Youth Migration and Gang Involvement in Sin Nombre- Ashley Piotrowski

Youth Migration and Gang Involvement in Sin Nombre

Ashley Piotrowski, Grand Valley State University

Sin Nombre (2009) unveils the ugly truth and struggles of youth migration intertwined with gang involvement and violence to many who are unaware. The director, Fukunaga, and cinematographer, Goldman, did an exquisite job coupling the reality of migration through Mexico on the tops of trains with beautiful shots of the landscape and connecting the audience to their characters.

The camera angle in the beginning of Sin Nombre is shot as if it were going to be a documentary; to show the reality of how a group of people lives and to communicate the ordeal of gang life and migration. The camera follows the characters in the documentary style to emphasize the realism of Fukanaga’s portrayal of La Mara Salvatrucha and underrepresented migrants. The camera movement was smooth and fluid introducing the movie as a Hollywood motion picture. However, the angles and shots were sporadic and zoomed in on every aspect to show a chaotic lifestyle. The first scene was of Casper (Willy) staring at a wall-size picture of scenery possibly depicting a sense of being lost and alone. The following scenes and shots set up the background by shooting extreme close-ups of Casper’s tattoos to his bicycle and expanding the shot to include the whole neighborhood. In mere minutes the audience is brought into the story through the eyes of a young gang member named Casper who later refers to himself by his given name Willy.

The movie depicts and revolves around two concepts that tend to be invisible. Most people consider immigrants to be adults and gang members to be around the age of Willy (El Casper) not as young as Smiley. The Mara Salvatrucha gang, also known as MS -13 and La Mara, is known to be one of the most dangerous gangs in the world (Valdez, 1999). Gangs prey on younger adolescents for their compliance and their need to belong. The Maras abroad in Central America and Mexico tend to initiate children as new members who were left by their immigrant parents and grow up in a rough neighborhood, Smiley is the perfect example.

Simley is shown living with his grandmother in Chiapas, Mexico, the southernmost state of Mexico, in an underprivileged neighborhood. Fukanaga zooms the frame out so the audience focuses on the grandmother’s house as a whole. The camera also moves between the grandmother and Casper to represent the disrespect that Capster shows his elder through the bantering. As seen through the panoramic views of the backdrop, the audience can gather that the state of Chiapas is economically underdeveloped. Chiapas also suffers from chronic unemployment, below average literacy and a high infant mortality rate (Macdonald, 1994). Since the state of Chiapas borders Central America, specifically Guatemala, La Maras have moved in to traffic immigrants, cause unrest in the communities through violence and crimes, and last but not least recruit members (Álvarez et al., 2007).

Once initiated into a gang it is for life. Depicted many times in Sin Nombre is this value of brotherhood and family forever, both outwardly spoken and implied. Fukanaga spent months interviewing gang members and following migrants on the tops of trains through Mexico. He wanted to create an accurate depiction and, therefore, personally researched his topics. Some of the gang members in the movie were actual Maras just as some of the migrants were really journeying through the rough terrain. The truth behind the camera emits through the lens to the screen, so hopefully by the end of the movie each audience member feels closer to the migrants and the gang members. Fukanaga pulls the audience in to show the humanity of La Maras and this is recognized when the scene focuses on the gang house, especially when el Sol is carrying around his child.

Many gangs tend to try and initiate members from a younger populace and by initiating younger children it forms deeper bonds with the gang and becomes their life quicker, so they know nothing else but the life of a hoodlum. Also, psychologically speaking youth are enticed to “gang life” that grow up in poverty and are seeking familiar support; Willy and Smiley both animate the lives of many of these children living in the slums. Stressing the value of being a member by surviving the awful experience of being beaten by fellow members also helps the younger members to know their rank, obey and impress to maintain the gang’s hierarchy. The hierarchy is evident in the movie and one of the main reasons Willy is running from La Maras. Willy broke the order of the gang when he sliced the neck of the leader with his machete. Fukanaga does not conceal the gore or emotions of his characters and the camera angle zooms out to refocus on El Sol tumbling from the train and Willy yelling at Smiley to leave while pain and tears fill Willy’s face.

