with neither the money nor the ability to contact his mother, whose only means of communication with her son in the past four years was through a weekly conversation from a payphone.
Meanwhile, Sin Nombre depicts a more violent account of border-crossings. Willy (nicknamed Casper) is exiled by fellow gang members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula Chiaspas, Mexico. After his girlfriend comes to the knowledge of his involvement with the Mara Salvatrucha, she is killed in a rape attempt by the gang leader Lil’ Mago. Casper later retaliates by killing Lil’ Mago while on a mission to rob migrants on a train. He is then joined by the newest member of the gang known as Smiley, a young boy recently recruited into the gang by Casper himself. With a bounty placed on Casper’s head for murdering Lil’ Mago, Casper sends Smiley away and remains on board the same train he was supposed to rob in hopes of fleeing across the border and escaping an inevitable death-sentence back home. It is while on the train that he meets Sayra, who is accompanied by her father and uncle who are also attempting to cross the border. Fearing that his presence endangers Sayra and her family, Casper departs from the train in a small town, only to find out that Sayra has abandoned her father and uncle to follow him towards the border. During the last obstacle of their journey together, Casper and Sayra attempt to cross a river. At that very moment, Smiley, ordered by the Mara Salvatrucha to find and kill Casper, catches up to Casper at the riverbank and shoots him. Sayra, who by that time has crossed to the other side, watches the violent scene in horror as Casper is murdered, and then later makes her way into the United States alone.
To a certain degree, the border narratives of La misma luna and Sin nombre alter David Laderman’s description of the North American interpretation of the road movie genre as a “road of excess” (2). According to Laderman, the road movie often “provides an outlet for our excesses, enticing our desire for thrill and mystery. The horizon beckons both auspiciously and ominously. Exceeding the borders of the culture it makes possible, for better or for worse, the road represents the unknown” (2). Rather than a road of excess, a transition occurs in La misma luna and Sin nombre that emphasizes a narrative inspired by a border of excess. This is not to say that the border implies a ‘limitation’ or wall that encloses these excesses—one’s emotional drive of desire, thrill, and mystery—but rather a frontier from which they can expand. In this sense, the excesses of desire are only perceived by our protagonists to be fulfilled beyond the border, rather than on the road towards the border itself. The road, in this respect, does not provide, as Laderman proposes, a space where travel can be understood “as an ‘end’ in itself” (2). The protagonists, Carlitos and Sayra, do not desire to be on the road, but beyond it; it is not the journey but the destination that draws them to the road. In addition, the cultural space between Mexico and the United States widens the difference between North American road movies and the films in question. Both La misma luna and Sin nombre, according to Laura Senio Blair, take “the road movie trope from its point of origin—from ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to ‘South of the Border’” (119). The dangerous train-hopping, bandit ridden atmosphere of illegal immigrants found throughout the U.S.-Mexican borderlands—the place Gloria Anzaldúa calls “la herida abierta” [the open wound] (25)—occupies the primary setting of these films. Indeed, if the road movie in the United States was born out of “American society’s fascination with the road” (2) as Laderman argues, in these two films we witness our protagonist’s fascination with the border. Leaving behind their realities of oppression and deprivation back home and travelling ahead with the dreams of ‘excess’ to be found the other side of the border, Carlitos and Sayra’s journey represents the ambiguous process of identity formations occurring during border crossings where the position of identity is left dangling, caught on the border between cultures, languages, and nations.
Both La misma luna and Sin nombre are placed within a unique category of the road movie genre: neither qualifies for what Laderman describes as ‘quest’ road movies that “emphasize roaming itself, usually in terms of some discovery,” nor as ‘outlaw’ road movies that “emphasize a more desperate, fugitive flight from the scene of a crime or the pursuit of the law” (20). Rather, each of these border-films are characterized by migrants who are both ‘outlawed’ or exiled from their home in some manner and are at the same time on a very specific quest to cross the United States border with the hopes of starting a new life that will presumably provide a greater sense of economic, physical, and social refuge. These films are therefore a combination of both categories of the road movie, a hybrid of the quest and the outlaw movie. This combination that is embodied in the migrant character, who is both an outlaw and a quester, gives way to the rather ambiguous dilemma as to how cultural identity is processed between territorial exile and the quest for refuge. The identity formations occurring during these border-crossing journeys, I argue, are cultivated through tensions of refuge and subterfuge. In both plots, a connection is highlighted between the refuge of a home that is lost and the strategic subterfuge used by the characters in order achieve their quest of crossing the border. Exiled from home, left to the road, and aiming for the border, the developments of refuge and subterfuge become more than mere consequences of migrancy; they are the means for the migrant’s survival in the borderlands, in both the physical and cultural sense of the word.
