Human Rights & Social Justice

A still from Alfonso Cuarón's film, Roma, featuring two of the characters laying on a slab of concrete.

Set in Mexico City, Alfonso Cuarón's Roma raises important questions about class, race and the aspirations of a developing nation. Discover a catalogue of other films that have showcased life in the capital.

April 24, 2020

In his 2018 Oscar-winning film Roma, Alfonso Cuarón delivers a portrait of a Mexico City in flux, exploring issues of race, class and ambition in an era marked by unease and unrest. The film also operates as a sort of paean to the neighborhood in which the writer-director spent his childhood; Cuarón painstakingly re-created the Tepeji Street home he grew up in and blocks in the surrounding neighborhood of Roma, which had been developed in the early 20th century with Art Nouveau mansions to house Mexico City’s elite, but by the film’s setting of the 1970s had waned in popularity.

Some of the best movies set in Mexico City similarly examine tensions between what the city was and what it is, says Carlos A. Gutiérrez, founder of Cinema Tropical, a Latin American film programming, publicity and distribution organization based in New York City, and the co-director of Tucson Cine Mexico, the longest-running festival of contemporary Mexican cinema in the United States.

“Mexico City is not as visually iconic as New York,” Gutiérrez explains. His selection of films that best encapsulate and illustrate life in Mexico City creates not a picturesque travelogue but a broad-spectrum glimpse of the disparate social classes who call the D.F., or Distrito Federal, home. The following iconic films portray Mexico City through the years and myriad social and political changes.

Los Olvidados (1950), Luis Buñuel

By the 1940s, Mexican cinema had become well known for its overly exoticized, mystical representations of the country’s indigenous population. Directors such as Emilio Fernandez, whose Xochimilco (Maria Candelaria) won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1946, had created and popularized a Mexican iconography with stylized landscapes and depictions of indigenous people designed to enchant and amaze, instead of merely illustrate.

Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, a relentlessly grim portrayal of a group of poverty-stricken juvenile delinquents in Mexico City’s Nonoalco neighborhood eviscerated such overly romantic window-dressing and replaced it with visceral realism. Instead of morality and psychology, the film confronts existential issues about life and love; poverty is presented not to elicit pity but to present a reality that contradicts what had been commonly represented in the film industry of the time.

 “The film is iconic in its portrayal of marginalized people,” says Gutiérrez. “During the decades when the country’s economy was growing at a fast pace, here Buñuel follows a group of kids in the slums of Mexico City, revealing that Mexico was not all perfect.”

 Although the film was pulled from theaters after only three days amid outraged protests, critics were still able to recognize its merits; when it was selected for the 1951 Cannes festival, poet Octavio Paz even distributed an essay praising Buñuel, who’d go on to win Best Director that year for Los Olvidados. In 2003, the film was inducted into UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” program, which preserves documentary heritage of world significance.

El Callejón de los Milagros (1995), Jorge Fons

The movie adaptation of the 1947 Naguib Mahfouz novel Midaq Alley shifts the locale from 1940s Cairo to a run-down neighborhood in present-day downtown Mexico City, “and it works perfectly,” Gutiérrez says. “It gives a perfect representation.”

As its title implies, much of the four-part film is set on a single street where the characters live, work and struggle: Three parallel segments about alley life overlap and repeat scenes from varying perspectives before the final chapter revisits the narratives to resolve the plot lines—a gruff tavern owner who embarks on an extramarital gay relationship, a headstrong young woman (played by Salma Hayek, in her second movie role) spiraling into a life of prostitution, and a spinster whose quest to find love appears to be doomed.

Heated tempers, frustrated desires and dashed hopes commingle with warmth and gutsy humor, which earned the film a cache of international film awards and honors: 11 Ariel Awards (Mexico’s Oscar), including best film, best direction and best actress for Margarita Sanz; audience choice awards at the Chicago International and Guadalajara film festivals; and a special nomination at the 45th annual Berlin Film Festival for exceptional narrative quality.

Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas (1999), Antonio Serrano

Serrano’s adaptation of his own long-running theatrical production set box office records in Mexico, grossing the equivalent of $12.4 million USD when it was first released. The battle-of-the-sexes comedy takes place amid the high-rise apartments and disenchanted yuppies of Polanco, one of Mexico City’s most posh neighborhoods.

“It’s a romantic comedy with a punch, focused on the ambitious Mexican middle and upper-middle class of the mid-1990s,” says Gutiérrez. As one of the first films in the wave of New Mexican Cinema, the movie not only spoke directly to the urban middle class but also served as a lifestyle fantasy for them, embedding philosophical musings on relationships inside an aspirational, glossy rom-com.

Sexo, Pudor … earned the audience award at the Guadalajara Film Festival, and won Ariel Awards for best original script, best actress, best original score, art direction and set design. A sequel is planned to begin production this year.

Amores Perros (2000), Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Iñárritu’s directorial debut is “a key film for Mexican cinema as it brings together the different classes and characters of Mexico City,” Gutiérrez says. Like Los Olvidados, the film interweaves three tales that intersect at a defining moment, but it takes viewers at a breakneck pace on a pulpy, feverish, side-streets tour through the lives of characters who inhabit markedly disparate social strata—wealthy models and magazine publishers on one end of the spectrum, dogfighting hoodlums and contract killers on the other. (The same structure and immersion in the criminal underbelly were used in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, with which Amores Perros has often been compared, although it’s been argued that the former is designed to glamorize the gangster component whereas the latter merely exposes them for what they are.)

Amores Perros won 15 Ariel Awards, was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and earned several international awards. It launched the careers of actor Gael Garcia Bernal and Iñárritu, who won back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Director in 2014 and 2015 (for Birdman and The Revenant) and was president of the jury at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Güeros (2014), Alonso Ruizpalacios

This portrait of aimless Mexican youth may feel leisurely paced, but it still manages to pay simultaneous homage to French New Wave cinema, the “road trip” film canon and the transference of cultural heritage among generations.

During the four main characters’ road trip through Mexico City—the film’s chapters are named after different areas in the city—they pass time in hospital rooms, cul-de-sac homes and intellectual parties, taking wrong turns in untouched-by-tourism neighborhoods on their search for a mythical elderly musician. On a meta level, they’re also searching for meaning and purpose for lives that have been disrupted and upended by the 1999 strikes and student protests at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“It’s a bit like the film Slacker, but highly stylized, and attempts to address social disparities,” Gutiérrez says. Güeros won five Ariel Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, in 2015.

A group of Central American migrants walking along a train track.

UArizona researchers explore how new policies for asylum seekers are straining relations between the United States and Mexico.

April 29, 2020

Headlines draw attention to caravans of migrants approaching the border between the United States and Mexico; the hopeful asylum seekers often traveling thousands of miles across unforgiving terrain to seek refuge in the U.S. But when their journey ends at the border, the wait begins.

In the past, migrants fleeing political instability, gangs, cartel violence, persecution for their sexual orientations or gender identities and abject poverty in their home countries who requested asylum were allowed to enter the United States until their hearings. Under the Trump Administration, however, new Wait in Mexico policies are forcing asylum seekers to wait weeks—and sometimes longer—for their claims to be evaluated. This waiting period, called metering, puts migrants at risk, according to Daniel E. Martínez, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Arizona.

“We know that there have been several cases of [migrants] asking for asylum, being told to remain in Mexico until their interviews or hearings who ended up being kidnapped, sexually assaulted or raped,” Martínez says. “Metering puts people who are already quite vulnerable at even higher risk.”

Previously, migrants who reached the United States’ southern border sought asylum by surrendering to American Customs and Border Protection. Many of them, including children, were interned in a network of detention centers.. But in early 2019, the United States struck a deal with Mexico to make nearly 60,000 asylum seekers wait for their hearings in that country.

Border towns often lack the infrastructure to deal with large population influxes, forcing asylum seekers to find ad hoc housing, often living together in shantytowns that lack adequate sanitation and increase the risks of illness. The search for employment is also fraught; migrants are often victims of economic exploitation, working in unsafe conditions for subpar wages.

