The University of Texas in El Paso is located at a high point overlooking the Rio Grande along the El Paso-Juarez border. The stunning contrast between one of the wealthiest nations in the world and its neighboring third world country is evident from the sight of the multi-million structures of the university on the American side that tower over the dirt streets and undeveloped urban areas in Juarez just a few hundred yards away on the other side of the river.
It is unlike any other border dividing two nations anywhere in the world.
A 25 foot steel fence– a wall – on the U.S. side separates the two nations.
It is a sunny summer day in West Texas and Diego Sandoval, a dark skinned Hispanic, is walking out of the music building. He is heading towards the South Parking area facing the Rio Grande. He is carrying a flute case and is enjoying listening to music on his headphones. The music emanating from his phones is an exotic blend of traditional Latin guitar and flute music combined with the rhythm of American dance music.
Diego’s thoughts are deeply immersed in the music until a car horn breaks his concentration. A young light skinned Hispanic man around Diego’s age emerges from a car that has pulled up by the sidewalk in front of him.
He is grinning broadly and walks briskly with a slight limp as he approaches Diego His name is Miguel De Barcelona, and he says excitedly, in perfect English, “Hey Diego”, I finished writing that new song. I really want you to hear it!”
Diego smiles, but is more subdued, and seems almost melancholy, “Cool. He nods his head and is a bit more animated, ”
He walks back to his car and Diego continues listening to music on his phones. He stops and pauses to look towards the southern horizon.
His face has a placid but slightly pained look in his eyes as his thoughts drift away to another place and time. We hear the music in his phones change from the polished studio sound of the song to a raw non-produced live version.
EL SALVADOR Ten years earlier.
We hear the distant but vibrant sound of live music consisting of an accordion, a flute and bongos. The music is heard throughout the neighborhood in a small town in El Salvador. The poverty of the El Salvadoran village is obvious, the tin sheet roofs on the dilapidated homes signal that this is a working-class neighborhood in one of the poorest and violent countries in Latin America. The music is coming from inside a makeshift tent that has been set up next to a home in the neighborhood.
Inside the tent three young boys, age ten to twelve, are “jamming” on their instruments. The bongos keep a steady rhythm while the accordion and flute play off each other in an intricate counterpoint with a traditional Latin melodic and rhythmic feel. As the music reaches a fever pitch of intensity and virtuosity three gunshots ring out from nearby and the musical performance is abruptly silenced as the three musicians put their instruments down.
The young accordionist is very frightened and is the first to speak, “Diego, that
came from your house! Does your father have a gun?” “No! I’m gonna’ go see what…” Young Diego’s words are interrupted by the distant sound of men’s loud voices. A woman screams and we hear two more gunshots. Diego is near tears, ” Mama!” We hear the sound of the back door of the house being opened violently and Diego says, “It’s the Narcos.”
The voices are much closer now and the boys can now make out what they’re saying. One man says, ” We’ll see if the others say no now”, and another demands, “Find the boy… and his friends. Their families will learn too.”
One of the boys is crying and Diego whispers, “Be quiet! They don’t know we’re here.” The men’s voices outside are now intense whispers and the boy accordionist is clutching his instrument as he walks backwards in the tent, away from the sound of the voices. Like the claws of a raptor two arms reach in from a closed flap of the tent and violently pull the boy out of the tent in a quick swoop. He screams, there is the sound of a slap, and then there is sudden silence. Diego and his remaining friend are clutching each other and are sobbing in fear.
They hear laughter in the men’s voices as the men speak to each other. The boys see the form of a hand with fingers extended running down the taut side of the tent. Both boys walk away to the other side.
As Diego’s friend nears the side away from the “hand”, another set of arms reaches into the tent, grabs him by the top of his shirt and violently pulls him out. The young boy is screaming, “Let me go”, and we hear a man’s angry voice, “Ahhh! Desgraciado!”