I have acknowledged that La misma luna, and Sin nombre exemplify the combination of both outlaw and quest narratives. This implies that our protagonists Carlitos and Sayra can be considered as outlaws engaged with a purpose or ‘quest’. As outlaws, both films present a story of young adolescent characters that attempt to illegally cross the United States border. The border, in each of these films, resembles a crossing-line that represents the quest of these youth to transcend a place of danger and oppression to a place of security and well-being. As Senio Blair emphasizes, “[t]here couldn’t be more pertinent and relevant road films today than those that delve into the cultural anxieties surrounding large-scale immigration into the United States and touch on the contentious issues regarding immigration reform and policies for undocumented minors currently taking place within Hollywood’s own home country” (128).
Both accounts of migrancy in these films wrestle with the context of personal identity. Katie Mills describes migrant identity as resulting in a construction of self that is caught “somewhere between the map and the mind, between experience and its representation” (19). Mapping the road, both physically and mentally, within the ambiguity of place and self leaves the migrant’s identity in question: how does the movement of a body between places affect, shape, and transform cultural identities that are displaced, resulting in the migrant being labeled as a vagabond, a nomad, a traveler, a hybrid identity, or in our case a border-crosser? For the most part, this triune discussion of identity, culture, and location creates what Iain Chambers considers a fitting metaphor of the postmodern condition that is highlighted by the “migrant’s sense of being rootless, of living between worlds, between a lost past and a non-integrated present” (27). In this respect, I use the terms ‘refuge’ and ‘subterfuge’ to analyze this postmodern condition of identity defined by Carlitos and Sayra’s loss of economic and social stability. As a result of their coerced exile from their homes—their places of refuge—they must learn to adapt to the road in order to survive the hybrid and changing environments. Such adaptations are thus realized through the artifice of deception and dissimulation—or acts of subterfuge. According to Laderman, the coding of defamiliarization occurring during the act of travelling “suggests a mobile refuge from social circumstances felt to be lacking or oppressive in some way” (2; italics mine), that is, that the initial departure from one’s familiar home, as revealed in road movies, leads to the consequent search for a new ‘mobile refuge’ by the characters. To leave somewhere, whether by free will or coercion, implies an innate desire to find refuge elsewhere. This may at times be centered on the will to return to the original departure point. Most often however—as is the case in these U.S.-Mexico border films—the destination of travel is positioned somewhere new, beyond the border, in a different culture, and amongst a different language. Refuge, as a term linked to the notion of one’s homeland, therefore represents a space that is separated and differentiated in the context of migrancy, and consequently requires to be sought elsewhere, outside of one’s past location and familiar traditions.
In each of these films, the innocence of youth of Carlitos and Sayra is challenged by the frightful realities and adult responsibilities that they must take on. Forced to abandon their homes, these migrant characters struggle with the lack of refuge associated with the loss of home and familial relationships. The loss of relationships is evident: in La misma luna, Carlitos loses his grandmother who filled the parental role after his mother departed across the border, while in Sin nombre both Casper and Sayra are victims of loss, with Casper losing his girlfriend and then his gang status with the Mara Salvatrucha ‘family’, and Sayra, whose previously estranged father dies after slipping off the roof-top of the train that they were travelling on, later witnesses Casper’s murder. Death, exile, and abandonment are omnipresent realities in the journey towards the border, and as such the overweening desire of the characters is emphasized in their search for refuge. In each of these films, the notion of mobile refuge is made available through the involvement of a female counterpart who acts as the ‘maternal’ representation of the home, thereby providing a new feminized space to (re)acquire a cultural identity that otherwise would be adrift somewhere between the physical loss of homeland and the desires of unfulfilled refuge. Being that road movies “repeatedly focus on the consequences of a culture moving, often quite rapidly, away from the stabilizing structures of community and communication” (Orgeron 2), I posit that the female characters in each of these three films act as stabilizing structures for the migrants, personifying the space of refuge originally associated with the physical space of their (mother)land.
