“Who Is Dayani Cristal?” by Gael Garcia Bernal and Marc Silver (who directed) zeroes in on the story of one migrant from Honduras, starting simultaneously from the end and the beginning of his 3,200 kilometer journey from El Escanito, Francisco Morazon province, to the Sonora dessert in Arizona where he died of illness and exposure.
The stunningly-shot film is a work of great humanity (with an experimental structure, a hybrid of a documentary and fiction elements, which paradoxically brings us closer to the lives and hopes, and the dangers the migrants from Mexico, Central and South America confront), detailing the misery caused by our misguided immigration policies.
The body of a young man is found under a tree in the desert, just 20 miles by car from Tucson, by Sergeant George Ecomomidis of the Pima County Sheriff Department. There is no identification and he’s only carrying a small prayer pamphlet (which talks about Jesus’ life as a migrant from heaven to earth).
He’s brought to the Medical Examiner’s office in Tucson, where a dedicated staff, working with with an equally involved investigator from the Mexican consulate, Lorena Ivon Ton-Quevedo, tries to restore the identities of those who were invisible in life, providing their families with knowledge–of course there is no such thing as closure–of the fate of their loved ones.
Forensic anthropologist in the Tucson ME’s office, Dr. Bruce Anderson says he doesn’t know how many people cross from Mexico each year, “I only see the failures.” And those have increased almost 10 fold to approximately 200 per year since 2000, with the construction of the border fence (oddly looking like a malignant Christo) and big beefing up of the border patrol, making the easier entry points inaccessible. “Crossings are down, apprehensions are down, deaths are up.”
Dr. Anderson, angered by the dehumanization of the migrants continues, “First we have to admit there’s a problem and it’s economic. Americans benefit from a blue color labor force that has a brown skin.”
Robin Reineke, deeply committed to her work as coordinator, missing migrants project, ME, Tucson, says simply, “How can you ask them not to want what we all want?”
As counterpoint to the interviews with and witnessing of the work of the scientists and officials (and as the film progresses, visits with the man’s family in Honduras), Gael Garcia Bernal, dressed in the clothing the man wore–khaki pants, a black t-shirt and a red baseball cap–imagines and “retraces his steps,” but admits he can’t know the extreme difficulties and fears.
He reaches the Mexican/Guatemala border–no guards or checkpoints–in two days and is ferried across the Suchiate River on a raft made from old tire tubes. Embedded in the camaraderie of other migrants, he’s taught how to properly jump on and off the train known as “The Beast” and ride safely on top as it traverses 1,000 kilometers of beautiful central Mexican countryside. Garcia Bernal stays at the Brothers of the Road shelter, one of 50 on the railroad line in Mexico, having a hot meal and a chance to bathe. He’s warned of the persistent threat of violence–it’s well known that the migrants carry large sums of money for the coyotes–and speculates, “Can you make it across Mexico with your family’s future in your pocket?” And near Altar, Sonora, he climbs a precarious rope ladder draped over the fence and lands in Arizona.
Dilcy Yohan Sandres Martínez, husband, father of three young children, son, brother, friend, dead at 29, is ultimately identified through a combination of forensics, databases and because of the unique tattoo, written in script, across the top of his chest, “Dayani Cristal.” It’s his young daughter’s name, inscribed as a testament of his love for her. And it was profound love that sent him on his fatal trip. His bereft wife, Kenia Yadina Cruz Rivas, says her husband told her, “I want to give you a better life,” and to earn money to pay off their debts incurred for the treatment for their younger son, suffering from leukemia (who is now in remission).
Art is often more persuasive, cogent, than any political argument, however impassioned. “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” should be required viewing for every American who has a stake in immigration reform, which is all of us.
“Who Is Dayani Cristal?” will open on Friday, April 25 at Cinema Village and Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, FL. Marc Silver and Robin Reineke (now at Colibrí Center for Human Rights) are scheduled for Q&As at Cinema Village at 5:00 pm and 7:00 pm on Friday, April 25 and Saturday, April 26.