One of the most enduringly popular songs by Lisandro Meza, the King of Cumbia, is “Lejanía (Distance)”. Over his accordion, he sings of “waiting for the hour to arrive to return to my land”, a sentiment that echos the feelings of millions of migrants in the region.
Cumbia was born on the coast of Colombia from the blend of African, Indigenous, and Spanish musical styles and instrumentation, but later found a home in bodegas and discotecas throughout Latin America. As with other cultural forms, such as saint symbolism, modern art, and rock music, cumbia is reimagined and revitalized by Mexican artists. Lisandro Meza even gives a shoutout in the song “de Colombia para Mexico”.
This transnational musical statement sets the stage for I’m No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui), which subverts the classic “coming-to-New York to fulfill my dreams” narrative through the eyes of Ulises, a Mexican teenaged cumbia fanatic with a distinctive haircut. The film, written and directed by Fernando Frías de la Parra (best known for his work on HBO’s Los Espookys), is a gripping glimpse into an immigrant’s struggles on both sides of the border. The main character is performed with nuance and range by first-time actor Juan Daniel ‘Derek’ García Treviño.
His cumbia-loving crew, Los Terkos, (the stubborn ones) sing and dance their way out of trouble in the hilltop periphery of Monterrey, the second wealthiest city in Mexico and one of the nation’s main thoroughfares into the United States. The skyline is visible from their base in an abandoned building, a refuge from parents telling them to turn down the music. The fruits of the globalized economy are unattainable, but the social fragmentation and chaos are an ever-present part of life.
Ulises rubs shoulders with the local gang, who respect him for providing a cultural alternative to the draw of the booming drug trade. Ulises watches on as the police hold a periodic crackdown in an attempt to solve systemic issues with indiscriminate violence. In working-class corners of the city, residents live in fear of the gangs yet accept the groceries they provide. Politician campaign signs promising change are painted over. It’s a flawed paradise with a fragile social structure that he’s learned to navigate and survive.
An escalating turf war disrupts everything Ulises knows and a misunderstanding soon forces him and his family to flee for their lives. The other Terkos send a message of support through the local radio station, which he hears from a hidden compartment in a van of heading across the border. He’s forced to leave his community and on a thirdhand recommendation he makes his way to New York to work with a crew of day laborers. No one understands him and he’s mocked for his style, one of the few reminders of who he was, along with the portable music player featuring all his favorite songs that he carries with him.
The film shows the countless immigrant groups brought together under the shadow of the 7 train in Queens, one of the most diverse geographic swaths in the world. Ulises befriends Lin (Xueming Angelina Chen), the grandniece of a Chinese shopkeeper and building-owner for whom he does some cleanup work. They communicate through a translating dictionary, as he shows her videos of himself dancing and explains to her the dynamics of his life back home. Her silence toward the community about him is the only reason that he has a place to sleep at night. Their friendship is uneven, with Ulises needing Lin much more than she needs him, hurtling everything to a break.
From pay phones, Ulises tries to find a way to connect to his former life several times but finds over and over again that it has left him behind. Migration is an inevitable byproduct of change, and people have always moved to seek opportunities for better lives. Something within him, however, stays behind.
Crying is a Mexican pastime, says author Alma Guillermoprieto in The Heart that Bleeds. This in part explains the popularity of Morrissey and the myth of ‘La Llorona’ (a woman who drowns her children and is forever haunted and haunting). I’m No Longer Here is firmly in this tradition of perpetual sorrow, especially at its end. I’m No Longer Here is also part of a growing body of social realist films coming out of Latin America that shows how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances. Colombian film Los nadies (The Nobodies) (2016) is another standard of the genre that painstakingly reveals teenagers trying to be free and young in a setting that limits those possibilities.
Near the end of I’m No Longer Here, a voiceover laments that Mexico is located next to the highest consumer of drugs and the highest exporter of guns. This is a timely reminder that the causes of Latin America’s pain often falls on the American doorstep, and no quantity of concrete wall can block this truth.
In the masterful Tell Me How It Ends, a book-length essay about the undocumented children caught in the asylum process, Valeria Luiselli writes, “[P]erhaps the only way to grant any justice—were that even possible—is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us.” I’m No Longer Here is a necessary and magnificent addition to the narrative.