Tijuana’s “El Panda”: Self-Fictions of a Human Smuggler

November 18, 2013

An actor, film producer and human smuggler, Félix Rosales, aka “El Panda,” transports migrants across the Mexico–United States border and depicts his subversive activities in B movies that draw from Hollywood clichés.

Excerpt from Félix: Self-Fictions of a Human Smuggler (2012), a documentary film by Adriana Trujillo about a smuggler of immigrants who also produces and acts in B movies about his border trafficking.

For more than 20 years, a man known alternately as Félix or “El Panda” has trafficked people across the border from Tijuana to San Diego, all the while producing and starring in fiction films about his subversive practice. My documentary Félix: Self-Fictions of a Smuggler shows Félix directing illegal border crossings—in real life and in the movies.

During the filming, I came to understand how el bordo seeps through every pore of Tijuana, shaping the city’s streets and its residents’ strategies for survival. The border exists as an invisible yet palpable force, constantly pulling Tijuana toward the north. It is something to reach, but also something to breach, trespass and transgress. In reevaluating Tijuana as a site defined by migration, I learned that every individual around me played, or had the potential to play, a role in the process of crossing. People in Tijuana carry an unseen yet unending burden; they remain fixed in an alert state, ready to detect and exploit any opportunity to infiltrate.

Excerpt from Félix: Self-Fictions of a Human Smuggler (2012), a documentary film by Adriana Trujillo.

Within this context, illegality assumes a logic of simulacrum and duplicity: policemen only appear to guard, visa thieves pose as street sweepers and shoeshine boys recruit chauffeurs of illicit cargo. People and institutions from all social spheres—from hotels to hospitals, taxi drivers to car robbers, pickpockets to the police—are involved in the action of crossing. They create extensive socioeconomic networks shaped by relationships of collaboration, complicity and domination. And with each exchange that takes place across these networks, the values associated with border trafficking shifts.

The grammar of human smuggling is, in life as in art, an extended montage of reappropriation and recontextualization. Félix, as an actor in his own films, integrates sociocultural references found in Hollywood movies and cable news stories about migrants to the United States. He embodies many of these roles, and each part he plays informs his behavior both as an actor and a smuggler. As a border trafficker who is also a film producer, he organizes crossings and earns money that he reinvests in more crossings and more films reimagining the crossings.

Excerpt from Félix: Self-Fictions of a Human Smuggler (2012), a documentary film by Adriana Trujillo.

Félix has also lived in the United States as a permanent resident, all the while continuing his transgression of the border. Poking fun at the U.S. government, he has even hired Americans to perform the labor of smuggling. Indeed, he boasts of being the first person to give Americans a job in Tijuana. Félix also brags about devising ways for the most marginalized city residents—drug addicts, the homeless and the mentally ill—to momentarily leave their difficult lives behind and perform roles associated with border activity, acting as tourists searching for medical services or simply looking for a good time in Tijuana.

My film is both a personal portrait of a human trafficker and a rough sketch of the complex relationship between Mexico and the United States, with its profound contrasts and asymmetries. But in this strange narrative about illegal crossings and their simulations, a more universal desire emerges. Everything, in the world of human trafficking and in the longing for a better world, is subjected to an imaginary space on the other side, in an evoked north, in dreams and in emotions. This nonexistent space is that which, in the midst of the risk, fear and hope, always prevails—however intangible it remains.

This piece was made possible, in part, by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.