Emigration in Ireland remains a hot topic of conversation. Outward migration is at its highest level since the 1980s, with many blaming the government for the sharp rise in numbers moving abroad. The situation has parallels with Mexican migration, but unlike Ireland, Mexico has traditionally had a very different view of those who emigrated, according to research by Maynooth University ’s Catherine Leen.

Leen's research, which charters the change in the representation of emigrants in Mexican and Chicano films, found a tendency to blame the emigrant as a traitor to the nation. Mexicans living and working abroad were often seen as abandoning their homeland, despite the fact that circumstances often necessitated them to emigrate.

“There has traditionally been a very fraught relationship between Mexico and the United States not least because in 1848 at the conclusion of the US/Mexican war, the United States annexed almost half of Mexico's territory, so the idea then of going to live in the United States was seen as a betrayal," Leen says, adding "there was a very strong rejection of people who had adopted US customs and were considered to be too Americanized".

For example, the film Espaldas mojadas (1955), was a cautionary tale about the dangers of illegal emigration and the subsequent damage to US-Mexican relations.  Furthermore, Mexican films from the late 1930s to the 1950s have shown that Mexico was often in denial of the circumstances leading to emigration.

Leen's study of Mexican and Chicano film dating from the 1930s as part of her research on Latino filmmakers and their engagement with Mexico found a very negative view of those who emigrated in early films.  “Early Mexican films about emigration would have been very idealistic in their view of Mexico, portraying it as a paradise. So, the idea of anyone wanting to leave their homeland is very confusing. That’s part of the reluctance of the population to face up to their situation, and their economic dependency on the US”.

"The early films are mainly morality tales about the dangers of going to the US and losing your identity or stories like the one in La China Hilaria (1939) where migration leaves the family in disarray, with the people left behind suffering a great deal," she says. “That film is about a woman who is abandoned by her partner who goes to the US to save money so they can get married, but he never comes back. He marries somebody else in the United States and when he eventually returns to Mexico he is seen to have become more American than Mexican”.

However, through her research Leen has found a "notable change" in the representation of emigrants. "It has gone from an extremely negative representation to a positive one," she says. By the 1950s, the image of Mexico in film had evolved and become less idealised.  Leen attributes the change in the portrayal of an idealised nation in Mexican film to Spanish director Luis Buñuel and his 1950 film Los olvidados [The Forgotten Ones]. "In the 1950s and 1960s the image of Mexico became less idealised and the key figure in this change was Luis Buñuel. His film was a watershed in countering the image of Mexico as a prosperous and progressive nation".  Based in a shanty town In Mexico, it focussed on a group of adolescent boys and their misfortunes in Mexico City.  "It shattered the image that Mexico was a perfect society, that everyone was happy and doing well...it painted Mexico in a more realistic light".

Although more recent films flag issues such as prostitution and drugs on the border, they don't blame the migrant for the difficulties that they face.  “Rather than treating issues such as these as titillating entertainment, recent films suggest a great deal of sympathy for the migrant,” Leen says.

“Furthermore, they don’t gloss over the mainly economic reasons why people have to leave their country.  In some of the newer films immigrants are almost portrayed in a heroic light because of the importance of the money they bring back or send to their families.” 

Since the 1990s, and particularly in the past decade, there have been numerous films that deal with the relationship between Mexico and the diaspora in the United States in a serious manner far removed from the exploitative or insulting portrayals of Latino/as that marked much earlier Mexican or US cinema.  These films deal with issues such as emigration and the plight of undocumented migrants in a far more nuanced and thoughtful manner than was often found in the work of previous generations of filmmakers.

There has also been a shift amongst many Chicano and Latino filmmakers since the 1990s from examining the position of their communities in the United States to adopting a transnational perspective that also considers the situation of people in Mexico.  Furthermore, the racist and dismissive view of Mexican-Americans as a people without a culture has seen a radical transformation in the work of filmmakers in recent years, particularly, and not coincidentally, since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Leen says.

“The negative effects of NAFTA and the closure of the Mexican-US border after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led to a change in the depiction of migration and the Chicano community by Mexican filmmakers”.  “One example of a film that deals directly with the subsequent exploitation of Mexican workers by US multinationals is Alex Rivera’s 2008 Sleep Dealer, which depicts a futuristic world in which the US-Mexican border has been sealed and Mexican workers provide labour to the United States by being connected to machines which allow them to remotely control robots and machinery north of the border. Tellingly, Rivera notes that the film was received very differently on either side of the border. Mexican audiences saw it as a heightened version of their reality, while US viewers considered it to be a nightmarish science-fiction scenario.”