More than a year later, the coronavirus pandemic has sealed the borders these groups once crossed. Some wait for asylum in the U.S. or in Mexico; many work on the fringes of the informal economy. The virus has frozen their applications and the cramped camps where they live are said to be on the brink of humanitarian disaster as COVID-19 cases appear.

In some areas, the Mexican federal government has stepped in to offer services to migrants who are waiting for their hearings; non-governmental organizations and private entities are helping out in other regions. But the situation remains tenuous and long waits in dangerous conditions could create another issue.

“The backlog is so long and it’s risky to remain in a foreign country [and] people are getting frustrated,” says Martínez. “The border buildup could funnel migration away from urban crossing points…into more remote areas; rather than waiting months for their interviews, more and more people might try to go between ports of entry and turn themselves in to border patrol to try to help expedite this process. I think we could do more as a country that claims to be a nation of immigrants to help alleviate those pressures.”

Mounting Pressure & Problems

Anna Ochoa O’Leary, head of the Mexican American Studies department at the University of Arizona, blames the current administration for ignoring long-established laws that entitle asylum seekers to wait for due process in the United States.

“This administration is not even listening,” O’Leary says. “If you have a credible fear, you are entitled to due process…but with the uptick in the number of people, mostly women and children, arriving in these caravans, [the president] is saying, ‘If you have a credible fear, you have to wait in Mexico…and Mexico doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with [migrants].”

While migrants waiting in Mexico for their hearings face great risks, the ongoing crisis at the border also has the potential to further strain relations between the United States and Mexico. In the latest standoff, the president threatened to levy tariffs on its biggest trading partner if Mexico failed to clamp down on the influx of immigrants between the nations.

“I'm sure [Mexico] is feeling tremendous pressure in terms of how to deal with this backlog of people coming up through Mexico and remaining near the border,” Martínez says, “and there is no doubt that could potentially affect U.S.-Mexico relations.”

A Bastion for Human Rights

At UArizona, researchers are studying migration, human rights and human security, and often collaborate with other institutions, including the National Autonomous University of Mexico, to share information and resources to help better understand the issues on both sides of the border.

Binational scholarship is important to help inform policy decisions but William Paul Simmons, director of the graduate certificate program in Human Rights Practice at UArizona, believes there is another, more personal reason that the university must engage in research and advocacy around immigration issues.

“Many of our students are from Mexico and Central America; their families fled to the U.S. to escape violence and some of them still have families trying to make the trip to safety on this side of the border,” he says. “We are ground zero for the migrant crisis because we are so close to the border and we need to stand up as a bastion for human rights.”

Migrants building shelters made of trash in a canal near the border line between the U.S. and Mexico.

Researchers on both sides of the border are committed to conducting data-based social science research to safeguard human rights and human security. A new binational Consortium could help.

April 29, 2020

For the estimated 1.3 million people who arrive at border crossings between Mexico and the United States each year, migration is a perilous proposition. Those who reach the border face long waits to make asylum claims and risk being detained or sent back to their countries of origin where some face certain death.

Researchers on both sides of the border are studying migration and its threats to human rights and human security, but Anna Ochoa O’Leary worries that working in silos increases the risks that critical information will be lost.

“There are a lot of us doing this work, but we need to collaborate across the borders or we’re only studying half of the story,” says O’Leary, head of the Mexican-American Studies department at the University of Arizona. “We cannot really understand what is going on—or what needs to be done—unless we are collecting and sharing information from both sides of the border.”

Seeking Multicultural Solutions

In 2018, UArizona and National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) established the Binational Research Consortium on Migration, Human Security and Human Rights. The Consortium formalized an agreement between the institutions to collaborate on social sciences research to strengthen data on migration, human rights and human security. The goal is to develop interdisciplinary, multicultural solutions that could inform policy, explains Luis E. Coronado Guel, director of SBS-Mexico Initiatives
 at UArizona.

“The issues are common to the two countries,” Guel says, “and it was important to construct shared solutions through binational collaborations.”

