Film Analysis: Who is Dayani Crystal? by Natsuha Kataoka '23

Violence in Latin America
Professor Sarah England
May 15, 2020    

The United States has long been considered a nation of immigrants. Since the country was founded, immigrants have fled to the promised land in the hopes of creating a new life, leaving the past behind, and making a difference, which none was possible at home. The American dream, embellished with visions of gold-paved streets, is still alive and alluring for many countries, especially south of the border. However, attitudes toward new immigrants by those who came before have vacillated between welcoming and exclusionary over the years. Lamentably, as of now, the U.S. government shuts its door most firmly ever than before against new immigrants through implementing complex immigration law. Nevertheless, the fabled land still beckons to people to risk everything for the American dream.

Who is Dayani Crista? is a film that multifacetedly depicts the ordeal of those who attempt to cross the U.S. border without the authorization. This was made in 2013 by the director Marc Silver and with a feature on an actor Gael García Bernal, who embeds himself among migrant travelers on their own mission to cross the border. 

Two words, Dayani Cristal, were tattooed on the chest of an unidentifiable man found dead on August 3, 2010, in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. These two words serve as the focal point around which this film tells immigrants’ stories: hope and despair on the wild frontier. Traversing the scorching, dusty terrain through Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Arizona, Who is Dayani Cristal? collects scattered clues along the trail to identify the man left dead only 20 minutes by car from Tucson. This film contains three narratives: first, a forensic testimony and procedural study of U.S. authorities’ work: second, a reenactment by Bernal of retracing the presumed paths of the tattooed John Doe: third, heartbreaking stories of the people in the community where the anonymous immigrant originated.

The dehumanization of migrants is one of the main themes of the movie. The stack of unidentified corpses amasses, be roughly put in racks, cremated, and put into a small locker, similar to a mass grave. The forensic specialists, the local police, the border officials all chase their tails as the problem increases with the severity of the law. Rich in imagery, in mournful words provided by those who knew the deceased migrant, this film places U.S. immigration policy amidst the hostile desert landscape and asks, in the words of forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson, “how many deaths does it take to say enough is enough?”

Finally, the dead man is identified as Dilcy Yohan Sandres-Martínez, the 29-year-old husband and father of three. Then, the film reveals the beautiful yet incredibly poignant fact that Dayani Cristal is his 3-year-old daughter, who will never feel her father’s embrace. His case is relatively rare as most of the fallen immigrants who attempted entry do not carry any information with which they could be identified, and their stories are ignored in the immigration debate. A decision has not reached yet on whether one’s life or the law wins in the end.

This film shows that immigration is a human, not criminal, act by employing a multifaceted approach. It addresses the cruelty of the U.S. immigration law, which is enabled by considering the life and death of immigrants as an insignificant side-effect of law enforcement. The people essential to keep the U.S. mechanism in motion as migrant workers are barred from entering legally and safely; these tragic stories this mass of migrating people experience are enacted through tactical federal policies. These U.S. federal policies ultimately force migrants into an excruciating death by taking advantage of and hiding behind the viciousness of the desert they have to cross; however, they enact this violence with impunity, borrowing the name of sovereignty.

1.    Assemble a Killing Machine –the Establishment of Federal Immigration Law–
Throughout its history, the United States has benefited from the efforts of the migrant workforce, especially that of Hispanics. They have contributed to the economic development of the U.S. by generating millions of dollars across the country. Nevertheless, the southern U.S. border, which geographically connects the country to Mexico, is one of the most fortified, restricted, and highly barricaded borderlines globally. In the past, it was relatively easy to travel across the border; many Latinos entered the U.S. by routinely walking across the border to earn money and coming back to see their family in the home country. Indeed, during WWII, immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries rescued the U.S. from labor shortages.

However, the U.S. returned evil for good; the neoliberal economy that this country leads has indirectly contributed to poverty and violence in Latin American countries. The U.S. incessantly intervened in their independence movement, economic development, and political activities in fear of its privilege being treated by these exuberant countries. These interventions ultimately resulted in perennial poverty, inequalities, and violence in Latin America, which have propelled migration to the U.S. For example, during the dictatorship in the late 70s to the early 80s, the U.S funded these dictatorships to fight in internal armed conflicts against those “subversives,” “communist,” or “Marxist.” The Argentine military looked to the Americans for inspiration on how to respond to the guerrilla insurgency, incorporating the fundamental principle for this type of war: one can only fight terror by instilling a greater terror in the enemy. In other words, “[t]he more violent we are the better: one cannot beat terror, if not with another greater terror” (Robben, 278). 

