The ‘relentless emotional journey’ of the mothers of Central America’s disappeared

The New Yorker, May 2021. Film by Erin Semine Kökdil.

The opening scene of the film “Desde Que Llegaste, Mi Corazón Dejó de Pertenecerme” (“Since You Arrived, My Heart Stopped Belonging to Me”) is shot through the windshield of a bus barrelling through fog, wipers swiping to no avail. We cannot discern what doom—or what sunshine—may lie ahead. Then we hear the voice of a Guatemalan woman saying that motherhood is pain.

She is the first of several Central American mothers in the film who share what it’s like when a child disappears and life becomes a search. Thousands of such mothers have lost children who went north to escape the violence, both physical and economic, imposed on the region for generations. The mothers don’t know whether their sons and daughters wound up lost in the desert or victimized by organized crime. Some have found their children alive; others have discovered remains to bury. Many, perhaps the majority, never get answers. The film follows one group of mothers on their annual brigade to scour the migrant trail in Mexico, and immerses us in the emotional reality of their search: a fog of unknowing. The mothers are suspended in something parallel to hope and akin to grief, but denied the luxury of either. As they suffer, the women tend to one another.

“Desde Que Llegaste” has no traditional story arc. Instead, it wanders with the mothers from town to town, documenting long days on a bus and short nights on makeshift beds. This routine is interspersed with blocks of a few hours at a time in lively public squares, doing the thing they came to do: displaying laminated photos of their children’s faces and, when a curious pedestrian pauses, studying the stranger’s expression for a flicker of recognition. These streets are likely ones that their children walked before vanishing; anyone here could know something. Director-producer Erin Semine Kökdil and editor-cinematographer Chris Filippone chose this “relentless emotional journey,” as Filippone called it, for the film’s focus. “Our fidelity was to that,” he said.

Another part of that journey is wrestling with guilt. “To be a mother is to take care of something that you created, that you then put out into the world,” Kökdil said. The filmmakers repeatedly heard echoes of the idea that a mother who could not protect her child had failed. “The kids aren’t guilty. I am the guilty one,” one woman says, in a scene in a church. Yet, in a world so full of structural violence, her task had been impossible.

Alongside their private struggle is a public one, in which the mothers confront the societies that treat their children as disposable. After all, disappearance is a tactic of power. Honed on the geopolitical chessboard of the twentieth century, disappearance was first used by the region’s governments and later adopted by criminal groups—themselves enmeshed with politicians, business leaders, police, and militaries that U.S. foreign policies have largely empowered—that prey on the mothers’ children. In one scene, the women march through narrow Mexican streets carrying banners. “Don’t be indifferent,” they chant. “They’re killing migrants before the state’s eyes.”

The mothers’ refusal to accept such a world is breathtaking, and so is their care for one another, a template for a different society. They share thin mattresses and goofy banter, coat one another in sunscreen, embrace one another when the pain is too great. Early in their trek through Mexico, facilitated by an immigrant-rights organization called the Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, the mothers intersected with one of the migrant caravans whose members had fled Honduras en masse that year. They met at an outdoor demonstration, Kökdil and Filippone remembered. At one point, the crowd spontaneously broke into the Honduran national anthem, a hymn for an imagined homeland in which they, and their children, might someday survive.

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