Review: Ya no estoy aquí (Fernando Frías)

Editor’s note: at the end of last year when there were still film festivals being held, we had an interview with Mexican director Fernando Frías at the Cairo International Film Festival about his film Ya no estoy aquí. The film went on to win two prizes including the main award, and later also won the two most important awards at the Morelia International Film Festival. The film has now been released on Netflix, and is reviewed by our Mexican contributor Aldo Álvareztostado.

The border between Mexico and the United States not only dissects two countries, it is also a frontier between development index categories, languages, worldviews even. Fernando Frías’ sophomore feature, Ya no estoy aquí (I’m No Longer Here) is set in the Monterrey metro area, the largest city of Northern Mexico. The region has long suffered both the burden and the blessing of the neighboring United States: a quickly-growing economy based mostly in low-wage manufacturing to satisfy North American consumers. Among the blooming industries is drug-trafficking.

The film is set in the second half of the Felipe Calderón period (2006-2012) as president of Mexico. His government led an aimless, irresponsible war against drug cartels that started an evergrowing wave of violence, resulting in a tragic decade in terms of crime despite the country having two transitions in ruling federal government parties (and respective failed strategies). Drug-related violence is responsible for most of the 35,000 murders that took place in Mexico in 2019, a record year. Additionally, over the past decade, over 61,000 persons –likely assassinated- have gone missing in Mexico.

Ulises is a 17-year-old kid who leads a local gang, Los Terkos, formed by a handful of teenage boys and girls. The group pledges allegiance to Los Pelados, a larger network of gangs that controls the district, and whose members hang out together at parties of cumbia rebajada, slow-paced remixes of Colombian music. The kids vandalize locals in order to finance their consumption of alcohol, drugs, and most importantly cumbia. As the war on cartels reconfigures the structure of crime in the city, a group of narcos arrive to the district where Los Terkos live, determined to control the area. It is then that Ulises gets caught in an incident that infers he has betrayed Los Pelados. He is forced to leave the city. His mother finds a way to pay for a coyote, a migrant smuggler, that helps him cross the border and reach a group of latino immigrants who quickly dismiss him. Ulises finds himself in New York City, alone, trying to survive.

Ya no estoy aquí is, above all, a story about the sense of belonging. The everyday life of Ulises as part of Los Terkos, no matter how sordid or extravagant it may seem to the viewer, seems to be fulfilling for the boy. His tribulations start when he is forced to leave and to find his way home. No wonder the echo to Greek mythology. Frías also deals with migration not primarily as a wish for better quality of life but as an escape from violence, a motivation rather overlooked by media in the MAGA era.

Two encounters are key to understand Ulises’ place in the world. One is with Gladys, a Colombian hooker, whose connection to cumbia -a birthright almost- evidences the boy’s dimension as latinoamericano. Back in Monterrey, Los Terkos were offered CDs with cumbias hailing all the way from Argentina. Cumbia is, aside from language, perhaps the most widely-shared cultural expression in the subcontinent. The remaining encounter is the one with Lin, a Chinese-American girl who befriends Ulises when he squats on her rooftop. In her attempts to approach Ulises, despite her foreign descent, she seems to have already assimilated an almost-naïve enthusiasm that only comes with a privileged upbringing. The boy’s destiny is not only determined by his non-whiteness, but by his whole otherness. Another journey starts.

The film is both an homage and a register of the Kolombia/cholombiano culture of Nuevo León, an expression nearly eradicated due to aimed violence by narco cartels. Music supervisors Javier Nuño and Joe Rodríguez compile a rich soundtrack (including two original tracks) that enhance the tempo of the film, only interrupted by a deep silence at the turning point of the film: the mute climax of a music film. Also worth mentioning is the work of costume designers Malena de la Riva and Gabriela Fernández, whose recreation of cholombiano outfits delivers prêt-à-porter wonders. Likewise, the casting team deserves individual praise for the discovery of an inspiring ensemble of actors among marginalized youths; particularly of the nuanced, deeply physical lead actor Juan Daniel García Treviño.

Frías builds a narrative that may not be as edgy as its subjects, but nonetheless succeeds in portraying lack of hope as the status quo of Latin American youth, the one global audiences have witnessed through Monos (Landes, 2019), City of God (Meirelles, Lund, 2002) and all the way back to Los Olvidados (Buñuel, 1950).