Melodrama and the Performance of Migration: A Central American Cinderella
The above photo, of Leti Isabela Mejía Yanes, is displayed on the website that supplements a book, Enrique’s Journey, a journalistic account of the trials faced by an undocumented seventeen-year-old boy as he travels north from Honduras to North Carolina to find his mother, who he has not seen in eleven years (www.enriquesjourney.com). The book is based on a series written by Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario, a series that won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2003. The photo does not appear in the book; it appears only on the website, as a supplement to the text and to other photos published in the book. Under the label “photos,” the website offers five categories: “Enrique,” “Enrique’s Family,” “Injured Migrants,” “People who Help,” and “Photos from the LA Times.” This photo is the second of eight in the series “Injured Migrants,” and exemplifies the dangers faced by migrants who are injured and permanently disabled when they fall from, or are pushed off, freight trains during their attempts to travel north through Mexico to the United States. The train wheels sometimes crush their limbs, causing death or permanent disability.
Leti Mejía also appears briefly in Enrique’s Journey, giving the reader who also visits the website the opportunity to put together the images on the website with the woman as she is described in the text to form a single portrait. Doing a kind of “close reading” of Mejía as a character in this website-book world, I argue that Nazario creates a performative role for Mejía, a role deeply rooted in melodramatic tradition, which epitomizes the roles constructed for many of the non-disabled mothers given more prominent parts in Enrique’s Journey, such as Enrique’s mother. Such melodramatic roles, I maintain, create sympathy for migrant mothers, helping readers/viewers from the United States to experience them as worthy of our concern rather than our indifference or our hostility. Yet the melodramatic frame also limits our experience of the mothers. Like Mejía, they become poster-children whose humanity is circumscribed by suffering, poster children for disabled undocumented migrants and ultimately poster children against the act of undocumented migration.
Let me begin by briefly defining “melodrama” as I will use the term here. As you probably know, melodrama gripped the imagination of the nineteenth century, survived and thrived in the twentieth century, and is still alive and well in the twenty-first century. According to Frank Kelleter and Ruth Mayer, the genre is characterized by a sentimental vision that equates suffering with moral righteousness, implying that “to take the side of the powerless is by definition to take the side of morality and truth” (12). In his study of Latin American telenovelas, Germán Rey identifies an overlap between melodramatic discourse and Catholic Christian discourse, in which the road to salvation, on both heaven and earth, is paved with suffering. On telenovelas, Rey notes, suffering and guilt are often linked to poverty and estrangement from one’s children (88). Whether on television, in film, on stage, or in text, melodramas employ certain character types: the heroic protagonist, the evil villain, the virtuous mother, the innocent child, and the disabled, or “crippled,” or “woefully afflicted,” as they used to be called. One of the most common melodramatic plots, very relevant to the situation of contemporary migrants, is that of the separation of mothers from children, a separation that might end in happy reunion or prove tragically permanent. In the Manichean world of melodrama, many scholars have noted, good is rewarded and evil is punished, if not in this world then in the next, thus guaranteeing the restoration of moral order.
Enrique’s Journey, I would argue, applies many of the conventions of melodrama to journalistic narrative. When he is six years old, Enrique’s mother leaves him in Honduras in the care of his father and goes to the United States to seek work that might lift her and her children out of poverty. Eleven years later, his mother has regularly sent money, but has neither returned to Honduras nor sent for him, so Enrique sets out to find her. Blending a quest narrative with melodrama, Nazario ends the introduction with a teaser that builds suspense and “hooks” readers, seducing us into identification with the protagonist and implicitly asking that we read almost 200 pages in order to find out whether Enrique and his mother are reunited:
Children who set out on this journey usually don’t make it. They end up back in
Central America, defeated. Enrique was determined to be with his mother again. Would he make it? (xxvi)
Though Enrique is seventeen, a teenager, when he leaves Honduras, Nazario consistently refers to him as a child and uses him as an allegorical figure for all migrant “children” traveling north without documents. The child suffers; the mother suffers. Will they suffer enough to win salvation in the form of family reunification? They do, but not before Enrique endures the horrors of eight separate attempts to cross Mexico, including robberies, beatings, hunger, and excruciating thirst. While I don’t mean to make light of these experiences, which are truly horrific, I do want to call attention to how Nazario constructs the narrative that brings them to our attention in order to highlight the function of the melodramatic form in recreating the migrant experience.
Also worth mentioning is how Nazario’s methodology obliges her to “perform” Enrique, literally placing her body in the situations his body once endured. In order to recount all the details of Enrique’s odyssey as fully as possible, Nazario herself undertakes the journey from Honduras to North Carolina, travelling across Mexico on trains, taking months to retrace Enrique’s footsteps not once, but twice, between 2000 and 2003. Employing the melodramatic language of excess, Nazario writes: “I lived with the near-constant danger of being beaten, robbed, or raped” (xx). Yet she also recounts how she took advantage of an impressive array of safeguards – cell phones, motels, credit cards, special protection from train security guards, a letter of safe conduct from the office of the Mexican president – that Enrique never enjoyed.
