When Rebecca Cammisa chose the title for her 2009 documentary about “The Beast,” a train that migrants use to cross Mexico coming to the U.S., it was directedly pointed at the passengers. “Which Way Home” chronicled the story of a handful of passengers – all younger than my son in middle school – who had embarked on the journey across Mexico. The prize at the end – in 2009 – was that there is no prize and most of those that survived would either drop out, become gang “volunteers,” find themselves incarcerated or, as in the case of an angelic Guatemalan brother and sister (ages 7 and 8-ish), simply vanish from the known world.
Dante Alighieri in his rings of hell didn’t begin to capture the hopelessness that emerges from Cammisa’s story, and rather than have an official explain why these children have fled, she combines their telling their own story, juxtaposed with shots of derailed trains, tiny shadows jumping between tracks in sub-dawn tropical outposts, and pre-pubescent kids smoking and joking away “Democracy’s miracle” in Latin America. “Which Way Home” is the right question left unanswered by Cammisa.
Only, she had no idea in 2009 that the question is now equally served to us. “La Bestia” continues to run, and its outcomes – thousands of homeless kids at the border – have become a ragged, deflated soccer ball everyone loves to kick.
Some context on the train and the current crisis is in order. While nuance is never the friend of the race-baiter, there is nuance that needs to be considered. Camissa’s film clearly details few if any moms or dads on the train–lots of kids, a smaller number of women, and a significant number of men who may be part of the flotsam or simply hopping through it like gulls to find the occasional meal.
All who pass through must pay bribes, and of course it is understood that most have a stash of money. Those that survive this market are only the lucky. Many run out of money early on and, as a result, central Mexico is now full of Central Americans working farms, odd jobs and “transport and delivery” work that does not qualify as employment. The strong often must choose between a bullet and gang employment, and the women, well, obviously.
This is relevant today because the groups that do arrive at our southern border now are not generally travelling the beast. Instead they move in groups, include families, and stay in large numbers together for protection. They do not share – with their brothers and sisters on the train – a lack of family unit strong enough to keep them together, and thus their story is a bit different. It is much easier to throw a homeless kid into a federal cage than it has proven – thank God – to separate a mother and her child and do the same.
Camissa’s story concludes with a Honduran boy who is returned to his tiny village – we see no family, meet no parents – where he sits around a river like Dante’s hero, waiting on the ferry. By the documentary’s end, you’ve seen some of Mexico’s most beautiful scenery from the top of “La Bestia,” and you’ve disembarked in unnamed towns that haunt the stories of Juan Rulfo, one of Mexico’s greatest writers. The last we know, the boy-man has gone off again to take the Beast north.
What is missing – in Camissa’s story, in the heart-wrenching news and videos we watch daily today, and indeed more or less since the creation of our cold war strategy with Latin America – is what factors, over time, have kept Latin America sufficiently destabilized and to what purpose. Camissa doesn’t ask that question, and I think it makes her documentary all the better. Like the inhabitants of the cities in Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain, or the people frozen in Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude, they appear lost in their terrible vulnerability, exposing our own withered moral compass.
John Singleton is working on a book about international cinema, to be published by Blue Ear Books.