Thousands of people try to cross the Mexico/U.S. border every year.
Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side) tells the human story behind illegal immigration and drug trafficking between the U.S. and Mexico through the eyes of Magdiel, a 23-year-old fisherman and aspiring composer who dreams of a better life. For people south of the border, the "other side" is the dream of an impossibly rich United States, where even menial jobs can support families and whole communities that have been left behind. For people north of the border, Al Otro Lado sheds light on harsh choices that their neighbors to the south often face because of economic crisis.
As movingly chronicled in Al Otro Lado, Natalia Almada's debut feature, the border is a place where one people's dreams collide with another people's politics, and the 200-year-old tradition of corrido music vibrantly chronicles it all. In fact, if you really want to understand what is happening on the U.S./Mexico border, listen to the corridos, troubadour-like ballads that have become the voice of people whose views are rarely heard in mainstream media.
Left: Magdiel from Sinaloa, Mexico
In Al Otro Lado the fantasy of the "American dream" and the economic crisis that drives thousands across the border looking for work has landed Magdiel at an impossible crossroads in his life. A fourth-generation fisherman with aspirations for a home of his own, a car and an education for his younger sister, he must pick a road if he is to realize his goals -- to become a drug trafficker like many of his friends, or to cross the border illegally to the United States. Magdiel lives in Sinaloa, the drug capital of Mexico, where he can no longer subsist on the shrimp that have been depleted by global demands and poor fishing practices. He is also a self-taught composer. Reflecting the life around him, Magdiel sings of fishermen who have turned their pangas (fishing boats) into drug-running boats and made the treacherous journey to deliver the merchandise to the "gringos".
Left: Chalino Sánchez
In all of this, Magdiel is a true son of Sinaloa, the heartland of drug trade and the birthplace of the corrido's most celebrated performers, the legendary Chalino Sánchez and the group Los Tigres del Norte. The corrido has always been a classic folk art, a "musical newspaper" of raucous, soulful ballads that typically extol outlaw virtues and express popular resistance to both homegrown and Yankee authority. Chalino Sánchez began writing corridos in prison in California and went on to become a troubadour for the Mexican drug traffickers. ("He sang for the Mafia, but he did it with class," notes Pepe Garza of Los Angeles' biggest Mexican radio station, La Que Buena.) His murder in 1992 turned this Sinaloan corrido composer and singer into a legend that spawned a corrido craze on the streets of Los Angles where a new generation of rap-raised Mexican and Chicano youth returned to their musical roots.
The wildly popular Los Tigres del Norte brought a more overt political sensibility to the corrido. With such songs as "La Jaula de Oro" ("The Golden Cage") and "Tres Veces Mojado" ("Three Times a Wetback") about the difficulties and injustices of immigrant life and deaths along the border, they are the declared "voice of the immigrant people." Having sold over 30 million records and garnered three Grammy Awards, their popularity is likened to that of the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson combined. But the Tigres are no strangers to the immigrant struggles they sing about -- they crossed the border as young teenagers and had to create new lives for themselves.
Left: Los Tigres del Norte
With heroes such as these, Magdiel doesn't lack for models. And with the outlaw life engulfing Sinaloa, he doesn't lack for inspiration. Magdiel's music is good enough that when he toys with the idea of drug smuggling, the traffickers tell him to forget it, to keep composing corridos. Yet to pursue his musical dreams, he must -- like his heroes Chalino and Los Tigres -- make a record in the States. But Magdiel is denied a visa and to cross the border with a reputable coyote (an illegal border crossing guide) costs $2,000-$3,000 -- more money than he feels he'll ever see. When Magdiel meets a coyote who offers to cross him to the other side for free in exchange for a song about his journeys, Magdiel begins composing.
The filmmaker, Natalia Almada, whose family is native to Sinaloa, had already filmed a good part of Al Otro Lado when Magdiel called her in New York, telling her a coyote had offered to take him to the other side for free in exchange for a corrido. She immediately went back to Sinaloa to follow Magdiel on his journey. The result is a dramatic and revealing climax to Almada's chronicle of the economic crisis in her home state that has forced so many to risk their lives immigrating illegally or trafficking drugs.
Left: Magdiel begins composing
"My family has lived in Sinaloa for six generations, but it was my generation that saw how free trade with our wealthy neighbor changed our economy and culture," says Almada. "For over 200 years corrido songs have been the musical underground newspapers, and today tell of drug traffickers and illegal immigrants -- people who have beaten the system and provided jobs and much-needed infrastructure to rural communities in a struggling economy.
"I decided to use corrido music as a thread throughout the film because it provided culture, color, and texture," she continues, "and it was also a way to hear the voices of the people most affected and least heard. Following Magdiel not only gave the documentary a narrative climax I never imagined, but it also changed and shaped my own views on the immigrant experience."
Al Otro Lado was selected as part of the Tribeca Film Festival's "All Access Program," and had a week-long run at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006.
Al Otro Lado is funded by grants from the Sundance Documentary Fund, New York Foundation for the Arts, Arizona Humanities Council, and Latino Public Broadcasting. A co-production with American Documentary | POV