Diego hears a fierce struggle outside and decides to make a run for it. He moves to the edge of the tent away from the voices and crawls under the flap. Once outside the tent, we see his hand reach in and grab his flute. We hear one last scream from Diego’s friend.
A woman with her mouth open wide is laughing loudly as she sits at a dining room table in a large room. There are many other people here at this Mexican feast and they are serving themselves from large serving bowls placed on a long table. This is a joyful celebration dinner gathering of family and friends.
The room’s decor and the partygoer’s attire suggest that this is a poor working-class home. We see the huge serving pans of steaming menudo and other traditional Mexican dishes placed along the length of the table along the middle, and men, women and children are seated at the table and on chairs situated all around the room. In a corner of the room we see and hear an elderly man with a strong voice singing a Mexican song accompanied by a young boy ten to twelve years old on guitar. The boy’s musical skills reflect a maturity far beyond his age.
We see Eliza de Barcelona, a forty-ish light skinned Mexican beauty who’s face reflects the dignity and strength of Mexico’s hard-working people. Her husband, Arturo, is in a wheelchair and is seated at the head of the table, indicating that he is the head of the family hosting this event. His wheelchair is slightly turned and he is facing the musical duo. He and Eliza are smiling and clapping in rhythm to the intricate guitar performance delivered by their son, Miguel, who is a self-taught child prodigy.
Eliza was unable to have a child until later in life due to Arturo’s medical condition and Miguel is the apple of their eye. The music ends with a melodic flourish and everyone in the room is clapping animatedly.
We see a straw basket placed on the table near Eliza, and a woman who is seated near it stands and places a wad of twenty-peso bills into the basket.
Eliza sees her and says, “Thank you, Carmen.” Carmen responds, “No, no, you’re welcome”
Arturo moves his wheelchair away from the table to speak to a guest and the two women converse more openly.
Carmen speaks frankly, “If I only had the courage to do what you’re doing. To leave your family…for who knows how long… who knows how long… to be able to help them. Maybe your love is greater than mine. Maybe I’m just selfish.” She gestures and pats her tears with a Kleenex.
Eliza smiles slightly and looks compassionately at her. Carmen continues, ” Things are going to go very well for you, you’ll see.”
Eliza explains, ‘Once I start working, I’ll be able to send money so Arturo can get the treatment he needs.” She turns to look at her husband and then whispers to her friend, “He could have been walking by now… but this year… God willing. And Miguel will have a chance to develop his talent, if that’s what he wants. Over there he can go to college, become a talented artist, and maybe give concerts! Here? His school doesn’t even have books! And I want my nieces to stay in school. I will send money to help them.”
A very elderly woman sitting near Eliza stands and put a few coins into the basket. Eliza tells her, ” Oh Mama, you don’t have to. You’ve done so much for us already”.
“No! I want to! I want to contribute too!”, she sharply responds. The music ends and everyone starts clapping.
It’s the morning after the feast and a few family members and friends are assembled outside the de Barcelona home looking at Eliza and Miguel as they walk briskly away from the house towards the barren landscape ahead of them. The home is in a rural area with unpaved roads and very little vegetation. They are both wearing backpacks and Miguel is carrying a guitar case. The sight of the two figures against the distant horizon is daunting and foreboding as they walk away into an unknown future.
After walking a short distance, Eliza stops and turns around to wave goodbye one last time. Her face shows the depth of her strength and determination to reach their destination. Little Miguel looks forlorn and turns to wave. At the house, some of the women are smiling and others are crying.
Arturo blows a kiss to his wife and momentarily smiles. There is a look of regret in his eyes, for he knows that his place should be with them on their journey. He is maintaining a strong and joyful countenance while Eliza is waving, but as soon as she turns, the frustration he feels overwhelms him.
Arturo covers his eyes, sobs, and wheels his wheelchair back around into the house. Although there is a feeling of sadness among all the well-wishers, their faces also reflect a feeling of a new hope for the family. The family priest is here and he gestures a blessing towards them.