Mejía is the mother who didn’t make it to the United States, one of many minor characters whose failures underscore Enrique’s relative triumph (95). The two paragraphs of the book devoted to her describe her only as a mother, a victim of poverty, and a victim of physical mutilation. After losing both her legs (the details of how she lost her legs are not provided in the book), Mejía finds refuge in a shelter for injured migrants in Tapachula, Chiapas, the Shelter of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Nazario describes Mejía’s poverty in heart-wrenching detail:
In Honduras, Leti and her three children ate once a day – usually two pieces of bread with a watery cup of coffee. The youngest got only one piece of bread and breast milk. Sometimes, when her children cried with hunger, she scrounged together enough to buy a bit of tortilla dough and mixed it into a big glass of water to fill their bellies (95).
The second paragraph devoted to Mejía moves into the present and highlights another character, the director of the shelter, Olga Sánchez Martínez, who is assigned the classic melodramatic role of heroic rescuer in this vignette, elsewhere in the book, and on the website. The photo below, the first one from the website series “Injured Migrants,” is typical in its depiction of Sánchez in action.
Caption: Olga Sánchez Martínez removes stitches from a migrant who was attacked by machete-wielding gangsters on a train. They slashed his head, an ear and an arm.
Sánchez, as Nazario depicts her, works tirelessly on behalf of disabled migrants, providing them with food, shelter and prostheses:
Olga, who found Leti at the hospital, brought her two liters of blood and antibiotics. At the shelter, she gave her painkillers and took out her stitches. At first Leti wanted to die. Now she wants to get better and see her children again. She sits in bed, embroidering a pillowcase with a drawing of Cinderella wearing a ballroom gown. She will wait here, sewing, until Olga can buy her legs too. [“Too” refers to other migrants for whom the shelter has provided prostheses.] (96)
Nazario’s narrative once again depicts Mejía as a passive, suffering body: she sits, sews, waits. Her fate lies in the hands of the always-active Sánchez, who provides life-saving interventions and will eventually make Mejía physically whole again.
Now let’s look closely at the photo of Mejía. She sits on a narrow cot in the shelter. Her dark, sad eyes look out at the viewer; her gaze meets ours and thus invites empathy. The long scar on her right knee and the wheelchair on the left underscore her disability. The position of the wheelchair, right up against the cot, gives the impression of cramped quarters. The wall behind her is stained with dirt, a reminder of her poverty. And she holds up embroidery stamped with an image of Cinderella, specifically, Walt Disney’s blonde version of the fairy tale heroine, dressed in a ball gown, post-transformation from exploited servant to privileged princess. Either the photographer has asked Mejía to hold up the embroidery or she chose to turn it toward the camera so that the viewer can clearly see it. Are we meant to appreciate Mejía’s skill at embroidery? Or are we asked to appreciate the cruel irony that Mejía’s “happy ending” of life in the United States has been aborted? Is Mejía complicit in the appreciation of the irony, or does the communication, between the photographer, the caption writer, and the onlooker, exclude Mejía?
The juxtaposition of the two images, Mejía and Cinderella, encourages comparisons. Cinderella is white, as white as the cloth on which her image is stenciled; Mejía is brown. Cinderella is rich, clad in a floor-length ball gown; Mejía is poor, clad in an ordinary plaid skirt and sleeveless blouse. The vibrant reds, pinks, and oranges of the ball gown contrast with the grayer hues of Mejía’s clothing and the colors surrounding her. Cinderella married a handsome prince; Mejía, the caption tells us, is a single mother. This particular Cinderella, the Walt Disney version, is emblematic of international corporate power; Mejía is powerless, emblematic of the difficulties the powerless encounter when they dare to cross the borders of the nation-state without permission. Cinderella’s story is an idyllic fantasy; Mejía’s story is a real-life tragedy.
For those website visitors who have not read Enrique’s Journey, or who need a reminder of Mejía’s bit role in the book, the photo caption provides an even more succinct version of the same narrative, adding information about how she lost her legs: “Leti Isabel Mejía Yanes, a single mother of three children, lost both legs trying to board a Mexican freight train. She was trying to reach the United States to send money to Honduras so that her children could eat more than once a day.” This time, the caption deploys several elements of melodrama in just two sentences: the suffering heroine selflessly wants nothing more than to help her suffering children; she separates from them in an attempt to improve their lot; yet her thwarted attempt ironically results in more suffering and further separation. You’ll notice that the caption makes no mention of any desires Mejía may have for herself. Though it would be very reasonable and not at all surprising, for example, if Mejía also wanted to eat more regularly, the caption depicts her as entirely self-abnegating.
