Sunday, March 13, 2011

TV Bites: Sin Nombre

Chile Verde Chicken Tacos w/Creamy Avocado Sauce

Well I survived my month long adventure in Southeast Asia. I am actually starting to work on this during the first leg of my 28 hours total of airplanes and airports before I close the front door of my house with me inside and lay down in my own bed again.

But no rest for the weary, as I have only three days to get my body readjusted before South by Southwest begins. For those unfamiliar with it, SXSW (as it is typically called) is a 10-day music, film, and interactive conference. Some people think it’s a “festival,” but it is in fact an industry conference, where people in these industries come to meet up, exchange ideas and business cards, and get a chance to see some new exciting product - be it new bands, new films, or new apps. But more and more people have come seeking a festival, and more and more media coverage has arrived.

But to our point, the reason I chose this wonderful film is that I wanted to feature a film that I first saw and fell in love with at SXSW in recent years. My first choice was from last year, MarWenCol, but that isn’t out on DVD yet (and if you have a chance to see it in a theater, please treat yourself to that). So I went to the year before and immediately chose Sin Nombre (which translates from Spanish to "Without a Name"). What a great achievement for a first film. What a great story. And I get to make tacos....

Now, in case you just landed from Mars, the immigrant experience in America is an ongoing, never-learning, ever-repeating tale. From the time the first waves of immigrants first arrived on America’s shores in the late 1800's, they were treated with disdain and prejudice. And that same treatment, like some stupid fraternity initiation has continued for nearly ever group of immigrants who have landed since. From the Irish to European Jews, to the Chinese and Japanese, to the Italian, to today's Hispanics and Muslims - whoever you are/were, America is/was against you when you landed. In the future, you can bet, the then integrated Hispanic-Americans will be using the same stupid epithets for the next wave of immigrants. And so the stupid cycle of abuse and acceptance continues. As long as some people insist on calling themselves anything other than simply “human beings,” and the fact that they or their forefathers came from one parcel of land on this tiny, little planet as opposed the next parcel 3 feet over to the left, and that this information is all one needs to despise or wish to destroy that other person... you know what? I got no time for it. Ain’t nothing dumber humans partake in than tribalism. And isn’t that what gangs are all about also, which feature in today’s film? And now I’m done with that rant. On to the movie...

Sin Nombre is available for streaming & home rental from Netflix and to purchase from Amazon.


“You have to see it as an adventure, brother. This is an adventure.”

Filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga's own story sounds like a ready made indie film. Japanese father, a Swedish mother, a Chicano stepdad and an Argentine stepmom. He's got three degrees - an undergraduate in history, and two masters one in politics from France, and his NYU film school degree.

Fukunaga had made a short film while at NYU about a group of immigrants trying to get over the Mexican-Texas border called Victoria Para Chino, which garnered a bunch of festival prizes, including a screening at Sundance in 2005, and winning the Silver Medal at the Student Academy Awards that year.

The folks at the Sundance Institute wanted to know if he had a feature he was developing, and the story goes that he just told he had something he was working, and "made a very rough, rough version of a script in about two weeks" to take advantage of the opportunity.

"I grew up in California," said Fukunaga, "so immigration is a topic I’ve seen throughout my life....."

The original story was partially inspired by Enrique's Journey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles published in the Los Angeles Times. However, Sundance turned down that rough draft, but Fukunaga continued working on it. And once he committed to it, he dove deep. Eventually, Sundance signed on and helped him develop the project.

"To tell a story of what it's like to travel on top of freight trains, or the camaraderie of living in a gang, are all things I could imagine maybe," Fukunaga said. "But I wouldn't be able to get it right without meeting the people who actually experienced it, and experiencing some of that with them."

So he spent several weeks riding the trains himself, risking life and limb, literally, to experience what it was like for those hoping to come to America.

"People get shot, trains derail, assaults happen," he said. "I had to understand that if I fell off the train and lost a limb, I could just bleed to death out there, there'd be no-one to come pick me up."

"The research process really changed everything," he noted. "I think... that there were so many other things that were - that came out of my research and specifically came out of me riding the trains. I think every scene that the train's in there is based on something that happened to me while on the train."

"[W]hen I finally traveled with immigrants, was living with them, was dealing with some of the same issues and dangers they deal with, and then, at the same time, experiencing some of the camaraderie of traveling with them," he added. "That made it absolutely real [for me]. That was the moment when [I] actually felt part of something and could write about it."

If that all wasn't enough, Fukunaga also spent time interviewing members of, what is considered to be the "most dangerous gang in the world," the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

"I spent about two years in two different prisons, and reduced a group of gang members down to a couple guys I could trust," he explained. "After bringing them grilled chickens and enough India ink and CD components so they could make tattoo guns, they felt like they could trust me enough to hook me up with one of their outside people. Then they knew I wasn't just a cop."