As the mother and son continue their walk, Miguel is holding his mother’s hand, and slowly turns his head around for a last look at his home. He almost trips on a rock before the pair disappear over a rise in the road.
The two figures are walking at a quick clip through a roadless and barren landscape. They seem insignificant against the backdrop of the Chihuahuan desert in northern Mexico. There are no visible habitations or towns anywhere in sight, but they seem to be moving in a purposeful direction.
It is dusk, two figures approach a dilapidated steel farmhouse. Is obviously a staging camp for travelers, and we see Eliza and Miguel approach and walk into the camp. She is scanning the area as if searching for someone. After a few seconds a man approaches them. “Are you Eliza?”, he asks. “Yes”, she responds.
“I’m Ricardo, I’ll be crossing you.” He looks them over closely. “Did you bring plenty of water?” “As much as we can carry,” she replies. “We’ll restock at a safe house not far from here. Did they tell you about the price change?”, he asks. Eliza reacts with indignation, “Price change? We agreed on eight hundred dollars for the both of us, and I paid half. That’s all I have!” “It’ll’ be one thousand.”
“What?” she almost screams.
“There’s been gangs robbing and assaulting. it’s gotten more dangerous”, he explains.
Eliza places her hand on her forehead and shakes her head in frustration. “How can you do this to your own people?”
Ricardo throws his arms out as if giving up trying to explain to her. He pauses for a few moments and says, “Well, what else do you have to trade?”.
Ricardo then slowly turns his head and juts out his jaw, as if a coming to moment of realization for a solution to the problem. He moves in closer to Eliza and speaks in a softer tone, “You are a very beautiful woman. Perhaps we can work something out!”
He raises his eyebrows inquisitively and touches her shawl.
Eliza moves away from him, is silent for a moment and nods her head, “I see. My son and I will get there on our own, thank you!” She takes Miguel’s hand and turns to walk away.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea”, Ricardo warns. He points to the crosses on the grave site. Some are crosses adorned with pictures of fathers and mothers and their children and one has a teddy bear tied on it.
“They thought they could do it by themselves too. We buried what the vultures and coyotes left.” He shakes his head as if saying, “What a shame”.
Eliza is quick to respond, “Which coyotes? The beasts out there, or you and your friends?”
Ricardo is finally shamed and looks downward. He offers consolation and says dryly, “You and your son can follow us to the safe house. After that, you’re on your own.”
He walks away. Miguel looks up at his mom, “Mama, we’re gonna’ go by ourselves? He’s not going to help us, Mama?”
Eliza kneels down and reassures Miguel, “We’ll be fine, Mi Hijo, don’t worry. You have me, we’ll be okay.” She embraces him.
Eliza and Miguel are on the move once again walking through the desert, but this time with some of the travelers from the rest site. Behind them is wilderness as far as the eye can see and ahead of them is a dirt road that leads to a structure that looks more like an abandon house. They are now 86 miles to the U.S border.
Inside weary travelers are resting. The people in the house are a mixture of men, women and children. A long picnic table sits in the middle of the room. The door opens and Eliza and Miguel enter the room. Eliza surveys the room and nods in greeting to a woman sitting by the door and Eliza motions to Miguel for them to sit on a bench at the table. They remove their backpacks and sit together across from a young boy seated across them. The boy is Diego, who has somehow found his way to this place.
Eliza extracts two water bottles and two burritos wrapped in cellophane from their backpacks. She then focuses her gaze at Paulo, who is trying hard not to look at them. She greets him, “Hello. This is Miguel, and I am Mrs. De Barcelona.” Diego answers sheepishly, “Hello”. “What’s your name?”, she asks. “I’m Diego.” “Are you here with your family. Diego?” Diego looks away and answers without looking at them, “No. I mean… I don’t … I’m by myself.”
Eliza is surprised, “By yourself? You’re here by yourself?
In a place like this? “Have you eaten already, mi hijo?”, she asks.
