The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez

Film about national borders or crimes that take place along borders invariably address questions about national identity. Until I saw The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez (IMDB), I have to admit that I knew almost nothing about the story of a Texas teenager who was killed by a Marine patrolling the border between the United States and Mexico in 1997, as part of the war on drugs. These events took place in Redford, Texas, a tiny border town of approximately 100 people, and Hernandez, who was a high school student at the time, was out with his goats carrying a .22 rifle when a group of four Marines spotted him and mistook him for a drug dealer. Hernandez fired his rifle in their general direction, likely to frighten off stray dogs that he worried might attack his goats, and after tracking him for several minutes after the initial shot, one of the soldiers, Corporal Clemente Banuelos shot and killed him.  While Banuelos’s fellow Marines argued that he fired in self-defense, evidence suggests otherwise.

Ballad, which was directed by Kieran Fitzgerald, uses Esequiel’s story to open up some larger questions about the heated rhetoric that persists to this day about U.S. immigration policy and its relationship to the so-called “war on drugs.” We learn that near Redford, it was not uncommon for families to cross back and forth across the river that provides what is revealed to be a somewhat arbitrary border. Many people had relatives across the border, and the river itself is relatively slow and placid.  As Presidio County Judge Jake Brisbin explains it, “On a map, it’s an international border, but in reality, it’s something you walk across in everyday life.”  The town of Radford is, in fact, one of the poorest in the state, and the locals were unaware that their community had been labeled as a major drug trafficking corridor, or that fully camouflaged Marines were tracking the border.

It’s probably no accident that Esequiel Hernandez’s name had been all but forgotten outside of the west Texas community where he lived.  We see local historians talk about Esequiel’s story, and balladeers tell the story in song, but despite the fact that Hernandez was the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the Kent State shootings in 1970, his story essentially disappeared from national consciousness.  In fact, the film’s director made the film in part because the story had been so sparingly covered by the national media and because the story now risked “drifting into obscurity.”  Because some of the details were foggy, Hernandez’s death was often misunderstood, and because the story called into question the role of Marines in guarding U.S. borders in the drug war, it introduced questions that might be difficult to answer.

Fitzgerald is careful to provide a nuanced version of this story.  Judiciously narrated by Tommy Lee Jones, the film presents reflections not only from Hernandez’s family and friends but also from three of the Marines who were on patrol when Hernandez was shot (only Banuelos, the actual shooter, declined to be interviewed).  It’s clear that all three soldiers are tormented by their actions and troubled by the policies and procedures that put them in the position of taking the life of an innocent young man.  A couple of them talk about the nightmares they still have, while all of them–in diverse ways–attempt to make sense of their military service.  But it was the gentle spirit of Esequiel, reflected in the comments of his friends and family, that stuck with me the most–his talent as an illustrator, his shy and reserved nature, and his gentleness.

Of course, as the film is quick to point out, the language about securing borders has only become more heated in the war on terror.  We see footage of Bill O’Reilly defending stepped-up border patrols and of Tom Tancredo campaigning for President almost entirely on the single issue of illegal immigration.  We’re also reminded that George W. Bush dispatched 6,000 armed U.S. soldiers to the border in the summer of 2006.  And in the ultimate reminder of enforcing these arbitrary lines, we see soldiers building the border wall between the two countries.  All of these images serve as important reminders that Hernandez’s story should not be forgotten, that we need to reflect more carefully on our failed border policies, especially as those issues continue to inform the 2008 election.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez will be broadcast on PBS’s P.O.V. series on July 8.

4 Comments »

  1. Susan Said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    I saw The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez last night and couldn’t believe that the Marines couldn’t have done more to prevent this tragedy. They never identified themselves, they followed Esequiel for several minutes before shooting him….I wasn’t there and don’t know what the young Marines were thinking, but a simple “U.S. Marines” in a loud voice would have notified Esequiel who they were. But more amazing is the fact that no one was ever held responsible for Esequiel’s death. That is an insult to the family and to justice. I love the military, but have witnessed many injustices because of the uniform worn and the government it represents. Seems that it’s more important to clear their name, stand blameless, than to admit weakness and responsibility. How sad!
    Where’s the “Honor & Courage” they are so proud to stand for? So sad!

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 9, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    I think I’m more upset by the way that the story dramatizes how draconian our border policies are and the degree to which fears of others can be mobilized for political gain. It sounds like these individual Marines could have behaved differently, but the bigger issue is that they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

  3. Jim Said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

    Apparently, the only way for this film to get traction at PBS is to erase any Clinton fingerprints and blame it all on George W Bush.

  4. Chuck Said,

    July 10, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

    To be fair, the film doesn’t shy away from showing that Clinton supported this policy, although I thought the film could–and should-have been more critical of him, something I should have mentioned in my original review. That being said, the more draconian anti-immigration policies are clearly coming from the right (Tancredo, etc), not the left.

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