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The Beast: Carrying Tragedy and the American Dream

By: Adam Dubove - @dubdam - Sep 3, 2014, 8:48 pm
The Beast by Ultreras
La Bestia, a documentary by Pedro Ultreras. (Amazon)

EspañolNo one knows exactly the next time “the Beast” will leave, but the cargo train traverses the length of Mexico, bringing fuel and other materials along the country’s railroads.

It transports more than just supplies, though. More than 700 Central American migrants sit atop the train and hang off its sides, in their desperate attempt to reach the US-Mexico border.

Economic despair and rampant violence in their home countries send them on the journey. They know “the Train of Death,” or the Beast, can help them realize the “American Dream” or bury them in a mass grave.

La Bestia, a 2010 documentary by Mexican-American journalist and filmmaker Pedro Ultreras (director of 7 Soles), portrays the perilous journey that thousands of migrants undertake each year.

Through powerful images and poignant testimonies, the documentary conveys the sense of helplessness and vulnerability that are inherent to the journey north.

The route typically begins in Hidalgo, a border crossing between Guatemala and Mexico. In the past, people would climb aboard the Beast there, but in 2005 a hurricane destroyed the tracks. Now, the 275-mile trek (443 kilometers) to the town of Arriaga is done on foot.

Some choose to walk along the railroad tracks for 10 days; others choose to venture into uncharted territory; but whichever path is chosen, it must be away from roads patrolled by la migra (immigration authorities) — one of the many antagonists of this story.

The mental and physical toll of the journey is reflected on the bodies and faces of those Ultreras interviews. This is the case for José Guardado, an Honduran migrant en route to Los Angeles and in search of a prosthetic for his left arm, which was amputated by the same train four years earlier.

The anxiety of reaching the US border is coupled with the nostalgia of loved ones left behind; but the prospect of employment represents the only means of providing financial support that is virtually nonexistent in their home countries.

The remittances sent from the US have a direct effect in the lives of families and boost the local economies. In fact, a study by the Interamerican Development Bank reported an inverse relationship between the amount of remittances and crime rates in Mexican towns.

La migra is the least of our worries,” says one traveler. Although Mexican authorities are most certainly an impediment to this search for a new life, they are not the only ones after the travelers.

Assailants, some independent and others members of organized crime, are waiting to rob their victims of the few possessions they carry. The frustration of one’s home country is only replaced by the frustration of a foreign country that offers only a glimmer of hope.

Throughout the documentary, the immigrants express hope for a brighter future. However, in the eyes of each of them lies a similar trait: as they tell the stories of their lives, with or without tears, all of them hold a tinge of sadness that offers the viewer a glimpse of the profound suffering each one faces.

Durante las épocas de mayor utilización, La Bestia transportaba hasta 1500 migrantes. (El País)
During times of highest use, The Beast would transport upwards of 1,500 people every trip. (Pulsa América)

Some of the stories have happy endings. Alicia Rivera, a Salvadoran immigrant who, after more than two months in Mexico, says with a smile on her face as she sits in Los Angeles: “I have achieved what I wanted the most.”

However, overcoming the myriad of obstacles in Mexico does not guarantee a successful outcome. Many of the immigrants who avoid death or amputations at the hands of the Beast end up being deported weeks or months after arriving in the promised land. Others, like Alicia, are not able to find steady employment.

While the documentary highlights the stories of migrants, Ultreras interviews government officials and shelter directors. They provide context to the broader story, without blurring the lines between good and bad. These stories are the most effective evidence of the injustice of regulations and restrictions that prevent the free movement of people.

The Mexican government claims a number of recent measures it has implemented have managed to reduce the use of The Beast by 65 percent, but some question the accuracy of these figures.

For Alejandro Solalinde, from the migrant shelter, Brother on the Way, in Ixtepec, México, “these actions will not reduce the flow of immigrants from Mexico; all they will do is disperse them — creating more routes and even increasing the number of smugglers.”

Ultreras’s film is an excellent tool to spark a debate about immigration laws and their effects on individuals. The hope now is that legislators and policymakers will understand the damage caused by their laws and take a humanitarian approach toward a problem whose solution will bring relief to thousands, if not millions, of people living in extreme poverty.

Translated by Alex Clark-Youngblood.

Adam Dubove Adam Dubove

Adam Dubove is a journalist, co-host of The Titanic's Violinists radio show, and the secretary of the Amagi Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @dubdam, and read his blog: Diario de un Drapetómano.