Kristyan Ferrer, the youngster who plays Smiley noted that "to perpetuate the Mara, children are important. Smiley thinks that by entering the Mara he’ll be able to do what he pleases. He is a young boy who wants to seem older. Smiley is a regular kid, and you don’t believe that he will do what he does. But he will, he has to, to survive – like anyone in the Mara.... People may be living in a community where they and their families are being threatened. So they enter the Mara because they know that if they are in it, they have protection; the Mara will look after them and their families."

In addition to the LA Times story noted above, Fukunaga has said he was influenced by some films, including Terence Malik's Days of Heaven, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but mostly Fukunaga said he sees Sin Nombre as a sort of modern Western.

"The themes of the film are those of a Western," he said. "I think [producer] Amy [Kaufman] sees it as a Greek tragedy, but I see it as a Western because of the trains, the story of crossing the plains to get to a better life, the bandits, and the old fashioned sense of morals. You break the rules and you get punished."

"The environment feels like that of a Western," he continued. "You can’t have trains or bandits without thinking of Westerns. And also the themes — you think of John Ford, Huston, some of the bigger Westerns and there is a sense of retribution. A lot of the stories are about justice, closing a chapter on something that happened earlier in the film, so in that way [Sin Nombre] is definitely constructed like that. Looking for a new life, hope — those are themes found in Westerns."

"It didn’t even feel part of North America [on those trains] but it was.... this old West thing, or like hobos in the 1930s, but it had this weird Mad Max kind of feel to it too," Fukunaga noted.

And of course, Mad Max can be viewed as a post-apocalyptic Western (as well as being a previously featured TV Bites!).

"There is something post-apocalyptic about some of the locations in the film, this post-industrial decay," he said. "You have these train lines run by U.S. companies and Mexican companies. They used to be nationalized and run by the Mexican government, but now they are completely abandoned. You can go through the whole journey [of these characters] and almost not cross normal civilization. You’re just on these trains with bandits. The law and civilization in the form of rules don’t seem to exist."

"Seeing Sin Nombre," Fukunaga hopes, "that people will have more of an understanding of what immigrants go through to access opportunities that a lot of us are born with; and more of an understanding of how and why people are enticed into the Mara."


Let's say you have a nest of rats living in a home in your neighborhood. The exterminators come in and drop a gas bomb in the center of the home. Problem solved? No. Because now the rats have fled the home and have made nests in every other home surrounding the first home, making the problem not only wider spread, but bigger. Such is the history of the Mara Salvatrucha 13 Gang (known simply as MS-13).

Our story begins back in the 1980's, when the United States got deeply involved with a civil war going on in El Salvador, training and sponsoring right wing death squads. Without getting into it, let's just say we spent a lot of tax dollars and a lot of innocent people got killed. As a result of all this violence, Salvadorians have had "one of the highest rates of migration to the United States in the region."

Now most of these immigrants found jobs and have become honest, law-abiding Americans. But some found themselves having to live in dangerous neighborhoods in Los Angeles which were under siege by a major gang problem. The MS-13 was created in the 1980's by "[y]oung men who had fled El Salvador's civil war [and] banded together at that time to protect themselves from Mexican American and African American gangs." Mara, or "posse," is composed of salvatruchas, or "street-tough Salvadorans," and the "13" is a gang number associated with southern California. They soon started their own businesses - "thriv[ing] on robberies, extortion and 'taxing' the street drug dealers."

Soon, they built franchises of their business throughout the US and began including other Central Americans, and even their original rivals, Mexican-Americans. According to a 2009 US Government report it is now one of the largest gangs in the country. "The gang is estimated to have 30,000 to 50,000 members and associate members worldwide, 8,000 to 10,000 of whom reside in the United States." And nowadays, their business has expanded into "a wide range of criminal activity, including drug distribution, murder, rape, prostitution, robbery, home invasions, immigration offenses, kidnapping, carjackings/auto thefts, and vandalism.... And while most of the violence is directed toward other MS-13 members or rival street gangs, innocent citizens often get caught in the crossfire."

As this article points out: "MS-13 is unique among U.S. gangs in that it is involved in trafficking narcotics through Central America and Mexico as well as in distributing narcotics in the United States."

Now, how did this gang spread all over not just the US, but into Central & South American, and even Canada?

Well, one reason has been that "[t]here was a definite shift in resources post-9/11 toward terrorism," said Michael Mason, assistant Washington, DC FBI Field Office director, in 2005. "As a result, we had fewer resources to focus on gangs." However, in 2004, the FBI created the MS-13 National Gang Task Force and in the ensuing years has tried to bring many gang members to justice.

But that's barely the answer. "In the last 12 years, U.S. immigration authorities have logged more than 50,000 deportations of immigrants with criminal records to Central America, including untold numbers of gang members," according to an investigation by the LA Times. And the result of these deportations - and the idea that this would somehow stop them - has "backfired and helped spread [the gang] across Central America and back into other parts of the United States."