Both Riggen and Fukunaga reveal a similar trend of feminine refuge in their film narratives. In La misma luna, Carlitos’ journey is aided by the motherly compassion of females, for example by a Mexican woman who helps Carlitos when he is lost without money and adopts him into her home filled with other illegal immigrants. In contrast, Carlitos’ eventual travel companion, an older man named Enrique, is far less willing to help Carlitos, at times even attempting to abandon the boy altogether. Furthermore, it is the image of refuge portrayed by Carlitos’ mother Rosario that motivates him to continue his perilous journey into the United States, refusing to return to Mexico. In the film, the moon is seen as a metaphor of refuge and a symbol of the connection between himself and his mother: although divided by borders, both have access to the same moon; they are in different places but are both under la misma luna. The imagery of the moon thus becomes a motif in the film. In the beginning scene a wide-angle shot of the night sky portrays a full moon in the right corner of the frame. Three parallel transitions follow: first, the white colour of the moon quickly transitions to the white glare of the moon’s reflection in the choppy water of a river that Rosario and a friend are swimming across. Second, the colour white is immediately reflected in the bright flashlights of border patrol that arrests other immigrants in the river while Rosario and her friend escape to the tree line. Lastly, the scene is immediately followed by a jump cut to a close-up of Rosario’s ‘moonish-white’ eye as she wakes up in her bed in the United States. The moon, in this way, is clearly depicted as the symbol that connects the past and the present, enlightening both Rosario’s path to the United States and her tragic nostalgia of leaving Carlitos. The moon figures in another scene where Carlitos crawls out of the back seat of car he was hiding in and begins his journey in the United States. In the process, he drops his wallet with all his remaining money. The following frame shows him run off into the distance, walletless, with a full moon evident in the background of the frame. The scene cuts to a close-up of the full moon that Rosario is nostalgically staring at through her window as she lays in bed gently rubbing her hand above her chest, an action that draws the viewer to the maternal symbol of her breasts. In the previous scene she had walked away from an offer to marry a Mexican man with legal citizenship status, an offer that would have given her the ability to bring Carlitos to the United States. For Rosario, the moon, a symbol of refuge, is therefore close; it has been offered to her. She is given the opportunity to reach Carlitos but would consequently be required to marry a man that she does not love. In contrast, for Carlitos the moon remains in the distance implying a perilous and moneyless journey ahead of him. The irony is clear: for Rosario who believes Carlitos to still be in Mexico, her refuge (a reunion with Carlitos) is presented as being near yet feeling far. For Carlitos, who has finally reached the United States, his refuge (a reunion with Rosario) appears far away but is in fact near, especially since he finally finds Rosario not long after. In this way, it is clear that the idea of refuge for both Carlitos and Rosario is very much defined by their desire to be present and in relationship with each other, rather than be in a specific physical place or, for that matter, in other relationships. Carlitos, interestingly, can be understood as seeking a refuge in the space inhabited by his mother and not in the (mother)land itself.
A similar pattern of feminine refuge takes place, perhaps more evidently, in Sin nombre. Refuge is personified in the character Sayra who very clearly becomes the ‘reinsertion’ of a lost refuge for Casper. Casper, whose girlfriend is killed in a rape attempt by Lil’ Mago, later protects Sayra by killing Lil’ Mago as he, in a similar manner, attempts to rape her. In a common thread of rape and violence, Casper is thrown into a moment of déjà vu, deciding to save Sayra and therefore differentiating the present from the past event when he was unable to save his girlfriend. Sayra then not only replaces the relationship that Casper loses at the outset of the film but fulfills the familial community that Casper loses after his gang forsakes him, becoming a mobile refuge of hope and purpose. Both La misma luna and Sin nombre in this manner conflate the concepts of refuge, home, family, and homeland/nation under the umbrella of the border. Fukanaga himself has called Sin nombre a “good old-fashioned post-industrial Western tale of redemption” (“Sin Nombre Screenplay”, scene 97), implying that border-crossing is a redemptive act. Beyond the border is an ‘imagined community’ whereby one’s lost home is redeemed with a new one, broken families are replaced with new relationships, and the broken ties with one’s national identity are mended within a new culture.
Despite the feminization of refuge, the imagined notions of both cultural and national redemption in films like La misma luna and Sin nombre remain rooted in patriarchal narratives whereby the male redeems the female while the female tends to ‘interfere’ with the male’s attempt for redemption. For example, Kerouac’s On the Road represents two protagonists, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who consistently treat women with disdain and even tend “to see [women] as obstacles to their road travels” (Laderman 20). The road in such cases is seen as ‘masculine’ while the home is seen as ‘feminine’. In this respect Kris Lackey has described On the Road as “a novel of little households and big highways” (139), implying that the narrative is framed around men’s feigning hope in domestic environments (‘little households’) symbolized by the women in their life, while at the same time struggling with the desire to find the sense of refuge that the domestic household provides while in their travels on ‘big highways’.