UNAM has sites on campuses across the U.S., but O’Leary believes researchers wanted to partner with UArizona because of the number of Tucson-based researchers committed to studying migration between the United States and Mexico. The Consortium is focused on fostering those collaborations, supporting the mechanisms and funding to engage in joint projects, promoting mobility between universities for academic staff to conduct research; establishing and promoting alliances between academic degree programs; and supporting the permanent exchange of resources, including teaching materials. The co-publication of research on migration, human rights and human security is also a key Consortium goal.

“We want science on our side,” O’Leary says. “We want to send peer-reviewed research that has been conducted in a systematic way and controlled by logic, rationale and reason [and] use that research to affect policy.”

A Growing Endeavor

The Consortium is a new endeavor and researchers are still discussing initial research projects and academic partnerships, but stakeholders are passionate, committed and eager to capitalize on their unique binational agreement, according to Guel.

In 2019, the Consortium (in conjunction with the UArizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences) announced its first travel grant opportunities to support research partnerships between UArizona and UNAM. Up to 10 grants are available during the 2019 fiscal year to support travel between Tucson and Mexico City for up to five research proposals. While these projects are currently on hold due to coronavirus restrictions, Guel believes that researchers who participate in Consortium projects in the future will gain a broader understanding of the situation both at the border and on the ground in U.S. and Mexico, and places the universities at the forefront of important political conversations. It is the hope, according to Guel, that collaborations could, “Green light the complexities of the issue and reach out to larger audiences to construct real, national solutions and approaches to these issues.”

A doctor applying a bandage to a young girl’s arm.

A range of projects and initiatives bring healthcare offerings to communities that traditionally lack options. For many Mexican citizens living in Arizona, it's proving to be lifesaving.

April 29, 2020

Many immigrants and temporary citizens live in the state of Arizona and, currently, 15 percent of the state’s population is without access to proper healthcare. While basic healthcare services are available to all state residents, in critical cases there are additional resources available—many provided in conjunction with academic institutions or official government services.

Together for Health

Groups like No More Deaths aim to support migrants and prevent fatalities in the Sonoran Desert by providing basics like food and water while, in Tucson and Phoenix, the University of Arizona has deployed a mobile health clinic to bring medical care to Mexican nationals living in underserved communities in Maricopa County. For two years, the UArizona van, dubbed "Juntos por la Salud," or "Together for Health," traveled to high-volume areas like churches, serving roughly 50 patients a day, depending on the weather.

The $199,000 van was built and initially operated through a $304,200 grant from the Binational Border Health Commission in collaboration with UArizona’s Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Its services including screenings, flu vaccines and preventative health-care tips, and primarily serves to aid residents of low-income communities who may otherwise be afraid to seek help in a more formal medical setting. Overseeing the program is Cecilia Rosales, the school’s Assistant Dean, who has enlisted students as volunteer medical workers, enabling them to gain professional experience working hands-on with patients.

The mobile care unit is an extension of—and inspired by—the Mexican government's Ventanillas de Salud program, which is in various consulate offices and provides health-care services to Mexicans living in the U.S. in 50 locations across the country. The mobile units, however, reach underserved patients where they live, and without stigma. When patients arrive at the clinic, they sign in, complete a basic pre-screening interview and discuss their medical histories. This information is then entered into an online database that enables the school to keep track of how many patients they treat, and to retrieve the information for future reference. After the prescreening, patients are brought in to the mobile unit for a physical exam, where trained students provide free screenings for hypertension, diabetes and obesity. The clinic also provides flu shots during flu season.

A Much-Needed Lifeline

The “real job” of these mobile units, says Jill Guernsey De Zapien, director of border, transborder and binational public health collaborative research at UArizona, is to “get the individual to come out of the woodwork" and connect to health services available to all uninsured individuals. She explains that UArizona also collaborates closely with federally qualified community health centers throughout Nogales, Douglass, Yuma and elsewhere.

“It’s the mainstay of care in the border region,” she says, “so we try to be supportive of those centers through a variety of both technical assistance and through our Arizona prevention research center, which programs with community health workers and collaborates for grants."

