Sin Nombre: Relevant, Intense, Heart-Wrenching

Sin Nombre is the best film I’ve seen in a long time. It’s also the first Spanish-language movie I watched without subtitles.

SPOILERS DISCLAIMER – mad spoilers follow.

If you don’t need a plot summary, jump to the analysis below.

The film starts by introducing us to Casper, a member of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) in Tapachula, Mexico. Then we meet Casper’s young friend, Smiley, who couldn’t be older than 12. Casper takes Smiley to his MS-13 initiation, a 13-second beat-down from the gang. We also meet gang leader Lil’ Mago, who is covered with tattoos, a prominent ‘MS’ drawn from above both temples all the way down to his jaw-line and chin.

Then we flash to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to meet the beautiful Sayra. Sayra meets her father for the first time. She’s to join him and his brother in the United States, from where the father had just been deported. He wants Sayra to join his new family.

Next we see Casper visit his girlfriend, Martha Marlene, for a textbook example of a Latin love session. After the session, Casper takes Smiley to the gang hideout where, under Lil’ Mago’s direction, Smiley execute a rival gang member to complete his initiation. Then they feed the body to dogs.

The plot develops two storylines: the first being Sayra’s resentment toward the father she never knew, who she believes never would’ve returned for her if he weren’t deported; the second being Casper’s neglecting his responsibilities to the gang because he’s spending more and more time with Martha Marlene. She’s increasingly angry because she feels he’s hiding something, which he is in trying to keep her separated from his gang life.

The latter conflict culminates when Martha Marlene crashes a gang meeting in a cemetery in which Casper (Willy) is about to be disciplined for neglecting his duties. Willy tries to escort her out of there, but Lil’ Mago overrules. He insists on showing her out while Willy gets his 13-second stomping. Away from the gang, Lil’ Mago tries to have sex with Martha Marlene, citing ‘generosity’ as a crucial element of the gang. She refuses. He tries to rape her. In the struggle, he accidentally kills her. Casper has to accept it because Lil’ Mago is the boss and devotion to Mara Salvatrucha trumps all else.

This particular MS-13 “clique” earns its income from the Bombilla, the train station in Tapachula on the border with Guatemala. Central Americans migrating to the US pass through the Bombilla to jump on trains headed north to the Texas border. The MS-13 gang robs the migrants on their way north.

Lil’ Mago had Casper and Smiley accompany him for one of these robberies. The three are on top of the train, robbing each and every passenger for everything they have when Lil’ Mago comes across the beautiful Honduran, Sayra. He gropes her and forces her down. Casper, still not over the loss of Martha Marlene at the hands of Lil’ Mago, and watching him unleash on another innocent girl, whacks him with his machete, cutting through half his neck.

Lil’ Mago falls from the train dead. Casper orders Smiley off the train. Here the main plot has developed. Sayra befriends Willy (he’s not ‘Casper’ anymore). Smiley goes back to the gang and tells them what happened. They order Willy killed and spread the word to all the other cliques along the train rout, through Mexico to the US.

Willy’s been marked for death by the largest gang in the Western Hemisphere. Noting Sayra’s growing attachment, Willy jumps from the train as everyone’s sleeping but she awakes and jumps after him, leaving her father and uncle behind. Willy then resolves to help Sayra safely cross the border into the States. There’s action, there’s hope, there’s sadness, there’s beautiful (and ugly) Mexican culture and countryside, and there’s stimulating footage of MS-13 culture.

Just as Willy sends Sayra swimming across the Rio Grande, waiting his own turn, the gang appears and guns him down on the riverbank. Smiley scores the first shot. The final scene shows Sayra at a Sam’s Club calling her dead father’s family in New Jersey (her dad died on the train), her uncle starting a new attempt to cross the border from Guatemala into Mexico, and Smiley getting “MS” tattooed inside his lower lip.


I’m burnt out on the accidental death via head-hitting-the-rock, which is how Martha Marlene died after Lil’ Mago kicked her in the ass. I attribute that to laziness or lack of nerve on the part of the writer. If you can’t create a motivation to kill her intentionally, don’t go to the tired-ass playbook. Maybe he could’ve successfully raped her, admonished Casper (Willy) for not sharing, and then she commits suicide. Anything but the head-accidentally-hitting-the-rock bit.

Aside from the scene where he helps Smiley execute a ‘chavala’ begging for mercy, Casper’s never seen as the vicious gangster he must’ve been to have a career with MS-13. He didn’t pistol-whip, rape, or rob anybody for the whole film. Granted, his transformation may have started while falling in love with Martha Marlene, but it was still too sympathetic in the marked contrast between his innocent white face and the viciousness of the other MS-13 gangsters.

One kudos I give is not including the Hollywood happy ending. The tragic ending made a better film.

Mara Salvatrucha

MS-13 is the largest gang in the United States. It started in a Central American section of Los Angeles to protect Salvadorans from Mexican and black gangs. It’s since grown to include Mexicans with chapters in the United States, Mexico, Central America, and Canada. They’re known for their tattoos. There are a dozen or so MS-13 videos on YouTube.

Immigration & human rights

The reality facing migrant workers in this film reinforce my my support of immigration. The human rights issues and violence along the US-Mexico border is horrific. Girls are forced into prostitution; gangsterism thrives.

All these people want to do is work in America, the land of opportunity. Their own countries were flawed in their design so the same opportunity doesn’t exist. Their only mistake in life was being born on the wrong side of the border. I’ve known many illegal immigrants and I admire their work ethic. And I’ve known lazy and incompetent Americans who live good lives because they were born on the other side.