In a similar fashion, both Riggen and Fukanaga seem to play on a dialectal struggle where the domestic image of refuge is ‘imagined’ to be found on the other side of the border yet all the while remains in competition with the masculinized violence and patriarchal assertions of male dominance found on the big highways to the border. If we are to acknowledge the idea of redemption to be symbolized in the motherly refuge in both films, then what Riggen and Fukunaga present as a ‘Western tale of redemption’ is founded on a classical, conservative, and cisgender take on the social structure of illegal immigrants. Both films, in this respect, earn the generic recognition of a ‘road movie’, a genre that “retain[s] a traditional sexist hierarchy that […] define[s] the active impulse (here, to drive) as male, relegating women characters to passive passengers and/or erotic distractions” (Laderman 20). Indeed, in both La misma luna and Sin nombre, the female characters are passively represented as structures of refuge during the journey but who prove unable to suffice as vehicles for redemption for the male characters. If not a distraction, they are rendered inept on the road. Sayra, for example, although able to nurture Casper’s journey, is unable to save him when he is tragically murdered before her eyes. Her salvation across the river, indebted to Casper, resembles the theme of female dependence traditionally asserted in road movies. Similarly, Carlitos is unable to depend on his mother Rosario to get him out of Mexico and consequently takes matters into his own hands and travels across the border alone. Both Sayra and Rosario, although presented as symbols of feminine refuge, remain characters pacified in a masculine journey for redemption that they cannot control.
The masculinization of the road movie genre can be attributed to the vehicular theme that predisposed the road movie genre towards a narrative authenticated by the male’s connection to cars and transportation. Often the postmodern ‘drive’ of transportation technologies is celebrated in the road movie as a means of power and escape that has been traditionally suited towards male operations. Jorge Pérez, who has done ground breaking research on the road movie genre in Spanish film, notes that despite an obvious participation of women in car culture, “there is still an intricate history of tense relationships between women and cars which, undoubtedly, echoes the larger issue of access to mobility” (159). In other words, in road movies men traditionally employ the position of the driver, and women the passive passengers, which is imitated to an extent in La misma luna and Sin nombre. Sayra and Rosario provide the imagined state of refuge or ‘maternal hospice’, but only insofar as they represent a sense of belonging that was once acquired in a past space. We are therefore not witness to a literal location of refuge in these films, but imaginary ones: a space no longer associated with a specific territory, but personified in female characters. Both hybrid and mobile, this new feminized space of refuge is able to adapt to wavering and unsuspecting circumstances such as those experienced in the migrant journey. Refuge, a maternal sentiment of home, is in this way brought onto the road itself. Consequently, however, the female is seen as symbolizing where the road comes from (the past), whereas the male is seen as structuring where the road leads (the border). As the female is seen as the passive representation of the past, the male progresses into the action of subterfuge, a concept that I will now turn to.2
As previously mentioned, the formation of feminine refuge is later followed by the male’s performance of subterfuge as a means to adapt to mobility. In this sense, subterfuge refers to the deceptive and dissimulating tactics performed by migrants to manage and survive their changing environments. For every new space that the migrants aim to inhabit and for every border that they intend to cross, a strategic act of subterfuge is required in order to adapt to the impending dangers and risks. In the case of La misma luna, the act of subterfuge occurs by hiding one’s childhood. Carlitos, who is only nine years old, is required to adapt and survive across the border as an illegal immigrant which for him includes finding work, escaping immigration patrol, hitchhiking, living in decrepit motel rooms, going hungry, and risking the impending dangers of the road: all activities not thought to be fitting for a young child. Carlitos must rely on adolescent subterfuge, which means hiding his childhood under the weighty cloak of the migrant reality. Senio Blair has intuitively claimed that the loss of innocence of Carlitos is in this case not a result of his experiences on the road, but rather is due to “the condition of orphanhood that preceded it” (120). Although Carlitos’ mother and father are still alive, they both have abandoned him. His father previously abandoned both him and his mother, consequently leaving them without financial support. Following his father’s actions, Carlito’s mother is also obliged to leave him in order to find work beyond the border. The absence of parents, along with the death of his grandmother, leaves Carlitos devoid of familial connections, opening a relational gap that he aims to ‘cross over’ in his journey to find his mother. Carlitos’ subterfuge then is one of adolescent dissimulation whereby he must act grown-up and prove himself a man.