Even currently, the U.S. often contributes, if not directly, to poverty and violence by pulling strings in the political world. The “war on drugs,” which purports to eradicate the threat of gang violence and illegal drugs, allows U.S. companies to supply arms to both the gangs and the states. This creates a situation where violence is enacted on a daily basis and circulates in society (Zubillaga, 170). U.S. media’s descriptions of these countries as violent and impoverished incite fear and hostility among Americans, causing anti-immigrant movements and mass deportations of Latinos. The majority is not involved in illegal activities or those who fled from violent circumstances in their home countries. The strength of the American market has been revealing how difficult it is to escape from a dependent economy, which hinders radical structural changes in the social hierarchy, inequalities, and violent situations (Zubillaga, 167). 

Specifically speaking, the U.S. immigration policies used to be friendly towards immigration dramatically collapsed in the 90s. In 1994, with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States promised economic prosperity to its southern neighbor on the condition that Mexico would only import U.S. products. However, soon after it came into effect, Mexico found itself drowning in a trap of subsidized cheap crops from the gigantic invader; its economy was devastated, and millions of peasant farmers became unemployed. As they had done during the war period, when the U.S. needed cheap labor, this impoverished population traveled north en masse (De León, 6). This avalanche of poor people led the U.S. to implement laws to seal off the traditional and safe routes of migration under the slogan, “Prevention Through Deterrence.” Forensic anthropologist Bruce Anderson recalls that the U.S. government calculated that if they stemmed the flow of migration in California and Texas, people would not risk their lives to cross the remote parts of Arizona. As history explains, its calculation was obviously wrong. Padre Alejandro Solalinde, the founder of a shelter near the border, states an age-old truth; “it’s a constant flow of migrants which no one can really stem. The kidnappings can’t stop it nor can state strategies, however organized and sophisticated they are.” The innumerable numbers of undocumented immigrants are still attempting to cross the border no matter how dangerous the migrant travel is, even at this moment. 

Poverty has still agonized the farmers in the southern countries bordering on the U.S., who cannot participate in the market because, in terms of price, their crops are not as competitive as those of U.S. companies. Yohan, who also worked as a farmer, felt the urgent need to work in the U.S. to support his household; he felt that he had not given anything to his children and family. Additionally, his second son, Yohancito, needed leukemia treatment, whose cost became a burden on the family. Already in debt from borrowing money from people, the impoverished father had no choice but to cross the border. If it were easy to attain a working visa, thousands of tragedies would not happen; indeed, the United States, the perpetrator in the first place, complicates the process and sets unachievable requirements for a visa. Astrid, the Honduras consul general, elaborates on this, saying, “[p]eople have to take their bank account states and have a house or a property. That’s why they don’t issue visas to a lower class. Because they know that they won’t return to Honduras.” Although the U.S. is indirectly responsible for these countries’ dire situations, it seems to have little regard for the rights or lives of border crossers; instead, the U.S. has been investing an ever-increasing amount of money for the Border Patrol. “Based on rough estimates derived from a recent congressional report, $14.8 billion were spent on boundary security in fiscal year 2012” (De León, 155). Ultimately, these billions of dollars spent on security solely camouflage the fact that, compared to walls, fences, infrared cameras, or drones, the Border Patrol’s best and most lethal weapon is the desert.

2.    the U.S.-Mexico border –Space of Exception–
The federal immigration law’s strategy transparently seeks to deter immigrants from coming to the country through pain, suffering, and death. According to Bruce Anderson, in the year of 2000, there were 19 migrant deaths a year. Since 2001, because the government started to police the border more strictly, i.e., violently, the average soared to about 200 cases a year, a tenfold increase (as of 2013). Like Yohan, many unnamed victims passed away in the “politically” hostile desert in Arizona, the Sonoran Desert. Indeed, although it is implicit, the U.S. government deliberately funnels people into this killing desert while purporting its seemingly righteous slogan, “Prevention Through Deterrence.” 

In this section, I will explain how the U.S.-Mexico border, specifically the desert, plays its role as a “space of exception.” De León defines space(s) of exception as “physical and political locations where an individual’s rights and protections under the law can be stripped away upon entrance” (28). In this place, human and constitutional rights are suspended, and violence can happen with impunity. The desert is so hostile that one of the immigrants in his second or third journey to cross the border explains its environment with awe.

