Central American migrants experience nightmare in search of “American Dream”

Central American migrants experience nightmare in search of “American Dream”

From left, Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, Professor Leisy Abrego, Pedro Ultreras and Professor Rubén Hernández-León

Filmmaker shares documentary that exposes a perilous journey on the "train of death."

Immigration doesn’t have to be a problem. Instead it should be viewed as an opportunity for national growth and development.  These were the words of Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, a Catholic priest and leading activist for the rights of Central American migrants in Mexico. He is also director of a migrant shelter for Central Americans who are traveling through Mexico into the U.S. He said the treatment of humans should not be shaped by laws that violate human rights in the name of safety and security; instead it should be driven by a sense of inclusivity, respect, compassion and humanity.

Solalinde Guerra was at UCLA this week as part of a film screening and panel discussion organized by the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies, in partnership with Hoy, the Los Angeles Times Media Group’s Spanish-language newspaper, and the UCLA Downtown Labor Center.

Fellow panelists included Leisy Abrego, an assistant professor in UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies, and Pedro Ultreras, an Emmy nominated news reporter and creator of “La Bestia” (“The Beast”), a documentary that chronicles the plight of Central American migrants trying to make their way to the United States. The discussion, which was in Spanish accompanied by English translation, was moderated by Rubén Hernández-León, associate professor of sociology and director of the UCLA Center for Mexican Studies.

The Oct. 12 event began with a screening of Ultreras’ film, which started production in October 2007 and took 2 ½ years to complete. A former reporter for a Spanish television network in Arizona, Ultreras frequently covered stories about migrant issues affecting the Arizona border.  He says he came to a point where he realized that there was a lot more border to cover beyond Arizona and many more stories to tell.

Of particular interest to him were the appeals being made by the Mexican authorities to the U.S. government regarding America’s mistreatment of Mexican nationals illegally crossing its border. Ultreras says that Mexico was — and continues to be — just as callous in its abuse of undocumented migrants travelling to and through Mexican territory.

“La Bestia” chronicles the plight of Central Americans who risk life, liberty and limb in search of the American Dream – a dream that is most often a nightmare for those who seek it.

Each year, countless people make this journey by foot and atop cargo trains – vehicles that prove to be a direct line to assault, robbery, kidnapping, rape and murder at the hands of organized criminals, fellow travelers, police, border patrol officers and other officials. Female migrants seem to bear the brunt of these violent atrocities, said Solalinde Guerra. Women are the heart of society.  They’re mothers and givers of life. When we destroy women, we destroy ourselves, he said. People also often succumb to accidental death from falling from the trains due to fatigue and hunger.

Ultreras says his goal is to use this film to raise public awareness and consciousness and find solutions to this problem. This is a global issue not limited to the United States, he said.

Abrego challenged the audience to consider why so many Central Americas risk their lives to come to the United States, and questioned what the governments are doing to prevent their citizens from wanting to leave.

Solalinde Guerra spoke about government corruption in the United States, Mexico and Central America. He said Mexican officials are not only guilty of creating a divide and distrust between citizens and authorities, they are also guilty of forcing a wedge between Mexicans and Central Americans.

Abrego argued that in the United States the relationship between these groups is strained and complex, attributing this to the emotional weight carried through their experience, their limited education and the competition they face when seeking employment. She said that most Mexicans don’t understand what Central Americans, like the ones in Ultreras’ film, go through to get here. It’s easy to see ourselves as enemies but we’re all in the same situation, she said, adding that the dehumanization of people bolsters corruption in society and strengthens the cartels that profit from human trafficking.

Solalinde Guerra appealed for society to value people over policies and profit. The religion with the most followers, it seems, is the one on Wall Street, he said.

Published: Thursday, October 13, 2011