The title of the film Sin nombre summarizes Casper’s subterfuge, as he constantly dissimulates between names and identities. Sin nombre, meaning ‘without a name’, denotes Casper’s mysterious and hidden identities, such as when he first assumes the identity of ‘Willy’, or when he must hide his gang identity from his girlfriend. After her death, Casper, knowing that his name puts those around him at risk, attempts to flee from Sayra for fear of involving her in his manhunt by the Mara Salvatrucha. As Sayra follows him, Casper tries to talk her out of it, this time detailing his life as ‘Casper of the Mara Salvatrucha’ to her and warning her of his tarnished character. She follows him anyway, therefore giving him the chance to restructure his name and start over as Willy. Only at the end after Casper is killed does the viewer realize that his end is the catalyst for Sayra’s new beginning. Also, in an ironic chain of events, Casper’s death marks the rebirth of Smiley as a new gang member who gains entrance to the Mara Salvatrucha by killing Casper. Therefore, Casper’s death is the beginning of another lost childhood sucked into gang life on the southern side of the border. Meanwhile, on the other end, we see the beginning of Sayra’s new life on the northern side of the border. Fukunaga’s play on death and life, beginnings and ends, north and south, and stops and starts (evident in the metaphor of the train) mirrors Néstor García Canclini’s discussion of hybrid cultures as being made up of “las idas y venidas de la modernidad” (16), the comings and goings of modernity. That is, Sayra and Casper’s journey is indicative of Latin American modern culture, caught between the tensions of traditions and territories, both those that are lost and those that are gained. Exiled on this ‘road to modernity’, Casper relies on his subterfuge to balance between his ambiguous identities—los nombres—that he must hide, and those that he must reveal in order to make it to the border. The play on names is clear when Sayra declares to Casper that a psychic once told her “llegarás al estados unidos, pero no en la mano de Dios, sino en la mano del Diablo” [You’ll get to the United States, but not by the hand of God, but by the hand of the devil]. Casper is at once understood both as ‘the devil’ whose subterfuge and violent past provides entrance to the border and at the same time as a ‘god-’ or ‘Christ-like’ figure who saves Sayra and who in a sacrificial manner is killed while leading her across the border to her new life.
BEYOND THE BORDER
After crossing the border, the characters are forced to come to terms with a reality that denies their original hope for refuge. Rather, they are introduced to a reality whereby subterfuge, originally a means to an end during the journey towards the border, becomes the end to a means on the other side of the border. Unable to find any solace of refuge across the border, the characters’ identities are then subsumed into their subterfuge. While the imaginary refuge personified in the female characters may have been enough to inspire the migrants to reach the border, this later proves insufficient to sustain them once across. This is exemplified in Riggen’s conclusion of La misma luna where the union between Carlitos and his mother Rosario is never fulfilled. In the final scene, Carlitos is apprehended by police after sleeping on a park bench and is able to escape after his travel companion Enrique sacrificially throws a cup of coffee at the officers, causing them to focus on capturing him instead. Carlitos is left alone upon running away, but finds himself in a familiar environment that appears as described by his mother in their previous telephone conversations. There, he coincidently sees his mother on the other side of street and calls to her. The camera then cuts back and forth between Carlitos’ and Rosario’s expressions, revealing their relieved and overwhelming emotions of happiness. That, however, is as far as the film takes us. Both Rosario and Carlitos are then trapped at a standstill on either side of the street. His mother yells out “¡no te cruces!” to Carlitos, as the traffic between the two of them is too congested to cross over. The camera continues to shift between frames of both Carlitos and Rosario, with the blur of cars passing in front of them. Vehicles, the key objects of the road movie genre, have become a barrier to their reunion. Neither of them is seen on the road, but off to its sides; neither is driving, but both are rather waiting intently for the traffic to stop. Riggen’s metaphor here is obvious enough: the road has not paved any paths towards the American dream. Carlitos may have gone against his mother’s wishes once and crossed the border, but despite that achievement there remains borders yet to cross within the new frontier of the United States. Rather than define Carlitos’ journey as ending once he finds his mother, Riggen depicts a scene where a new border-crossing journey is just beginning. The scene ends with a close-up shot of the crosswalk sign changing to the florescent white walking signal. The shot ends there and the viewer is robbed of Carlitos and Rosario’s long-awaited embrace. In this manner, Riggen wants to be sure that the viewer does not witness Carlitos’ refuge becoming a reality, but rather is left with the continued suspense of their long awaited reunion. Consequently, the scene at the beginning of the movie where his mother talks to Carlitos in Mexico from a payphone in Los Angeles is merely restructured at the end, where she now communicates to him by yelling across the street while standing by the same payphone. The relational distance is emphasized in both cases and no physical connection is achieved. The refuge idealized in the reunion with his mother remains in sight, but nothing more. Carlitos’ subterfuge—his strategic wit in avoiding the border patrol, police, and surviving in circumstances not fit for a child—has not ceased. Rather, his subterfuge is left intact as he waits standing on a curb side, waiting for his chance to cross yet another boundary. In this way, Carlitos finds no refuge across the border, only more borders to cross. This is paralleled by Enrique, who after throwing his coffee is captured by the police and presumably deported back over the border to Mexico. In both cases, neither Enrique nor Carlitos finds the physical refuge they had hoped for.