All of this allows health workers to target and help vulnerable populations gain access to healthcare "no matter who they are,” De Zapien says. She also endorses Patch, a local news source, which, like the mobile vans, provides services to individuals who lack health insurance, and LUCHA—Learning, Understanding and Cultivating Health Advocacy—which seeks to ensure that the UArizona College of Public Health is able to provide current and complete information and direct service relating to immigration reform and the U.S. border.

In 2018, UArizona also collaborated with local community health agencies to design, pilot and assess the feasibility of a worker-delivered diabetes education program for families. The program addresses family food choices, physical activity, behavior change, communication and support behaviors, and at its inception had 72 participating families. The 12-week program was facilitated by Promotoras de Salud in two counties along the Arizona-Sonora/Mexico border, with sessions including physical activity, and the creation of walking clubs through an initiative called Pasos Adelante, or “Steps Forward.”

While Arizona, and the U.S. as a whole, is far from providing accessible, affordable healthcare to its entire population, these services to this vulnerable group provide a much-needed lifeline.

Migrants crossing the Suchiate River on the Mexico-Guatemala border

On the heels of 2019's supplementary agreement that ended in the asylum crisis being outsourced to Mexico, hearings were pushed back due to coronavirus. UA researchers weigh in on the ramifications.

Feb. 19, 2021

Uncertainty and danger are familiar conditions for asylum seekers, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated a dangerous situation for an already vulnerable population, according to experts at the University of Arizona.

On March 20, 2020, nine days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an Order citing the obscure 1944 Public Health Service Act that “suspends the introduction of certain persons from countries where an outbreak of a communicable disease exists.”

Lynn Marcus, Clinical Law Professor and Director of Community Immigration Law Placement Clinic, says there is “no question” that the previous administration used COVID-19 to restrict migration, not to contain the spread of virus.

“It’s a distorted reading of the [CDC order] to imply that you could legally send people back to their deaths when there are others ways of screening for disease,” says Marcus. “There’s nothing in the law that says some CDC law trumps the obligations under domestic and international law toward asylum seekers and torture survivors.”

The CDC Order provides no opportunity for asylum seekers–those who are fleeing their home country and seeking protection from persecution or death–to make their asylum claim, which is a human right protected by the domestic Refugee Act of 1980 and the procedures laid out at the international Refugee Convention in 1952.

Three days after the CDC Order was issued, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office for Immigration Review released a joint statement­—which has since been reissued—suspending immigration court hearings for all asylum seekers waiting in Mexico.

Those asylum seekers are forced to wait in Mexico while their cases are being adjudicated because of the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico” policy. The program, implemented on January 25, 2019, allows for U.S. border officers to return non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico to remain there while the U.S. immigration courts review their cases. The suspension of those hearings creates even more danger and uncertainty for asylum seekers.

Daniel Martínez, Associate Professor of Sociology and the co-director of the Binational Migration Research Institute says, “This policy is clearly intended to make the process that much more difficult so people will become discouraged and opt to return to their communities of origin.”

At the same time, “Most asylum seekers are fleeing insecurity, violence, extortion, corruption, and threats of death, rape, and kidnapping. Abandoning their asylum cases and returning home places them at even greater risk,” says Martínez.

Dr. Anna Ochoa O’Leary, Professor and Head of the Mexican American Studies Department, says that the risks and challenges faced by women asylum seekers, including abandonment, injury, separation or losing family members, abuse from authorities, assaults from border bandits, and death are “only aggravated if [they] need to remain in Mexico, where discrimination and mistreatment of Central Americans is well-documented.”

“[Leadership] hasn’t responded in any way that is protective of asylum seekers or the public,” Lynn Marcus says.

Instead, this already vulnerable population is at risk of contracting COVID-19 because they are being held in unhygienic detention centers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Shefali Milczarek-Desai, Assistant Clinical Professor and Director of The Workers' Rights Clinic says that a detention center “feels, looks, tastes, and smells like a maximum-security prison.”

Martínez says we do not know the extent to which COVID-19 is affecting those forced to Remain in Mexico, but he says we have a public health crisis in our detention facilities in the U.S. “‘Confirmed positive’ rates, among those who have been tested in detention facilities, are shockingly high relative to the general population. We should really be concerned about the conditions within which immigrants are being detained and the inadequate healthcare they're receiving in those facilities.”

