Who Is Dayani Cristal?

Addressing “an epic human rights issue” at the U.S.-Mexico Border

July 14, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Editors’ note: The movie Who Is Dayani Cristal? investigates the story of one of the hundreds of bodies discovered each year in the desert between the U.S.-Mexico border and Tuscon, Arizona. Director Marc Silver and Gael Garcia Bernal embed themselves among migrant travelers on their own mission to cross the border, providing rare insight into the human stories. The film—made in 2004—won the award for best cinematography at Sundance in 2013. Current screenings are listed at whoisdayanicristal.com. Michael Slate interviewed Marc Silver and Robin Reineke from the Colibri Center for Human Rights—a project that developed out of the film. The full interview is at The Michael Slate Show at KPFK.org.


Michael Slate: What compelled you to make this film?

Marc Silver: What happened originally was, about five years ago in London we launched a website that asked people to send in stories of resistance against wars and division between rich and poor and economic barriers. And one of the most compelling things that we read on the site was the story of unidentified skulls and skeletons being found in this epic desert landscape. We saw an image of one of the search-and-rescue police holding a skull. And from that point we asked ourselves: I wonder what a skull can reveal to you about the bigger systemic issues of migration and economics.

Michael Slate: Now this film is very heavy. It’s unique in a lot of different ways. But something that it really captures is what’s at the heart of life for millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, that in most ways they’re forced to live an almost invisible existence inside the U.S., while at the same time, they’re everywhere. Anything you see that needs to be done, anything that involves the basic functioning of society, invariably, you’re going to find a work team of immigrants doing it, and a lot of them oftentimes undocumented. How did that contradiction play out in your head?

Marc Silver: To be honest, we wanted to focus more on the journey that people make, and the dangers of the border, and how the border was designed to actually be dangerous. So our version of looking at the invisibility issue was more about the invisibility of the dead. It’s obviously an epic human rights issue and particularly at the moment where the immigration reform bill or conversation seems to be discussing this kind of tradeoff between the giving of documentation to 12 million people, but only if we increase security, surveillance, etc., at the border. And we felt that the part that was missing from that conversation, and hence invisible, was the fact that there’s a direct relationship between increased border security and the number of deaths on the border. That was the thing that we wanted to bring visibility to.

Michael Slate: It must be a fairly heavy thing to, one, try to find out the way into that story, though, because it can be so overwhelming, and it can be so hidden as well, even if it becomes just a statistic, but people aren’t aware. I wasn’t aware, even though I knew there were people who were going out and leaving water under bushes and things like this, and there were all kinds of people doing things along known pathways for migrants coming into the U.S. But still the question of so many dead, and how do you carve into something that big?

Marc Silver: Yeah, absolutely, and also something that’s so visceral when you present it visually. So, we basically embedded ourselves with the search-and-rescue teams and the people who work at the medical examiner’s office, in the hope that we would be able to track a body from the moment of discovery all the way through the forensic identification process, and then hopefully all the way back to a family. And as Robin can attest to, the statistics to make that happen were against us. I think quite a few people had tried that before.

We followed several cases. I was there when the police discovered different bodies and skeletal remains over the course of four to six weeks. The Dayani Cristal body—we were very, very fortunate in that his family was identified in a relatively short amount of time, within about three months of his being discovered, whereas I think up to 700 of the 2,000 bodies that have been brought into that particular medical examiner’s office are still yet to be identified.

Michael Slate [to Robin Reineke]: What is the Colibri Center for Human Rights?

Robin Reineke: The Colibri Center for Human Rights was developed very recently out of the work portrayed in the film as the Missing Migrant Project. So, our work starts with the desire to help families in their search for missing people. We’re building the biggest database of, unfortunately, missing migrants last seen crossing into the U.S.-Mexico [border]. And we’re comparing that data against unidentified remains catalogued by offices like the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. And then on top of that, we are trying to reach a broader audience and really tell the story of what’s happening and produce research and data. Unfortunately, a lot of the conversation about immigration reform and the border is not fact-based, not based on evidence and history. So we’re really taking the issue of the very severe human rights crisis of the loss of life and the disappearance of thousands of people on the border to shine a bright light on the failings of our current immigration policy.

Michael Slate: Is that related to what compelled you to want to be part of this film? When Marc showed up and said, “Hey, do you want to do this film with me?” what compelled you to say, “Yeah, I need to be part of this”?

Robin Reineke: Marc started visiting the medical examiner’s office in 2009. I remember when he first came into my office, that I think we started talking just immediately for like four or five hours. We had a lot to talk about. I think the framework that Marc was using at that time even to approach the story, was really looking at broad structural factors, looking at it with a human lens, but asking some of the more challenging philosophical questions about why are people coming? Why are they willing to risk their lives? What’s happening with the families? What’s happening to the bodies? How is this going on for so long? At that time, in 2009, there’d already been a decade of deaths in the hundreds per year and still silence in terms of changing policy.

So, I was immediately very taken with Marc’s approach, and I felt excited to work with him from the beginning.

Michael Slate: Let’s talk about this, because you also have a sense of just how serious the situation is, that it’s not just a few people here and there, but it’s actually a very large question, it’s a very mass question, and it’s something that not too many people are really all that acutely aware of.

Robin Reineke: Yeah, it’s fascinating that people aren’t aware of it. It’s one of the things anthropologically that I’m interested in—basically how effective this discourse of illegality has been, that one of the most serious human rights crises is passing invisibly. And in terms of talking about visibility and invisibility, I think that’s one of the most interesting questions.

Six thousand people have died in the last decade attempting to cross the border. And that number is believed to be quite low. It’s a Border Patrol count, and the Border Patrol is not always involved in the recovery of remains, and it’s really outside of their purview. So in the film it’s the sheriff’s office. It’s many other agencies that are involved in that process. So the 6,000 number is believed to be quite low. There’s a lot of decentralization in terms of counting, many reasons why that number is low.

