Immigration, especially illegal immigration, is one of America's most contentious issues.
As individuals from Central America try reaching the U.S. border, they must take the perilous journey through Mexico. Many are targeted for robbery and sexual assault by warring drug gangs. Many are abducted by kidnappers, who then demand phone numbers or contacts of family members in the United States, intending to shake down relatives for as much money as possible. If such contact information cannot be produced, kidnappers kill the migrants in front of other migrants.
These stories are captured in The Invisibles, a series of short documentaries by Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal. He has starred in several celebrated films, including Y Tu Mamá También, Babel and The Motorcycle Diaries, and is the recipient of the 2011 Human Rights Award from the Washington Office on Latin America.
He joins Tell Me More host Michel Martin for an in-studio interview.
On his start with The Invisibles
"Amnesty International approached me ... and they were interested in doing something — a film — about these issues. And talking with them, [we] came up with a format for these films to have a life of their own. We didn't have the aid, the money nor the practicalities to do a long feature film about this. We needed something that was documented — we could finish it quickly and put it out there quickly."
On a migrant shelter volunteer saying the Mexican government is aware of criminal activities, but refuses to investigate and pursue perpetrators
"I think what he's saying is that it is so evident where the problem is ... that the government knows where most of the kidnappings occur. They [individuals crossing the border] are completely invisible, and they [individuals committing crimes] can do with them whatever they want. Their human rights are not documented, and nobody would know what could happen to them."
On stories that stuck in his mind
"When we did this journey, we did it six or seven months before this horrible massacre occurred, where 72 people were killed, and they were all migrants from different parts of Latin America crossing toward the United States. This brought light into this issue. This shed also light on other past massacres, past disappearances that had occurred. And this issue of kidnapping was something that, when we were shooting the film, was an incredibly big surprise for us. The migrants would tell us, 'Our biggest fear is that we would be kidnapped.' "
On the idea of freely crossing the border
"I'm not speaking in favor of complete free flow. Immigration is an issue that needs to be addressed so that it's not conflicted, so human rights are respected. It is a question ... 'Human rights — is it a leftist or a rightist position?' There's no position for human rights! Human rights should be respected."
On whether this documentary work has informed his film work
"Absolutely, and thankfully it has. It has given me an emotional feedback and an intellectual and spiritual feedback that I don't know where I would get it from. I think I've seen the best of humanity in terms of fraternity. The people that travel, that do this journey together, they are embarking themselves on the biggest adventure of their lives, and they are doing it for the better of their kids and their families. There is no other interest other than this. And of course, my heart goes into that situation, because we in Mexico right now, I would love if we could live not in a place where there's a lot of fear. There are a lot of people that have left Mexico out of fear, and it breaks my heart."
On his upcoming work
"I'm doing a documentary [on this subject]. It's hopefully going to find its own life. I don't have a clear idea on where it's going to head, but we will find something out of it. And the other thing is this film in Chile that is about the referendum when Pinochet was out of power, the famous 'yes' or 'no' referendum. It's [the forthcoming film] called No."
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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, Hispanic Heritage Month is upon us once again, and to celebrate, we'll talk about the nominations for the Latin Grammys. They're just out. We'll find out what's hot in the world of Spanish and Portuguese-language music.
But first, we're going to spend some time talking about one of this country's most contentious issues: immigration, especially illegal immigration. But long before immigrants from Central America ever reach the U.S. border, they must cross through Mexico, where U.S. border authorities are the least of their worries.
Advocates say that a growing number of travelers are becoming victims of warring drug gangs, who target them for robbery and rape and kidnapping, and some simply disappear. They literally become invisible.
Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal is anything but invisible. He starred in a handful of Oscar-nominated films, such as "Y Tu Mama Tambien," but recently, he's been capturing the stories of these migrants. He filmed a series of short documentaries called "The Invisibles." He received the 2011 Human Rights Award from the Washington Office on Latin America this week, and Gael Garcia Bernal joins us now from our studios in Washington.
Congratulations on the award and on the work.
GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: Thank you very much. I'm very proud to be here and getting to know a little bit of Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: Is this your first time in Washington?
BERNAL: It's my second time, but it's the first time that I probably spent some time here. I mean, the first time, it was only for a promotion for a movie, and a very different scenario.
