Sin senas particulares (2020)
Directed by: Fernanda Valadez | 100 minutes | drama | Actors: Mercedes Hernández, David Illescas, Juan Jesús Varela, Ana Laura Rodríguez, Armando García, Laura Elena Ibarra, Juan Pablo Acevedo, Xicoténcatl Ulloa, Jessica Martínez García, María Luisa Juárez, Ricardo Luna, Julieta Rodríguez
Months after Magdalena’s son left the family home in Mexico to move to the United States, she still hasn’t heard from him. Could something have happened to him? Has he arrived at the border at all, or has he fallen prey to one of the perils of the journey north?
The subtle Mexican film ‘Sin señas particulares’ by director Fernanda Valadez shows the search of a Mexican mother for her child, a search similar to that undertaken by thousands every year. In this sense, the title (“No Distinguishing Marks”) refers not only to the term associated with the many unidentified bodies found in the Mexico-U.S. border region, but also to the countless mothers, stragglers whose stories are barely distinguish them from each other. With this film, Valadez takes their stories out of anonymity for a while; makes them a flesh-and-blood person from yet another statistic.
When Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) makes a first attempt to track down her son Jesús (Juan Jesús Varela), she is encouraged by the authorities to immediately sign his death certificate. Although his body has not been found, there are indications that the boy was killed. The body of his friend Rigo, with whom Jesús traveled together, has been found, the officials tell Magdalena and Rigo’s mother. Magdalena briefly considers declaring Jesús dead as well. Another mother she accidentally encounters while waiting – another fellow sufferer – convinces her not to just admit her child’s death without knowing his actual fate.
She then decides to start a search through the north of the country, where the criminal gangs are in charge, the authorities have little weight or are themselves corrupt and even the employees of the bus company cannot talk freely about what is on their minds. routes happens. Passengers often disappear; they are robbed or even killed. Their bodies are only occasionally found.
Along the way, Magdalena meets Miguel, a boy who is just traveling the other way after being deported from the US. Miguel wants to go back to his mother, to whom he has barely spoken as he saved money all those years on the north side of the border. Together they head to his hometown, where Magdalena also needs to be to find a man who may know more about her son’s disappearance.
Many of the horrific facts to which the film refers remain implicit. ‘Sin señas particulares’ gives little explanation, but anyone who has followed the situation in Mexico in recent years can fill in the details. According to official sources, 34,582 people were killed in Mexico in 2019; 2020 saw only a small decline. Moreover, since 2006, according to official figures, nearly 90,000 people have disappeared – just the tip of the iceberg, according to the UN.
More specific cases also appear in the film, such as the deserted town of Ocampo where Magdalena and Miguel travel. There, in 2018, the entire city’s police force was arrested by state officials for involvement in the murder of a mayoral candidate in the run-up to that year’s election.
And you have to fill in moments of general threat yourself as a viewer; the fear Magdalena feels because of a passing truck that lingers just too long next to the car in which her fellow villager Pedro drives her a bit to the north. The loud music and whooping voices indicate unsavory types, although we don’t see them. Towards the end of the film, filling in this self takes on a very striking shape in the story of Alberto, an indigenous man who probably sat on the same bus as Magdalena’s son.
Moments earlier in the film are more impressive than the surprising finale, such as when Magdalena flips through a photo album at a border agency, where unidentified bodies are waiting for a loved one to pick them up. This photo book does not show the bodies, but the possessions and clothing that were found somewhere in the desert. Caps, T-shirts, backpacks: the most mundane items young boys carry with them, but heartbreaking in this context.
In all the misery comes the little glimmer of hope from Magdalena herself, symbol of the universal, unyielding mother. And also, in spite of everything, from the fellow citizens she meets. Though small, their handouts are the only straw they have in a country where the population should not expect anything from the authorities.