Similarly, Sayra does not find her expected refuge across the border. After watching Casper’s murder from the other side of the river, Sayra flees into the United States alone. The final scene of the film portrays her sitting by herself in a cement parking lot of a generic shopping mall in Texas, preparing to dial a phone number that her father had made her memorize at the outset of their journey. The film ends with Sayra connecting on the phone with the stepmother she has never met. Besides the stepmother’s voice that we hear faintly at the end of the film, all of Sayra’s relationships and familiar connections are left behind. The fact that she finds herself in front of a mall alone is no coincidence. In doing so, Fukunaga draws the viewer into a contrastive picture of her past in Honduras and her presence in the United states; a comparison between the hardships and poverty in a beautiful land filled with family and relationships with that of a consumer-driven, excessive culture in the rich land of mundane concrete and loneliness. Indeed, before she reaches the telephone, the viewer is presented with two shots that clearly compare a natural environment with an urban environment. First, Sayra is seen walking on dirt ground, at which time the viewer is unaware that she has in fact entered the United States. She is depicted in the wilderness, on a land untouched by human industry. The shot pans to the left slowly to reveal that the dirt ground stops at the edge of a highway that is further connected to a vast urban landscape of buildings and more roadways. Such imagery neither advertises a future of promise for Sayra, nor does it provide her a refuge at all comparable to the ‘natural’ home she left behind. Casper’s subterfuge may have gotten her across the border, but there is no guarantee of any refuge where she ends up. Even though the end of the film caters to a hopeful beginning for Sayra as she is able to connect with her stepmother, this is only a small scene in the entire movie. For Fukunaga, the film is first and foremost a narrative about the migrant’s journey as fuelled by subterfuge, and is less so about Sayra’s arrival to Texas highlighting a discovery of refuge. The truth is that Sayra discovers only what her journey has led her to: another journey, an unknown place, and a divergent culture.
The border films La misma luna and Sin nombre differ from traditional North American road movies. In these films, the road is not a place of escape that represents the freedom of the road, but rather a means of escape towards the ‘idea’ of freedom that lies across the border. In each of these films, the border becomes the line dividing an exiled past filled with economic and political oppression from the vision of a future filled with economic stability and political equality— all in all, an American dream that can never be fully realized across the border when such a loss has been manifested on the southern side. The identities of these migrants, caught between the acts of subterfuge and the desires of refuge, create an ambiguous cultural identity different from that established in their homeland. The road, in this way, creates new hybrid identities that illustrate the modern Latin American condition of cultural mobility between borders. Refuge, as these films demonstrate, does not physically exist in border-crossing narratives; they leave the viewer in a state of suspense wondering whether any form of true refuge will ever be possible for migrants. Left with such uncertainty, the viewer is therefore obliged to confront the ongoing oppression of illegal immigrants that continues today both on the southern and northern sides of the border, transforming the human right of refuge into a journey of subterfuge.
University of Alberta
- I use the term “migrancy” as found in Ian Chambers’ work Migrancy, Culture, and Identity (1994). Chambers uses the term to contrast the fixed position (sites of departure and points of arrival) implied in the term “travel”. Migrancy, on the other hand, “involves a movement in which neither the points of departure nor those of arrival are immutable or certain. It calls for a dwelling in language, in histories, in identities that are constantly subject to mutation” (5).
- It is worthwhile to note here that the border narrative, although a challenge to concept of national identities, remains hinged to traditionally set gender roles. The changes these films make to the structure of the road movie genre therefore do not necessarily imply changes to the structure of gender.
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