MARTIN: Well, why did you want to do these films? How did you get interested in this project?
BERNAL: Well, originally, I mean, it happened that Amnesty International approached me and asked me if - that they were interested in doing something, a film about these issues. And talking with them, we came up with a format for these films to have a life of their own, because we didn't have, A, the money, nor the practicalities to be able to do a long feature film about this. We needed something that was a document, that we could finish it quickly and put it out there quickly, because the issue was urgent - is urgent still - and it's a necessity. I mean, for certain issues to leave or to expand and, I mean, migration or immigration is always kept in a single, kind of an almost already established rhetoric. And it is important to see its complexity and to - and its ambiguities, and also to be more inclusive with it.
MARTIN: On the one hand, you raise the important question about how the treatment of migrants in Mexico from other countries in Central America. You ask, you know, how can we, as Mexicans, expect immigrants to be treated well in the U.S. when they cross Mexico, they're treated so poorly? Well, first, let me just ask you about Mexico. You're saying - you say one of the volunteer workers you interviewed in a shelter in South Mexico told you that the government is aware of these criminal activities.
I mean, you're talking about people who are literally disappeared, people - if they can't pay ransom, are just literally just disposed of. But you're saying that the Mexican government is aware of this, but refuses to investigate. First of all, what is your evidence of that, and why would that be so?
BERNAL: Well, I'm not saying that. It's a person in the documentary saying it. A person that - he's an activist and he works in shelters, and he knows much more than I do what happens with the authorities and maybe the complicity that the authorities have with certain of these gangs that kidnap migrants. But I - what I - I think what he's saying is that it is so evident where the problem is, that the government knows where most of the, let's say, the kidnappings occur. And because these are people that are crossing that are only not documented and they are completely invisible and they can do with them whatever they want, their human rights are not respected and nobody would know what would happen - what could happen to them...
MARTIN: So is it your sense that it's just not a priority for the government that feels itself to be so beleaguered...
MARTIN: ...with problems of its own?
BERNAL: Absolutely. It goes to that kind of cynical practice, if you know what I mean.
MARTIN: Sure. If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with the acclaimed Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal. We're talking about a group of short documentaries that he's filmed on Central American immigrants and the perils they face as they cross through Mexico on the way to the U.S. border. Do you know whenever you do reporting on something like this, you know, you think you've heard it all, but then you hear something that you just think: I can't get this out of my mind.
MARTIN: Was there a story that you heard or reported in the course of doing these films that you just could not get out of your mind?
BERNAL: Well, yes. When we did this journey, we did it six or seven months before this horrible massacre that occurred, where 72 people were killed, and they were all migrants from different parts of Latin America crossing towards the United States. They were murdered in Tamaulipas. And this brought light into this issue, unfortunately. Things like this happen, and this is the point where the focus of attention has to be here. And this shed also light on other past massacres that had occurred, past disappearances that had occurred. And this issue of kidnapping, for example, was something that, when we were shooting the films, was an incredibly big surprise for us.
The migrants would tell us that our biggest fear is that we're going to be kidnapped. And me and all the other people working in the film would say, really? Is that what is the biggest burden, perhaps, of crossing the border? I mean, is this what you have to go through? And we couldn't get our heads around it. There's, like, I would think some of the things would have...
MARTIN: You'd think you'd kidnap somebody with a lot of money. Why would you kidnap somebody who's going to make money?
BERNAL: Exactly. But what happens is we have a transnational problem, here. And because these people have no voice, no name, no documents, they can dispose themselves - of them whatever way they want, you know?
MARTIN: Well, let me just give an example from the film. The film makes the point that some of the migrants, when they are kidnapped, their kidnappers demand phone numbers or contacts of family members in the United States. And if they can't produce them, they kill them. They just kill them in front of the other migrants and dispose of them, because the intention is to shake down the relatives for as much money as they can get.
And there have been examples - in fact, in the United States, particularly along the Texas border - of "safe houses," in quotes, where people have been kept in sordid conditions while their kidnappers were trying to shake down their relatives for money to release them.