“I spent three nights in the cold. It was freezing. Then in the day, it was very hot. You do get sick. I was unwell when I got there; they caught me near Tucson. Imagine you’re walking at night, and if you rest for five minutes, you’ll freeze. You have to just keep
going so you don’t freeze.”

The climate is, however, not the only example of its threat. No one can expect what would happen. An incredible amount of physical, emotional, and mental suffering attacks the border crossers with exhaustion, dehydration, heartbreak, blisters, cramps, gang threats, Border Patrol, vicious smugglers, and so on. Also, wild animals and plants are other dangers that may injure and claim one’s life. However, since this all happens in the isolated desert with few witnesses, the strategy successfully renders migration and violence almost invisible. 

3.    Violence After Death –Bare Life & Death and Necroviolence–
To make matters worse, the tragic story of immigrants develops even after their death. In the following paragraphs of this section, I will analyze how the U.S. immigration policies treat the corpses found in the desert by using these concepts: bare life & death and necroviolence. As discussed in the previous section, the U.S.-Mexico border is the epitome of a space of exception. There, those seeking to cross the border without permission are often reduced to “bare life,” and if they drew their last breath in there, “bare death”: individuals whose lives are of little consequence and their deaths are not worth commenting on or knowing about. This perception that the lives of border crossers are insignificant is tacitly but accurately reflected in how they are treated after their demise. 

As is depicted in the film, a corpse found in the desert is wrapped in a white plastic bag, is carried into the examiner’s office, and undergoes the forensics and identification processes. However, the “Body Condition Stages” at the examiner’s office (a list of a corpse’s decomposition levels: 1 Fresh, fully fleshed, 2 Decomposed, 3 Decomposed with focal skeletonization…9 Other ((i.e., burnt, cremains, adipocere, etc.))) implies that some corpses are partially decomposed or completely skeletonized. Rather than being treated with care and sorrow, these bodies often find themselves as remnants that have been found. The coordinator at the examiner’s office, Robin Reineke, painfully but flatly says, “they’re found by accident. Nobody’s out there searching for them.”

Moreover, unlike Yohan’s case, these bodies are usually not mourned by their families because they hardly carry any information that could identify the person. More often than not, smugglers tell immigrants to leave anything that could identify them and to change their names in case the Border Patrol or the police catch them. Bianca Micheletti, who works at the foreign affairs office in Honduras, says that people are apprehensive about the possibility that they might be arrested or charged with a second offense if they have already been deported once. Therefore, the victims tend to use false names or other identities because of fear, which makes it difficult to contact the family at home. However, the database with the information for identifying and for cataloging the missing people, such as NamUs, can hardly be used for those people. It is because this system requires an NCIC number, meaning that a person needs to be reported to the police and be a U.S. citizen. Therefore, despite being out there, many of the systems set up to handle unidentified bodies are not available to the very people who need them. 

Again, what makes the whole logistic processes (to acquire a visa, to cross legally, ((if they passed away when crossing)) to identify the dead person, and to reach the family) difficult is the state law craftily disguising the death as mere numbers and statistics. De León uses a term “necroviolence” to address this form of postmortem violence which is “performed and produced through the specific treatment of corpses that is perceived to be offensive, sacrilegious, or inhumane by the perpetrator, the victim (and her or his cultural group), or both” (69). Even after their painful death, they experience humiliation and violence, if somewhat symbolic, on their bodies. 

4.    They Chose to Cross – Misrecognition–
Although there is stark violence by the U.S. immigration law on its southern frontier as discussed, the general public still seems to vacillate for or against its implementation. It is partly because the U.S. establishes plausible deniability by deflecting its culpability into nature, animals, and even the victim.

The government purports that the desert is a ruthless beast that law enforcement cannot be responsible for, not a key partner. Indeed, it is a beast in a sense, but they are loyal to their mission to purposefully (not nature’s will, of course) inflict the vulnerable border crossers. In June 2013, when asked about three decomposing bodies found in the wilderness over just two days, Tucson Sector Chief Manuel Padilla Jr. simply responded, “[t]he desert does not discriminate” (De León, 43). This remark downsizes the death of the victims as collateral damage that could be led by savage nature. The Border Patrol employs a cunning way to exploit the dangerous nature and other factors in the desert to act as an enforcer while equipping the federal agency with plausible deniability concerning blame. As Anderson implies, these decisions were made and could be changed by some people, but in terms of tragedies that would initiate such change, “we just haven’t reached it yet.” 