Two thousand people are missing, and 6,000 known to be dead. So that number is already more than 40 times more deadly than the Berlin Wall was in its entire existence.

Michael Slate: Marc had mentioned that you could actually talk about statistically, how high the odds are against what you’re trying to do. Can you talk about that?

Robin Reineke: Yeah, I’d be happy to. This is really why the Colibri Center for Human Rights needs to exist. Remains are found in southern Arizona, where the film takes place—at least the part of the film relating to the decedent. In southern Arizona, 165 remains on average per year are discovered in the desert. They’re discovered in various states of decomposition. So it’s very difficult scientifically to identify them. It’s rare for certain clues to be present on the body. And after even several days in the desert, someone is unrecognizable.

So you already have environmental, structural reasons on the biological side that challenge identification. But then there’s kind of complex issues that make it even more complicated. Right now only about 65 percent of the remains are identified every year. So that remainder of 35 percent, it accumulates, and right now if you count from 1990 to the present, there’s about 900 unidentified remains, making Arizona the third highest state for unidentified remains, following California and New York.

So there’s the biological issues and there’s really structural issues. The families are sort of perpetually on the wrong side of the wall. They face challenges in following the kind of traditional procedure for reporting a missing person. So they can’t call the police, or the police won’t take their report. There’s massive decentralization. They could report a missing person case to southern Texas and the body could be found in Arizona. So there are massive structural reasons preventing a higher success rate. We have the science. We have the technology. It’s really political will and the use of this technology for this issue that we’re up against. And that’s why Colibri developed.

Michael Slate: I read somewhere where you were talking about contrasting the north-to-south journey of the body that gets returned, and alongside of that, the south-to-north of the people going up. But what you show of that, in addition to what you’re saying, you really do sort of find a way that, I think, very powerfully—I’m thinking about the people sitting on top of “The Beast,” the train that does take people so long, and the kind of camaraderie and the deep feelings that people have for one another. But also you get a sense of the humanity of people who are oftentimes and in every way possible, denied any sense of humanity. They’re denied any portrayal of humanity.

Marc Silver: Yeah, and it is obviously hugely complex when you’re putting the film together, but on a human-to-human level when you’re on the ground actually doing that filming, what I realized was—and maybe this is something we should all know inherently—there is no difference between those people and us. There is no, if you like, in anthropological terms, “the other.” When I would return home from some of those filming trips and just be catching up with friends and family back in London, I would explain the experience as, I would have made exactly the same decisions as all the people, all the migrants we met on that journey if I came from a place where I wasn’t capable of fulfilling my spiritual hopes and dreams, as well as my financial responsibility to my family. I, too, would have instantly made the decision to take that journey north.

And, of course, there are deep economic reasons why certain countries are in poverty and certain countries aren’t. Obviously that relates to, in the case of the U.S. and Central and Latin America, things like NAFTA or the evolution of the kind of neo-liberal economic policies that have kept some countries poor.

Michael Slate: I have one last question for each of you. Marc, you have said you made, not a “whodunnit” but a “what happened?” As I was watching the film again this morning, I thought, “Wow, there’s something very heavy here.” And Robin, you are angry about so much attention being focused on the physical border and border security, instead of what’s happening to the migrants. You’ve taken on very sharply the idea that, somehow, people dismiss this as, “Well, they chose to do this. After all, they didn’t have to come here. They chose to go through the desert.” I wanted you to talk to this question of choices.

Robin Reineke: It’s a very poor excuse to accept hundreds of deaths every year, directly following policy. I think we have to start asking, why are hundreds of thousands of people making that same “choice” and risking their lives crossing inhospitable desert? That’s really the question that we need to be asking, and not why is it that people are breaking this law. Hundreds of thousands of people are breaking the same law. They’re leaving their families and they’re leaving their homes and they’re risking their lives.

Michael Slate: Marc, for you, in a lot of different things you’ve made the point that, while you’ve focused on what’s happening in the Sonoran desert, in Arizona, on the southern border of the U.S. and Mexico, you said that, yes, it’s happening there, and you’re focused on there, but you also gave people a sense, and you yourself also seem to have a very deep sense of, this is more than just a particular incident or phenomenon in this country. It’s something that happens worldwide. And I thought you spoke to that very powerfully. Can you talk to that, in terms of it being something bigger than any one incident? And in many ways, as you’ve said, it’s a systemic question.

Marc Silver: Yeah. It’s a massive global problem. And the problem, if you like, the result of that problem is people end up dying at borders, in this case, the U.S. desert area. But to me, coming from Europe, we have actually statistically an even bigger problem, that many more thousands of people are dying in the Mediterranean Sea traveling from northern Africa into southern Europe. And again, this systemic way what they call “fortress Europe” has been designed, forcing people to make that journey. And it’s been going on for several years. And everybody knows that every week, hundreds more people are dying. And the people that have the power to change that system willingly don’t do it, which is exactly the same as what’s going on with the so-called corridor of death in the area of the desert that Robin’s office has to deal with. And similarly, between Indonesia and Australia, for example. So, when we started off the film, we were never looking, if you like, to make a local story about the Mexico-U.S. border. And if I go all the way back to those first images that we saw of the skull in the desert, and we really did look at that as, yes, this is obviously a local story, but the implications are absolutely global. We could be standing on the shores of islands off the coast of Italy looking at the dead bodies there, and we would pretty much have the same story, the same reasons people leave home, the same dangers they have on the journey north, and the same reasons why the system is blocking their entrance, and even worse than blocking, even forcing them through life-threatening, dangerous areas.


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