BERNAL: Yeah. Well, and just imagine, I mean, this problem extrapolated into other circumstances, where there's people that cannot speak out, because if they speak out, they will be deported, you know, in the United States. I mean, what I was surprised about is that this is a very transnational problem, and the solution is transnational, as well. There can be and there have to be a small, let's say, micro-political changes that need to occur, you know, that - to make it a big line, and then we can talk about a global solution.
MARTIN: Well, I have to ask you about that, because as I mentioned, you're in Washington this week to receive the Washington Office on Latin America 2011 Human Rights Award. Congratulations again on that.
BERNAL: Thank you.
MARTIN: But there are those who just dispute the idea that there is such a right to cross borders. And so to those who say that, just, that right does not exist...
MARTIN: ...and that it is horrible that these things happen to people, but that there really is no right to just cross borders, you know, freely and that these problems have to be worked out within each country, what would you say to that?
BERNAL: What I think I'm trying to achieve and understand is a bit more complexity, you know, and to not simplify things this way. Because it is - I'm not speaking in favor of a complete free flow. Migration is an issue that needs to be addressed so that there's - so that it's not conflicted, so that human rights are respected, because it is a - this is a question, really. I mean, it's like when human rights - oh, is it a leftist or a rightist position? There's no position for human rights. I mean, it's - human rights should be respected, you know.
And this is my argument, as well in Mexico and with Mexicans, is that for - like I say in the film, for us to have a legitimate - I mean, our legitimate expectations of the human rights of our migrants that go to the United States, we need to first clean our house, definitely, absolutely. That's one of the things. But it's important to subvert that. We are not only victims, we are also the victimized and the - and we have to, to see that on those two different sides, the same way on this side of the border in a way.
But if I have one outlook on this - on the wall specifically, I think that the wall is the most extensive and silly investment that there's every going to be because a wall stops being a business after you build it, you know. It stops being an investment. The - it is a mute investment. What really needs to happen is a development of that border, whole development.
That money would have to develop that border instead of creating a world that one day is going to come down because all walls, I mean
BERNAL: Eventually come down.
MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, I'm sure that your fans, your many fans, people who have seen you in "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and as I said, and of course, "The Motorcycle Diaries," and "Babel," wonder what you're working on now if you care to tell us - if you can. But I think I'm also interested in is there a way in which this work has informed your other work, the work in these documentaries, has informed your film work?
BERNAL: Absolutely and thankfully it has and I think I can't escape from it as well during this journey and there's all the journeys that I've done as I'm preparing all the film on the subject. It has given me an emotional feedback that and an intellectual and spiritual feedback that I don't where I would get it from.
I think I've seen the best of humanity in terms of fraternity, the people that travel - that do this journey together. They are embarking themselves on the biggest adventure of their lives and they are doing it for the better of their kids and their families.
There's no other interest other than this. And of course, my heart goes into that situation because we, in Mexico right now, would love that we could live not in a place where there's a lot of fear because right now in Mexico there's a lot of fear happening. And I would love - there's a lot of people that have left Mexico out of fear. And it breaks my heart and I would hope that one day we can manage a way of not living in this fear.
BERNAL: And so yes, it has definitely
MARTIN: What are you working on next? Anything you can tell us about?
BERNAL: Yeah well I'm doing a film on the subject a little
MARTIN: A documentary or a theatrical?
BERNAL: Documentary, yeah.
BERNAL: Yeah, documentary. It's hopefully going to find its own life. I don't have a clear idea where it's going to head but we will find something out of it. And the other thing is this film in Chile that is about the referendum when Pinochet was out of power; the famous yes or no referendum and it's an interesting story
MARTIN: Does it have a title?
BERNAL: It's called "No."
MARTIN: Okay. "No." We'll look for it. Gael Garcia Bernal has been featured in some of Mexico's most celebrated films including "Y Tu Mama Tambien," and acclaimed independent Hollywood films such as "The Motorcycle Diaries," and "Babel." He was kind enough to join us from our studios in Washington, D.C. He's in town this week to receive the 2011 Human Rights Award by the Washington Office on Latin America for his documentary work of Central American migrants in Mexico.
If you'd like to see these short documentaries that we've been talking about, they're called "The Invisibles," just go to NPR.org, select tell more from the Programs tab. Gael Garcia Bernal, thank you so much for joining us.
BERNAL: No, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.