Like a playwright/director, Nazario crafts a melodramatic performance of disability
for Mejía that harkens back to the Victorian era. In Woeful Afflictions: Disability and Sentimentality in Victorian America, Mary Klages draws a distinction between nineteenth and twentieth century conceptions of disabled bodies:
For the former, disability was necessarily pitiable, providing an opportunity for the nondisabled to respond with sentimentality; this attitude framed the disabled body as a site of pain and suffering, labeling it as fundamentally “other” than the nondisabled body, hence barring disabled people, defined wholly by this understanding of the cultural meaning of their bodies, from being recognized as fully human beings. For the latter, disability is something correctable or transcendable; the differences in the disabled body, the factors that set the disabled person apart from the nondisabled, can be normalized, or at least minimized. (198-199)
Far from correctable, Mejía’s disability, in both Enrique’s Journey and on Nazario’s website, defines the totality of her existence. Her disability denies her a well-deserved happy ending, converting her into the heroine of a tragic melodrama, a Central American Cinderella who never meets the handsome prince. In stage melodrama, Linda Williams notes, a scene might end with a final tableau in which the actors freeze, providing an embodied expression of an emotion that words could not fully communicate. Williams argues that the contemporary equivalent to the tableau is the sustained close-up on a television soap opera actor, underscoring his or her emotional reaction to a dramatic revelation before the cut to the commercial (“Revised” 67). The website photo of Mejía, I would argue, functions as a kind of tableau to the larger melodrama created by the book and website photos taken as a whole. Her unsmiling face and her scarred legs embody the hardship of all migrants and the injustice of their suffering. As in stage melodrama, the body is positioned so as to evoke emotional response from the viewer – pity, horror, outrage – over rational thought.
To what end is the suffering of the migrant deployed in the performance of migration as melodrama? Scholars have identified two key functions of melodrama: 1) to raise compassion for the victim hero and 2) to allow for the exposure of an innocence or guilt that is then generally acknowledged, both within the work and by its consumers (Brooks, Williams). Migrant melodramas then can serve to counter the view advanced by the U.S. government and by anti-migrant groups alike that undocumented migrants are criminals, “illegal aliens,” out to steal our jobs and our public services. It is even easier to elicit compassion for migrants who have been disabled, because since their journeys have been interrupted, they no longer pose a plausible threat to U.S. citizens. Yet every migrant who rides trains through Mexico runs the risk of ending up disabled, a point that Nazario stresses, also encouraging compassion for anyone desperate enough to run the risk of physical mutilation. The website visitor who is moved enough to want to assist disabled migrants can click on a tab on the webpage, “how to help,” that leads to contact information for shelters. The website thus implicitly suggests that you help people like Mejía by giving money to the shelters that assist them.
Scholars disagree on whether melodrama is an inherently conservative form. In Melodrama and the Myth of America, for example, Jeffrey D. Mason delineates how melodrama shapes what he calls “the myth of our shared experience.” By contrast, in Playing the Race Card, Linda Williams stresses that melodrama can either reinforce or combat racism. I would argue that Nazario’s melodrama creates a moral universe in which family unity, particularly the unity between mothers and children, is celebrated in an essentially conservative manner. Together, the website and book expose the evils of a world in which women are forced to choose between remaining with their children in crushing poverty or leaving the children behind in order to send them material assistance from another country. While detailing the hazards of migration, and using them to provide entertainment for the reader or website visitor, Nazario never suggests systemic changes that might make the journey safer or remove obstacles to migration. Instead, she casts migrant women as pitiful victim-heroines who should be forgiven for having made a tragic mistake in placing economic opportunity over family unity:
Latina migrants ultimately pay a steep price for coming to the United States. They lose their children’s love. Reunited, they end up in conflicted homes. Too often, the boys seek out gangs to try to find the love they thought they would find with their mothers. Too often, the girls get pregnant and form their own families. In many ways, these separations are devastating Latino families. People are losing what they value most. (xxvi)
Nazario quotes a stream of “experts,” from school psychologists to immigration officials, to support her contention that Latin American mothers should stay put in their home countries, no matter how dire their economic circumstances. The opinion of an official with the International Organization for Migration, Norberto Girón, is typical of those Nazario chooses to cite: “We are seeing a disintegration of the family. Keeping the family together – even if they are poor – is more important than leaving and improving their economic conditions” (250).
The disabled mother of three, Mejía, almost seems like a character punished for a transgression, a cautionary character for Latin American women: don’t leave your children or this might happen to you. But of course Latin American migrant women are not the melodrama’s intended audience. The intended audience is us, the economically privileged US citizens who can smugly congratulate ourselves because we are not “you.” We are not Mejía.
Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. 1976, New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.
Kelleter, Frank and Ruth Mayer. “The Melodramatic Mode Revisited.” Melodrama! The Mode of Excess from Early America to Hollywood. Eds. Frank Kelleter, Barbara Krah, and Ruth Mayer. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2007. 7-17.
Klages, Mary. Woeful Afflictions: Disability and Sentimentality in Victorian America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.
Nazario, Sonia. Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. New York: Random House, 2006.
Ray, Germán. “Identities, Religion, and Melodrama: A View from the Cultural Dimension of the Latin American Telenovela.” Belief in Media: Cultural Perspectives on Media and Christianity. Eds. Peter Horsfield, Mary E. Hess, and Adán M. Medrano.
Williams, Linda. “Melodrama Revised.” Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory. Ed. Nick Browne. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998. 42-88.
—-. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.