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Last respects - In La Tragedia de Macario, a young filmmaker recognizes undocumented immigrants who die crossing the border

On May 14, 2003, 19 undocumented immigrants from Mexico died of dehydration, hyperthermia, and suffocation when the refrigerated tractor-trailer they were crossing the border in became an airless oven. The driver had abandoned the sealed trailer at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas.

For state officials, the deaths underscored ongoing issues of border safety: In 2005, the U.S. Border Patrol arrested 411,221 undocumented immigrants and rescued 1,008; 154 died attempting the journey. For 22-year-old San Antonio independent filmmaker Pedro Veliz, the Victoria incident inspired his first feature-length film, La Tragedia de Macario, a drama that follows the peasant Macario in Sabina Hidalgo, Mexico, in the days before his fatal attempt to cross the border for a job in San Antonio.

Independent filmmaker Pedro Veliz works with camera crews and actors on his film La Tragedia de Macario, filmed in San Antonio and based on the 2003 border-crossing deaths of 19 undocumented immigrants in Victoria, Texas.

Filmed primarily in San Antonio, Macario is framed in a corrido - a Mexican ballad form known for its lilting cadence, unvarying through tales of tragedy and joy - written by local musician Carlos Sanchez. It tells the story of a ranch hand embittered by a poorly paid job and endless frijole dinners. A letter from his brother, who is making $800 a month in San Antonio, sets Macario (Rogelio Ramos) dreaming of a new life, while his wife preaches patience and contentment - that is, until he is laid off, at which point she agrees to let him make the dangerous journey. Macario and his buddy, Felipe (Victor Augustin), whose daughter desperately needs medical care, find a "coyote" willing to smuggle them on a train to San Antonio, and so it goes.

La Tragedia de Macario

10 pm Sat, Oct 15
KLRN-TV Channel 9
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Between the lovely hyperbole of the corrido ("They sound so cheesy in English, but they are poetry in Spanish," says Veliz) and the film's sparse dialogue, Macario seems more a representative of everyman than an actual character with his own quirks and history. Yet, the film successfully builds empathy for Macario and his fellow travelers. Veliz, who wrote (in one long night) and directed the film, says he developed the characters from conversations with San Antonio immigrants. "I talked to the guy who cuts my hair, my grandfather, people around my block," he says. "You can see it in their eyes, there's a linkage of souls, and I'd just ask, How'd you get here? It's not disrespectful to ask if you are in the cultural group."

Respect is an issue for Veliz, who struggled to tell Macario's story without exploiting the people who died in Victoria. Thus, the corrido gently reveals ahead of time that Macario and his dreams will die in the suffocating heat of the train car, and the death scene is not long and drawn out. "Filming in the train car, there was a moment when the actors started looking really pale, getting frantic - re-enacting was scary, even knowing that, at some point, I was going to call cut," he says. "Even I started crying. It's a sensitive issue and I started feeling disrespectful. When those people were in the trailer, there was no one there to call cut."

By Susan Pagani