“Yes yesterday”, he explains. Eliza reaches into her backpack and places a some chicharrones in front of him along with a small water bottle, “Eat,”, Eliza orders, “We have plenty.”
Diego looks tentatively at it and slowly opens it. But as soon as he takes the first bite he devours all of it in seconds. Eliza cocks her head and smiles at him, “When did you last eat, mi hijo?” “Well… I don’t know…. yesterday?”, he replies.
Eliza’s emotions explode angrily as she looks around at the others in the room and says loudly. “You mean that no one offered you something to eat?”
As she looks at the faces around her they look downward, as if embarrassed. She calms down and reaches into her backpack again, “…Eat.”
Miguel notices a long, narrow wooded box on the table in front of Diego. He asks, “What do you have in there?” “That’s my flute,” Diego responds, “it was a gift from my mother.” “Really? My mother gave me this guitar’, he tells him excitedly.
Eliza is more interested in Diego’s wellbeing, “How is it that you’re by yourself in these parts?” “I came from my home with friends of my father. They were taking care of me after he and my mother….”, he pauses, chokes. Eliza asks “Do you h
ave family on the other side?”
Tentatively, he says, “I…I don’t know”, then emphatically declares, “but my father’s gave me this paper.” He pulls a sheet of paper from his backpack and shows it to Eliza. It has bold red handwritten, but clear, writing on it.
Eliza scans the paper and looks befuddled, ” Do you know what it says?” Diego continues, “No , but I’m to give it to the American border police.”
She chimes, “Why would you want to do that? La Migra, we will do everything to avoid them because they’ll send us back if they catch us.”
Diego shrugs his shoulders, “They told me the police in America protect you, not like it is in my village.”
She places the paper on the table and we can see that the content reads: ‘I am a political refugee from El Salvador. I wish asylum in America.’
Eliza pauses contemplatively briefly, then announces, “Okay, we’ll rest for a bit, then we should go.”
The trio stand up, get their backpacks and look around for somewhere to sit.
The trek northward through the desert continues for the trio of travelers. As before, there are no other people or dwellings in sight.
They enter an area with many brush filled large rocks and many large boulders to sit on.
Eliza is placing food items on a boulder which doubles as a dinner table. The boys are chatting and taking their musical instruments out of the cases.
Eliza is looking at them and smiling as she lays out a dinner of canned goods and tortillas. Diego begins playing his flute and is soon joined by Miguel on guitar.
They are soon playing a soulful and intricate duet. They are deeply engrossed in their outdoor performance when Diego abruptly stops and looks up. Miguel continues playing for a moment longer and then also stops and looks up at the two men who have entered their camp. There is an air of danger about these men, the way they walk, the way they are looking at the three of them.
Eliza speaks coldly, “Hello, this is our camp. Find another one, please.”
A unsavory young man looks around cockily at the three of them as he nods his head up and down, “We’re looking for food.”
Eliza replies, “Well, there’s only enough for the children. Perhaps out there you can find something. Good luck…. and goodbye.”
A second young man smiles disingenuously and walks up to the boulder to where Eliza’s backpack is laying. He picks up the backpack and she unsuccessfully tries to grab it away from him.
She is breathing hard and her face is filled with anger. The man begins picking through the bag as if looking for something and then reveals his intentions, ”
You’re gonna’ cross the river, that’s why you’re here. You don’t have a man with you? He pauses. “Where’s your money?”
“So you’re thieves,’ she says with a sarcastic laugh. ” You steal from women and children. We have no money. We have relatives on the other side that will provide for us when we get there.”
The First man smiles and looks at her as he empties the bag’s contents, “I don’t believe you.”
The man then picks up Miguel’s backpack and Eliza screams, “No!” She walks up to him and grabs the backpack. He pushes her to the ground violently. Miguel is frozen with fear but Diego rushes the man and swings at him with his flute. The man grabs. Eliza has gotten up and has a rock in her hand. She flings it at the man at close range.