“They’ve allowed the disease to spread and really fought tooth and nail in the courts to keep vulnerable detainees locked up in dangerous conditions,” Marcus says. “They are making everything very dangerous and very difficult, with the aim of people giving up.”

COVID-19 has worsened uncertain and dangerous conditions for asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, but the Biden administration is looking to slowly start reopening border crossing for asylum-seekers. 

According to the AP, the administration announced plans for tens of thousands of people who are seeking asylum and have been forced to wait in Mexico under a Trump-era policy to be allowed into the U.S. while their cases wind through immigration courts.

The first wave of an estimated 25,000 asylum-seekers with active cases in the “Remain in Mexico” program will be allowed into the United States on Feb. 19, authorities said. They plan to start slowly, with two border crossings each processing up to 300 people a day and a third crossing taking fewer numbers.

A view of three men walking near the border fence.

Members of a research team at the University of Arizona are using a novel way to investigate the driving forces behind Central America emigration through Mexico and into the United States: natural language processing and machine learning.

June 1, 2021

Assistant professor Javier Osorio and Professor Alex Braithwaite in the University of Arizona School of Government and Public Policy in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences are the principal investigators of a $660,000, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to examine why people risk leaving their homes and communities to make the dangerous trip through Mexico to the United States.

Much of the current research on Central America migration patterns to the United States is focused on the apprehension at the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, the researchers will focus on the country of origin: what are some of the motivators and stressors in the home country that lead to the decision to emigrate, or in many cases, flee?

"Given that the convergence of deteriorating security conditions, economic crisis and climate change is likely to increase migration flows in Latin America over the next three decades, few questions are more deserving of attention and empirical investigation," said Osorio.

The team will use natural language processing and machine learning to analyze more than 14 million anonymized records of migrant apprehensions in the U.S. and Mexico between 2000 and 2019, records that Osorio noted have hardly been analyzed for this type of information.

By analyzing the testimony of migrants at the border, researchers will be able to disentangle the motivating factors, for men, women, and unaccompanied minors, for leaving home on a journey that is risky and often life-threatening.

"We can learn about the conditions that forced people to migrate, because these are part of the conversations that they have with immigration officers, especially when they seek asylum," said Osorio.

Some of the many complex factors that affect someone’s choice to emigrate are gang violence, political crises in the home country, poverty­–which has been worsened by COVID-19–and the desire to access the economic opportunities in the United States.

Machine learning of transcribed and coded Spanish-language newspapers will enable the team to track gang violence and political instability in Central America, and geographic information systems (GIS), a computer system for storing, analyzing and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface, will allow them to gather data on natural phenomena, like drought, earthquakes, or hurricanes, to track environmental stressors that affect migration flow from Central America.

For example, in November 2020, Hurricane Eta forced many Central Americans to leave their homes. Mudslides buried whole communities, displacing over 120,000 Central Americans.

In addition to natural disasters, the devastating effects of climate change are impacting migration patterns. In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly affirmed in the Global Compact on Refugees that “climate, environmental degradation and disasters increasingly interact with the drivers of refugee movements.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are more than 20 million people each year who leave their homes because of the disastrous effects of global warming.

In Central America, rising temperatures are causing both drought and increased rainfall, both of which can destroy crops, the source of livelihood for many in the area. This can exacerbate poverty and drive people to flee their homes and communities.

In addition to examining stressors in the origin countries, the researchers will track the routes that migrants follow from Central America and through Mexico, looking at the financial costs and the factors that might offset those costs, like social networks or religious organizations. They will also look at how migration patterns interact with immigrations laws in the destination countries, and how the migrants navigate those policies.

Osorio and Braithwaite’s research has the practical benefit of providing information to humanitarian aid and nonprofit groups to help for disaster preparedness. With this type of information, relief groups will know where, for example, to deploy emergency teams to help with family reunification, the allocation of food, and the provision of shelter.

Ultimately, the team wants to “include the richness of individual stories and the representativeness and generalizability of large amounts of data," Braithwaite said. "Everybody benefits from a better understanding of when and why people will migrate.”