Last year I read Ben Casnocha argue immigration is a solution to poverty. In that post, he mentions the idea of “free movement of people” among countries. I’m pro-immigration, but I wasn’t eager to jump on board when I first read that. Now I’m more receptive. There’s rarely reform without an extreme position underneath.

Michael Clemens is the foremost advocate and dedicated researcher for open immigration.

Love in Latin America

The film captured Love in Latin America perfectly, especially in Willy’s and Martha Marlene’s relationship. She slapped him. They made love. She accused him of cheating and threatened to cut his penis off. They cuddled and professed eternal love.

Foreshadowing and magic realism

Magic realism is prevalent in Latin film and literature. Sayra alludes to an old witch in her neighborhood who predicted she wouldn’t arrive in the States in the arms of God, but The Devil. Willy consistently warns Sayra that he’s a dead man, which proves correct. In a chilling foreshadowing scene, Willy and Sayra come across MS-13 graffiti that reads, “Lil’ Mago – don’t worry, El Casper won’t pass…”


  • Machetes – Willy killed Lil’ Mago with a machete, bad-ass. Latin American use of the machete is under-represented in film.
  • Mexican / Central American gangsters and face tattoos – The older I get, the more I err on the side of genetics over upbringing, nature over nurture. In looking at the images of MS-13 gangsters, I couldn’t help thinking they look like the Indians from Apocalypto. Is it in their genetic DNA to paint their faces up and kill?
  • The film was produced by Gael Garcia Bernal (Motorcycle Diaries) and Diego Luna (Milk), who co-starred as best friends in Y Tu Mama Tambien, another kick-ass film set in Mexico.
  • Sin Nombre won Sundance Film Festival awards for directing and cinematography (Director Cary Joji Fukunaga and Cinematographer Adriano Goldman). The film wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards because the Oscars suck shit.
  • The Sin Nombre soundtrack is great. Check these out:

Dick el Demasiado – Flaca de las Coloradas

Vakero – Ya No Hay Gente

Amandititita – Mecánico

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  1. haven’t seen the film, no la vi, but i guess it’s good. Thanks for mentioning the song. I enjoy the fact that a song can carry on it’s life through different media and worlds. Suddenly youtube-clips are made with chicano esthetics, graffiti, handgestures, gangho-looks. Chaau, saludos a todos y mentes libres.


  2. I couldn’t disagree with you more…..Nah just kidding.

    This movie was pretty good. Great cinematography, fast paced plot, and very….magic realism, is that what you used?

    I loved the irony at the end with Smiley pulling the trigger. Begs the question for more detail on their relationship before Smiley’s 13 count.


  3. Thanks for the Sin Nombre tip. To find actors to play believable bad boys is quite difficult, but they pulled it off. It was the only movie I have seen to portray poor Central Americans as they really are. When I got out of the Marines I stayed down in L.A. because of a girl. I had little money and thought I was a bad ass, so I rented an apartment in Pico Union. Pico Union is just west of downtown and landing ground for Central American immigrants — Salvadorians, Guatemala, Honduras. It was fun because poor people share their lives, food, culture. Lots of birthday parties and quincenaras.

    The movie reminds me of the Chaos of when I lived amongst the Central Americans. Colombians are sophisticated in comparison to the Central Americans. They did all kinds of shit in the name of survival.

    When I got out of the Marines I lived in Pico Union in L.A. — this is the landing zone for illegal central americans. Both Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street were born right here. I lived in an incredibly shitty building populated by Cental American single mothers. Most of them were quite nice, Some were really crazy. It was total chaos. A Chino owned the building and was fucking at least 3 of the girls in lieu of rent. My friend Melba was one of them Her husband, Jose, was from a family of brujas in Mexico City. Jose was in Soledad Prison 3 year jolt, for molesting Melba’s 13 year old neice. Melba believed in brujeria and told me that the bruja could make me fall in love with her. Melba let rationalized “fuckingthe landlord” because her husband was in prison and welfare was not enough money. Jose got wind of this and threatened to have the Chino killed by Mara shooters. Melba got pregnant and then things really got interesting.

    My Hondurena neighbor was was fucking 3 guys and getting money from each. One of them found out and lit her apartment on fire. Another hondurena arrived in LA. pregnant after a mysterious affair on the journey up from Mexico. She farmed her kid out to a Mexican lady in the East L.A. projects and moved in with a Chino in El Monte. The birth control that they put in her arm — time release. She did not like it because it made her fat. She was also fucking her social worker from the county of LA. The night she gave birth she had to knock on my door to take her to the hospital, because she had no man.

    Another lady — a little older was from Guatemala. She had a kid. When she was 12 years old she was hired as a housekeeper in Guatemala for a rich American. The guy was Sgt Barry Sadler. Singer of the hit –” Ballad of the Green Beret” Sadler is an ex vietnam war hero and is living in Guatemala. He is writing books. A series of novels called Casca– the eternal soldier. Anyway Sadler has sex with her and she has a kid at 13 years of age — Hugo. Sadler is killed under mysterious circumstances — she shows me the article from Soldier of Fortune Magazine — only she can not read it because it is in English. She is really cute and later marries a Korean American peace corps volunteer, who dumps her and returns to the USA. She save her money comes up here and confronts him at his parents house in Orange County. He says get out of here and she settles in shitty Pico Union, not the toney OC.

    I befriend Hugo and he is now in the Army serving in Iraq. He wanted to be a Marine, but could not make it. Fucking shitty L.A. schools.


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