Go Home to El Salvador

Around midway through Wetback:TheUndocumentedDocumentary, a Mexican government official utters one of the most honest self-assessments in the history of government officials. The topic: the numerous complaints Mexican activists lodge whenever American immigration officials mistreat a Mexican national. The irony of these protests, the official admits, is that when Central Americans sneak into Mexico on their way to the United States, “we treat Central Americans as bad, if not worse.” And no one protests.

This is just one of many disturbingly truthful moments in Wetback,a grim, gripping documentary that never dims its lens on the tortured journey illegal immigrants encounter while heading north. What's so remarkable about the movie, however, is that it focuses on a group rarely mentioned in this country's rancorous anti-immigrant battles Central Americans and that it doesn't paint losEstadosUnidosas the ultimate xenophobic country: that honor goes to Mexico.

Wetbackstarts 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 corridoby conjuntonorteƱolegends 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 Wetbackdirector Arturo Perez Torres interviews individuals who tried to hop on the moving train and have the mangled limbs to prove it. But after listening to Nayo's story 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 it becomes apparent why migrants would rather take their chances with the murderous train.

“In the United States, when the migracatches you, they treat you with respect and dignity,” one immigrant shares. “But in Mexico, it's a different story.”

Wetbackwisely avoids narration all dialogue 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 those 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 Wetbackthat much more powerful, especially in light of a Catholic brother's comment that many Central American immigrants consider canvassing Mexico “like crossing into hell.”

But Wetbacknevertheless 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.


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