Today, the US government continues the deportations and we've started to see a new development in the story. In El Salvador, the (perhaps mythical) right wing death squad Sombra Negra (Black Shadow) has risen up and is considered responsible for many gang member deaths. Said one Salvadorian, "The general feeling here is that the only way to deal with the gangs is to kill them all." And in Honduras, MS-13 members are also being targeted by local death squads, reportedly "they've killed over 180 gang members" between 2006-2008.

And so we come full circle, from death squads to death squads. All in about 25 years. And meanwhile, innocent people continue to get caught in the crossfire. Sigh....


"Sometime about 3000 B.C., people of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico hybridized wild grasses to produce large, nutritious kernels we know as corn. Mexican anthropologist and maize historian Arturo Warman credits the development of corn with the rise of Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Mayans and the Aztecs, which were advanced in art, architecture, math and astronomy," according to this oft-quoted online article in the Greeley, Colorado Tribune. And so began the Mesoamericans love of corn products. Soon enough, they were making masa and then they were making what we call tacos and apparently the first things put in these tacos were grilled fish.

According to Wiki: "Beginning from the early part of the twentieth century, various styles of tacos have become popular in the United States and Canada. The style that has become most common is the hard-shell, U-shaped version first described in a cookbook authored by Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca Gilbert and published in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1949. These have been sold by restaurants and by fast food chains. Even non-Mexican oriented fast food restaurants have sold tacos. Mass production of this type of taco was encouraged by the invention of devices to hold the tortillas in the U-shape as they were deep-fried. A patent for such a device was issued to New York restaurateur Juvenico Maldonado in 1950, based on his patent filing of 1947."

Now when I was growing up in New York, we knew nada about tacos. Never even knew there was such a thing until I made my way out west. Then in 1980, I moved back briefly to the Big Apple, and having developed a serious addiction to Mexican food in California, I sought out what was, as far as my research at the time took me to, the only Mexican restaurant in the city. It was in the Village, I can't remember its name, and it was terrible. I went once and never went back... besides there was so much good Puerto Rican and Cuban food to be had then. Nowadays, whenever I come in for a visit, my friends always want to go out to eat Mexican. I try desperately to explain that it would be akin to me taking them to at a Jewish Deli in Texas (the only one in town just closed a few months ago, which should tell you something).

Anyways, what apparently has been lost to history is why a taco is called a taco. I'm feeling it's somewhat reassuring to know in even this digital global information era, there are still some mysteries left. Don't you think?

As always... cook, watch, eat, and enjoy....

Chile Verde Chicken Tacos w/Creamy Avocado Sauce
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6

2 Anaheim chili peppers
1 poblano pepper
10 medium tomatillos
1 medium jalapeño
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onions, diced
8-10 cloves garlic, smashed
2 stalks celery, diced
4 cups chicken stock
6 chicken thighs, skin on, bone-in
3 scallions, chopped small, both green & white parts
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon white vinegar
1/3 cup lime juice
salt and pepper, to taste

For Avocado Sauce (makes about 2 cups):
3 small avocados
1/2 cup Mexican crema (or plain yogurt or sour cream)
2 small Serrano pepper, seeded and chopped
1 cup water
1/4 cup onion, chopped
1/8 cup cilantro, minced
2 1/2 tablespoons lime juice
3/4 teaspoon salt

To Serve:
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
corn tortillas
cotija or feta cheese, crumbled
lime wedges

Roast Anaheim & poblano chilies and tomatillos in the oven until the skins are blistered. Rub off the skins of the Anaheim & poblano chilies under cold running water and remove the seeds. Roughly chop all the peppers and the tomatillos and set aside.

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet and gently sauté the yellow onion, garlic, and celery until soft and just beginning to brown around the edges. Add the chilies and tomatillos, oregano, cumin and cilantro. Gently sauté for another 2 or 3 minutes.

Add stock, chicken and remaining ingredients, stir and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat to a medium simmer and continue cooking until chicken is cooked. Stirring occasionally.

When chicken is fully cooked, remove from pot and let come to room temperature. Turn off heat under chile verde and hold.

When chicken is cooled, remove skin and from bone. Shred and add to new small pot with just enough chile verde to cover and reheat. (NOTE: Remainder of chile verde can be refrigerated or frozen to use to make another batch, or pureed for enchilada sauce!)

For Avocado Sauce: Mix all ingredients in food processor or blender. Hold in fridge until ready to use.

To Serve: Heat corn tortillas. Plate and add some chicken, sprinkle some onion, cilantro, and cheese on top. Then add a little dab of Avocado sauce and serve.

Sin Nombre Official Page @ Focus Films
PBS Destination: America
Gangs, The Mara Salvatrucha, Time Magazine
The Most Dangerous Gang in American, Newsweek
National Geographic documentary: MS-13, The Worlds Most Dangerous Gang @ Top Documentary Films

Sin Nombre DVD
Sin Nombre Soundtrack CD
This Is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang, by Samuel Logan
Tacos, by Mark Miller
Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, by Rick Bayless
The Art of Mexican Cooking, by Diana Kennedy

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