Since it first played in Orange County last year during the Newport Beach Film Festival, Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary has continued to gain fans for its unflinching criticism of border policies in both the United States and Mexico. KPFK-FM 90.7 gave copies of the film away during its recent fund-raising drive, and it's currently screening the film in various Southern California locales next week as a token of appreciation. The barnstorming tour stops in Santa Ana's Centro Cultural de México this Saturday.
Wetback starts in Nicaragua, where Nayo and Milton, two young laborers with dreams of Canada (shows how fucked-up this country is!), tearfully, hopefully depart their villages. The camera follows their easy trip from Honduras to El Salvador to Guatemala, from meadow to meadow to meadow, it seems. The soundtrack howls with a cover of "Tres Veces Mojado" ("Three Times a Wetback"), the immortal 1980s corrido by conjunto norteño legends Los Tigres del Norte that explained the plight of Central American immigrants to Mexicans.
But the leisurely trek through Central America stops on the Guatemala-Mexico border, where migrants must choose between two paths to the United States. One option is by foot, but that would mean weathering vicious, repeated assaults by rogue cops and marauding gangs. The alternative is a cargo train that runs to the U.S. The latter option is treacherous, and Wetback director Arturo Perez Torres interviews individuals who tried to hop on the moving train and have the mangled limbs to prove it. But it becomes apparent why migrants would rather take their chances with the murderous train after listening to Nayo's story of how he successfully entered Mexico only to have police officers strip him, steal the cash Nayo had hidden beneath his testicles, then destroy his passport and birth certificate and beat him for good measure.
"In the United States, when the migra catches you, they treat you with respect and dignity," one immigrant shares. "But in Mexico, it's a different story."
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Wetback wisely avoids narration; all dialog comes from immigrants, their supporters and the ever-frothing anti-immigrant opposition. The fact flashing is muted but effective. Did you know, for instance, that 3,000 Latin Americans leave their hometowns every day to go to America, but only 300 of them make it? Or that 75 percent of the abuses these immigrants report were perpetrated by Mexican cops?
The film's only fault is minor but maddening: after leaving Nayo and Milton stranded on the Guatemala-Mexico border, the story suddenly transitions to the U.S.-Mexico border, where two men explain the best ways to wade through the Rio Grande. Even a brief glimpse of Mexico's interior would have made Wetback that much more powerful, especially in light of a Catholic brother's comment that many Central American immigrants consider traversing Mexico "like crossing into hell."
But Wetback nevertheless is as complete a picture of the illegal-immigrant experience ever filmed. It even includes a hilarious segment with Chris Simcox, the bug-eyed Tombstone resident currently pseudo-patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border through his Minuteman Project. Perez Torres diligently, quietly follows Simcox as he does his Encyclopedia Brown impression while emptying abandoned backpacks of their contents. "Guess they need hair gel!" Simcox chortles at one point. His partner, meanwhile, defends our republic from the comforts of a lawn chair under the shade of a tree.
KPFK-FM 90.7 PRESENTS WETBACK: THE UNDOCUMENTED DOCUMENTARY AT THE CENTRO CULTURAL DE MEXICO, 310 W. FIFTH ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 953-9305. SAT., 7 P.M. PANEL DISCUSSION TO FOLLOW. $5 SUGGESTED DONATION.