Furthermore, youth migration is another major concept in the film. Similar to

adult migration, children may migrate alone because of economic need, a lack of educational opportunities, or safety/asylum concerns. According to a research study done by UNICEF (not specific to Latin America), there are four different types of “Affected children” (this is how UNICEF refers to the impact on migrant children in this study), migrating with their parents, migrating alone, left behind by one or both migrating parents, and living in context affected by migration. According to their study it is quite normal for children in developing countries to grow up with one parent being away for long periods of time. All four types of affected children, previously mentioned, have both development benefits and negative impacts, for example, a better life and opportunities in their home country, or encounter negative risks like the serious danger of traveling, discrimination, instabilities, barriers, and lack of birth registration (Children youth, 2003).

These children traveling on tops of trains are riding through extreme conditions with a lack of food and water, lack of security, and they have to cross multiple borders before they even have the chance to enter their destination, the Unites States and Mexico border. They encounter gangs like La Mara and other hindrances like unwelcoming communities as seen in the film when the children threw rocks at the train and shouted “illegal immigrants”. On the other hand, some people throughout Mexico welcome train-traveling immigrants by providing food and a safe house or shelter, also seen in Sin Nombre. Fukanaga’s realism aligns with each of these scenes and forms a paradox between the Mexicans living in Mexico and those traveling to the United States (migrants themselves) or those already residing in the U.S. (who may have been migrants).

Further research Child Migration (a survey), which includes interviews with children from Central America, by the Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore Maryland released this past January of 2010, reported that of the 12-17 year-old unaccompanied migrants interviewed, more than 75% were male, 42 % reported some type of abuse throughout the whole process of migration, while 29% of interviewees reported abuse in transit alone (Children Migration, 2010). This study sheds light on the grave problem that is swept into the shadows of children journeying on tops of trains with and without a support system. Fukanaga does an excellent representation of children migrating like Sayra with her family and Willy making the journey alone. Sayra and her family are one embodiment of migrants making their way from Central America north by means of train. Her father left her and started a new life in New Jersey only returning for her after being deported. Sayra has no life or future for her in Honduras and decides to make the trip with her father who she barely knows and her uncle. Fukanaga mixes shots of the lush scenery and treacherous terrain they travel through, i.e. rainforest, with close-ups of the characters to provide a sense of bonding between them through their adventure despite external practicalities.

The immigration of children through Mexico is a social problem present in all participating countries including the United States. These children are vulnerable and have an absence of adult protection while migrating. If they arrive in their final destination the process of reunification can be difficult and long. They also are undocumented and tend to have a low level of education, which can prevent and strain them from prospering.

Migration is a push pull process of unfavorable conditions in one place to favorable external locations. The economies of the countries in Central America are weak along with other social, political and cultural contexts that tend to push people out. The United States tends to pull these migrants in for various reasons, including the hope of prosperity and betterment, especially in terms of economic development. Children have become involved with the migratory process, but remain absent from many of the debates. Sin Nombre is a strong movie that depicts the desperation of migration and gang violence in youth on a treacherous journey through Mexico into this country, and nevertheless resonates this grave problem by putting a face on migration. Upon entering a gang one loses their name, their identity and their self, and through migration the same occurs, a grave sense of loss. Sayra and Willy bond over their loss and form an epic friendship, while Fukanaga brings realistic camera shots to form powerful and moving scenes of desperation, heartbreak, blood and tears. Sin Nombre depicts the bonds of humans through migration, and in spite of these emotionally heart wrenching themes beauty and humanity prevail. Migration receives negative connotation and illegality rather than the reality of generosity and life. Fukanaga’s film exposes the reality of people simply trying to live and remain intact.


Álvarez, Alberto Martín, Zubieta, Ana Fernández, & Sotelo, Karla Villarreal. Difusión transnacional de identidades juveniles en la expansión de las mara centroamericanas. Perfiles Latinoamericanos 30. (2007). 101-122. Print.

“Child Migration: The detention and repatriation of unaccompanied Central American children from Mexico”. Catholic Relief Services. (2010). Print.

“Children Youth and Migration”. UNICEF report. (2003).

Macdonald, Ted. Chiapas Update. Cultural Survival Quarterly. Cambridge (1994). Vol. 17 (4), 9. Print.

Sin Nombre. Director Cary Fukunaga. Focus Features, 2009. DVD

Valdez, Al. Getting to know the Mara Salvatrucha. Criminal Justice Periodicals. (June 1999). Vol. 23 (6): 60-62. Print.

“World’s Most Dangerous Game”. National Geographic Documentary. (2007). Online.



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