What compels a 13-year-old child to hop a freight train for a 1,400-mile journey North along the smugglers’ route through Mexico and across the U.S. border? How do youths manage the perils of the undocumented underworld including dishonest cops, cold, hunger, and a freight train famous for throwing hitchhikers to their deaths called the Beast? In Rebecca Cammisa’s documentary, Which Way Home, the children tell their heart-wrenching stories as a film crew follows them over the train tops and through the migrant camps along the deadly route.
Riding the train tops without holding on, or “Flying”
The documentary, nominated for a 2010 Academy Award under the feature-length documentary category, provides insight into the secret world of undocumented immigrants from a fresh perspective: the children’s. We begin meeting youths, mostly Honduran children, as they cross the border from Guatemala into Mexico. There is the well-spoken Kevin, and shy Fito, and Yuriko, “the Dog,” and Jairo and Joselito and Olga and Freddie and Maria and so many more, all traveling without an adult to guard them.
Cammisa spent several years working on this project. After meeting 10-year-old-Jose, abandoned and crying in a youth detention center, she was determined to complete her film, the L.A. Times quotes Cammisa as saying. It was not until she won the Fulbright Scholarship that doors began to open. The Mexican train companies and some authorities began granting Cammisa access to the smugglers’ route, Cammisa says in a YouTube interview. There she found the stories of one of the dirtiest little secrets in the lives of the undocumented traveler, which is the children, many left to fend for themselves long before they have the years and maturity to manage.
“Many of you will never return to see your [native] land. Many of you will never return to see your families,” a youth worker at one of the non-profit shelters tells a large group of immigrants seeking a dry bed and a hot meal. “Because you will die on this journey!”
13-year-old Fito rides the top of a box car
“The [border of the] United States is not where death ends. It is the death!” he tells his riveted audience as he holds up a large bottle of water. “This is not enough water for even three days [in the desert]”.
Despite speaking passionately to dissuade migrants determined to reach the U.S., the volunteer at the shelter dissuades no one, least of all the children, who are incapable of assessing the real and lethal danger they will face. Will the children perish in the desert to become some of the 250 people who die every year? Which of the Children Cammisa follows make it and which don’t? Why do these wayward youths put their lives on the line? What happens to all of the children? Cammisa is able to answer most of these questions but neither she nor grieving parents are able to account for all of the children who appear in the film, a tragic reminder of the dangers of the underworld. Suffice it to say, if you run into a doctor named Olga or Freddy years in the future, a lot of people would love to know.
The documentary, in Spanish with English subtitles, is exciting and riveting and tragic and uplifting all at a stroke. It provides a graphic view of what “waiting in the back of the line” to enter the U.S. really looks like, so it is a must see for anyone who wants to be well informed about the reality migrants suffer. More, for immigrant youth thinking about making the trip, there is a strong dose of reality about a rite of passage which many undocumented youth say they would never attempt again.
Sin Nombre, the story of an El Salvado teen hitching a ride on top of freight trains to a better life in the United States, and Which Way Home have a lot in common. Both tell the tragic tale of the migrant traveler from a young perspective. Rebecca Cammisa tells the story through the migrant children in person. Both films are riveting and may rip your heart from your chest. Adding to the pain, while Sin Nombre is a work of fiction, Which Way Home tells it exactly like it is.