In the name of security, the U.S. has long been playing with its tried-and-true political strategy, which justifies border crossers’ deaths by blaming their lack of citizenship, a commission of a civil offense or completely groundless stereotypes, such as they are “destroying neighborhoods, and killing citizens” (157). As Anderson claims, the very people Americans rely on and have to appreciate are these border crossers who engage in the work that “Americans” will not. The American capitalist economy needs and benefits from a blue-collar labor force that has brown skin. However, deprived of rights and protections when they illegally attempt to cross into the sovereign territory, undocumented people become killable in the eyes of the state, and indeed, they are killed. The Prevention Through Deterrence strategy has disguised the culpability of its policy by redirecting blame and erasing evidence of what happens in the most remote parts of southern Arizona. 

The film strives to describe migrants as human: Yohan’s mother says, “Yohan was good at making friends. He was the kind of person who liked having a lot of them. He was humble and hardworking, and he really liked having friends.” The men, women, and children crossing the border are rarely criminals on a mission to hurt, pillage, damage, or kill. They are individuals who have heard the tales of a promised land and who are not content with the poverty, violence, or other problems they are subjected to back home.

Furthermore, Padre Alejandro Solalinde says,  sometimes migrants are described as rather heroes, “migrants are not a threat; they are an opportunity. They come with values and great things to offer. Poor people are the spiritual reserve of the world”: “migrants are heroes; they are like rays of light shining on the things we must change. They are heroes who fight not only for their families; they are fighting to change the story of the U.S. and Mexico.” However, as Bernal and Reneike point out, under the policies of immigration, “in the end, they (migrants) are considered illegal, criminal”: “illegality comes first, before someone’s life, or someone’s health, or someone’s little kids.” 

This context that blames the victims is similar to that during the Argentine military dictatorship, which I mentioned above. The military junta successfully blamed those who seemed to be politically or ideologically disruptive or threatening by labeling them as “subversives.” Numerous people who were stigmatized in that way were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Those victims were simply regarded as “disappeared” (the military government disappeared their corpses). Moreover, the violence was concealed as the military government deflected its culpability into the victims. In order to exclude and persecute the “subversives,” the head of the military government once declared, “the Argentine citizenry is not the victim of repression. The repression is against a minority which we do not consider Argentine” (Robben, 185); The military created hostility and justification to annihilate those perceived as a threat to the nation. Those in charge of the atrocities during the dictatorship are now officially and globally persecuted. However, this type of discursive violence is still effectively utilized.

The U.S. government downplays the graveness of their responsibility for the atrocity by blaming not only the precarious nature but also the victims by labeling them as “criminals.” The government breeds fear and anxiety among their loved ones through uncertainty and tantalization with the inability to grasp the truth (De León, 25). The whole situation itself creates structural violence: indirect violence, which enables physical violence to occur. The characteristic of this violence is that “no one individual is responsible for it. Moreover, it often occurs out of sight; many portray it as “natural,” and it can easily be denied by state actors and erased by the desert environment” (16). The strategy the U.S. employs to prevent migrants from crossing the border illegally mystifies the situation yet clearly dehumanizes, criminalize, and blames migrants, reducing their lives as of little significance. The migrant prayer, which was the only property Yohan had when he was found dead, reads, “[t]he journey towards you Lord, is life. To set off is to die a little. To arrive is never truly to arrive until one is at rest with you. You, Lord, experienced migration. You took Abraham from his land, father of all believers. You, yourself, became a migrant from heaven to earth.” Yohan is one of these people who are invisible in life and death, in many ways.

This film beautifully and poignantly shows the tactical violence–those attempts to cross the border turn out being numbers and statistics. Despite occasionally being confusing by juxtaposing documentary and fiction, Bernal’s reenactment of Yohan’s presumed journey stirs the audience’s emotions and imagination. It seems that the creators of this film acknowledge and avoid the potential of being pornography of violence and immigration; Bernal says, “I’ll never understand the extent of the dangers he faced. I can only try to retrace his steps and see where they take me.” Although this film is sympathetic to the victims and does not offer the perpetrator’s perspectives, humble attitudes and earnest compassion make this work exceptional. Yohan came back home silently, experiencing excruciating death. However, his mother says that she thanks him every day. “God may have taken him, but he didn’t want me to be alone. Although he is dead, he is here with me. I can bring him flowers whenever I want.” This is the reality of the immigration law, brutal and inhumane, rendering the victims thankful for their loved one’s death.