The man furiously reaches into his pants waistband, pulls out a knife and points it to Eliza. He stabs her in the chest.
She holds her chest and she falls to the ground. The surreal scene has snapped Miguel out of his paralysis. He charges the first man with lifts his guitar to strike him.
The second man is standing behind Miguel and takes the guitar from him. Miguel trips and falls to the ground.
The first man looks down at Miguel and kicks him hard. We hear Miguel scream in pain. The second man is breathing hard but regains his composure and tells his partner, “Vamonos, Let’s go!”.
Eliza is laying motionless on the ground and Miguel is kneeling over her, laying his head on her chest. He is crying and sobbing. Diego, who has seen violence and death before, is kneeling on the other side of Eliza’s body. He stands, walks around to Miguel and crouches next to him. “Those men could come back. We need to go.”
Miguel cries out, “No! I’m staying here with her.” Diego searches for the right words, “If those men come back… Your mot her would want you to be safe… to get away from them.” Miguel stops crying momentarily, “I have to come back for her.”
Diego comforts him, “Yes, we will. We’ll find someone to help us.” Miguel grimaces in pain, “I can’t move. I think I broke something when he kicked me. It hurts,” he whimpers. He is holding his hip and is in great pain. “Come on. Slowly.” Miguel moans and Diego reassures him, “I don’t think we’re that far from the river.” He helps Miguel slowly to his feet.
They are standing looking down at Eliza’s body. Diego leaves Miguel briefly and places Eliza’s shawl over her face. We hear more sobbing from Miguel.
They slowly walk away.
We see two small lone figures trudging through the desert. One of them is limping and has one arm around the other’s shoulder for support. We see the steel border fence in the distance up ahead.
A Border Patrol vehicle on guard duty is parked on a dirt road on a levee at the border fence.
The male officer, is standing at the rear of the vehicle and is peering towards the Mexican side through binoculars. The other, female agent, is standing across from him.
Neither of them notice as Diego emerges over the levee in front of female agent
He is panting from exhaustion and looks haggard, weak and almost delirious. He is sobbing as he runs to male agent and puts his arms around his waist.
The female agent is startled but doesn’t perceive a threat and does not push the boy away. She looks sideways to her partner and shrugs his shoulders as if unsure what to do. A grunting sound is coming from the levee and we see Miguel struggling to get over the embankment.
We hear one of the agent’s voices, “I think he’s hurt.” The male agent runs to the levee’s edge and helps pulls Miguel onto the road where he collapses.
The male agent seems very concerned and picks up the boy, cradles him in his arms, and gently places him in the vehicle. There is no sense that these are law enforcement officers who are dealing with a crime, but instead a sense of two people who, perhaps have children of their own, and are reacting as human beings helping two children in a moment of crisis. After the four of them are in the vehicle, we see it drive off in a cloud of dust and it disappears around a bend. We see the faint image of Diego’s adult face in the dust cloud.
Present time/outside UTEP music building.
We see the face of Diego the college student standing near the school parking lot. He is looking towards the border as his thoughts return to the present. We hear the music through his headphones. He walks towards the parking area and once again we see the panoramic view of the university against the backdrop of the Rio Grande and Mexico. Miguel says, “Are you listening…we’re going to get our song the radio!” Diego replies “Yea sorry, man.” Miguel says, “It’s all good.”
Flashback: 10 years ago American Hospital – Unknown Location.
A faint beeping of a heart monitor is heard and slowly becomes louder. Eliza is lying motionless on a hospital bed. Her eyes are closed.
In the distance we hear muffled sounds from Eliza’s subconscious. These are voices echoing from her recent events. Coyote: “You are a very beautiful woman.” Diego: “He won’t take us Mama?”
Eliza’s eyelids are tightly closed and begin to rapidly dart back and forth as she recalls her brutal stabbing.
She opens her eyes and sits up abruptly yelling “Miguel!?!”