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"Who is Dayani Cristal?" – a look into the lives, and losses of life, of undocumented migr

“Viajar hacia Ti, Señor, eso es vivir.” “The journey toward you, Lord, is life.” “Tú, señor, conociste la migrancia, y la hiciste presente a todo hombre que comprende qué es vivir” “You, Lord, experienced immigration, and brought it upon all men who know what it is to live” “Tú sacaste de su tierra a Abraham, padre de todos los creyentes. … Tú mismo te hiciste migrante del cielo a la tierra.” “You took Abraham from his land, father of all believers. … You yourself became migrant from heaven to earth.”

So opens Who is Dayani Cristal?, a bilingual documentary examining the lives of migrants crossing the Mexico-US border that end before they reach their destinations. The movie moves between three connected storylines seeking to answer, in different manners, who is ‘Dayani Cristal’, a man found dead in the Arizona desert with only the tattoo “Dayani Cristal” across his chest to serve as a point of identification. In one storyline, a Medical Examiner office in Tucson, Arizona seeks to give a name to the physical remains. In another, we watch a family in Honduras describe Yohan, who died a beloved father and son trying to cross the border. In the third, actor Gael García Bernal attempts to recreate Yohan’s last journey, giving us an insight into his experience at the end of his life.

The ending is predictable: Yohan is ‘Dayani Cristal’ – the tattoo on his chest being the name of his daughter waiting for him back in Honduras. But it is not the suspense of identifying the body that moves the plot forward. We learn what the title assigned to the remains is, but, more importantly, we learn who the remains were. We learn that Yohan left Honduras to seek money for his son’s leukemia treatment. We learn, from García Bernal’s journey, what it is to cross the border: from La Bestia, “The Beast” (also referred to as El Tren de la Muerte – “The Death Train”), a network of freight trains that cross through Mexico, on top of which migrants sit in an extremely dangerous effort to cross Mexico faster, to Altar, a town near the border with Arizona and a “land where you make the last offering before crossing the border.” We learn that Yohan died 20 minutes away from downtown Tucson by car. We learn most of all how utterly dangerous crossing the border is, and how desperate migrants can be to cross it anyways.

There is a moment, sitting with a group of migrants, when one tells García Bernal, “vamos a la tierra prometida!” “We’re going to the promised land!” There is another moment, sitting on top of The Death Train, where migrants who have crossed the border before describe the desert: the heat during the day, the freezing temperatures during the night – “if you stop walking for five minutes, you freeze. … The American dream isn’t worth that. … risking your life in the desert.”

According to the Independent, 225 bodies of migrants were found in the Arizona desert in the year 2010 alone. Between 1990-1999, the average number of bodies of migrants per year was 12. Some blame this on post-9/11 measures to increase the budget of US Boarder Patrol, cutting off access to the traditional, safer, urban routes into the US. What can be certain is that, as one of the people working to identify migrant remains says in the film, “immigrations are down, crossings are down, death is not down.” And identifying the remains can be a daunting task: most systems set in place to deal with undocumented immigrants rely upon them having lived in the US for some time, or having interacted with Border Control before. For the people stuck in between, there seems to be no answer except adding them to folder upon folder of “muertos” – “deceased”.

The movie ends with Yohan’s funeral, after having his body returned to Honduras. We see his family come together, and we see the loss that they feel. His brother, talking about the US’ preoccupation with building a wall between the two countries, asks, “why invest in something which is inanimate … why not invest in human beings?” This, perhaps, is what the film succeeds in most: reminding us of the humanity of migrants. Reminding us where they come from, what they leave behind, and what they risk in their journeys to the US.


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