I first saw Gregory Nava’s intensely beautiful and painful El Norte when I was sixteen or so. My mother’s sister had a copy of the film and she made the entire family watch it, one by one. Although the sociopolitical significance of the film largely escaped me at the time, the devastating sorrow and hopelessness of the story was lost on no one, myself included. For years, my family described the level of any given film’s sadness by comparing it to El Norte. In fact, most of us refused, or at least resisted, seeing any film suggested by that aunt again, always a little worried about what kind of heartbreak to which she might be trying to expose us. Today, I watched El Norte again. And then I called my aunt, finally ready—and anxious—to discuss it with her, 15 years after that first encounter.
El Norte (The North) tells the story of Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), Guatemalan siblings fleeing their homeland for the safety and promise of the United States, after their father (Ernesto Gomez Cruz) is murdered and their mother (Alicia Del Lago) vanishes, both at the hands of the ruling military regime. Nava (who cowrote the film with Anna Thomas) tells the story in three parts: Part I, “Arturo Xuncax” takes place in San Pedro, Guatemala. Arturo is a coffee bean picker and rebel leader, participating in secret late night meetings with other revolutionaries, speculating about possible assistance they could get from the guerillas. As Arturo explains it to Enrique, they seek political freedom and financial independence: the Guatemalan military backs the wealthy, landed elite, and the poor Mayan Indians are forced to scrape a living by working for the landowners. “To the Rich, the peasant is just a pair of arms,” Arturo tells his son. While Enrique initially understands his father to mean the Rich of San Pedro, or maybe the whole of Guatemala, he soon discovers that the condescending attitudes of the “haves” towards the “have nots” exist wherever one goes.
El Norte (The North)
Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, David Villalpando, Ernesto Gomez Cruz, Alicia Del Lago, Lupe Ontiveros
In Part I, Nava captures the breathtaking beauty of the Guatemalan countryside, with its lush green mountainsides draped in a bluish mist, the local people in their brightly colored traditional clothing, and their simple, beautiful homes warmly lit with candles when extended families gather for meals and prayers together. These lovely images and sounds of traditional Mayan music are ruptured by fear and violence, when a rebel meeting is broken up by soldiers and everyone in attendance murdered. The most horrifying assertion of the ruling class’s brutal power (after all, the military is the force behind their interests) is Arturo’s severed head swinging from a tree.
Following this massacre, the wives of the rebels are rounded up by soldiers, never to be seen again. Enrique and Rosa—remembering the many stories they’ve heard about El Norte over the years and recognizing the danger they now face—decide to make their way towards the supposed Promised Land. They are warned that the journey will be a difficult one, but also encouraged by their belief that in the United States, even the poorest people have luxuries, like houses with refrigerators, flush toilets, and electricity. Their godmother Josefita (Stella Quan) has longed to go North ever since she was a little girl and describes it with a what seems to them, legitimate experience: “I read Good Housekeeping,” Josefita explains, “I know plenty.” She gives her godchildren money for the journey and they take off on foot to Mexico believing, in Rosa’s words, “In the North, we won’t be treated this way.”
Part II, “El Coyote,” follows Rosa and Enrique through Mexico. They make their way to the surreal squalor of Tijuana, where they plan to find a “coyote,” or guide. Stepping off the bus, they are greeting by a group of men, loudly selling themselves as the best and cheapest coyotes, and comparing the material comforts of the U.S. to the desperation in Tijuana. The camera illustrates, with a series of fast cuts between between images of the promise of the U.S. (meticulously manicured green lawns, big houses, new cars) and the reality of Tijuana (tin shanties, dirt, filth, beggars). Tijuana is, in the words of one of the coyotes, a “lost city.”
Further indicating that the siblings are headed to a new world, Part II features traditional Mariachi music, which today sounds nearly stereotypical, at least from a U.S. perspective, where it plays in every Don Pablo’s and Rio Grande Restaurant. Somehow, though, this music works to the film’s advantage, reinforcing one of its major themes: Rosa and Enrique have their own stereotyped conceptions of Mexicans, passed on to them by their elders in Guatemala (“Mexicans are always saying ‘fuck’”) and at the same time are counting on others’ expectations (“Try to pretend to be Mexican . . . most people think all Indians look alike”). Likewise, the Mexicans see the Central American refugees as ignorant, unsuspecting peasants. Nava plays on these stereotypes comically: The mariachi music is ever present and every Mexican character Enrique and Rosa encounter peppers his sentences with “fuck.” The two try, with varying levels of success, to pass as Mexican. In one of the film’s lighter moments, Rosa and Enrique are interrogated by the U.S. Border patrol and nearly fail to convince them that they are Mexican until Enrique starts throwing “fuck” into his sentences. “I guess they are Mexican,” the Border Patrolman shrugs. “Send them back to Tijuana.” These instances add some much-needed levity to this segment, which also contains what in my book qualifies as one the most horrifying moments in any film I’ve seen. If you have a greater than average aversion (read: phobia) to rats, you’ll want to brace yourself mentally as Rosa and Enrique are convinced by their coyote (Abel Franco) to cross into the U.S. via an abandoned sewer tunnel rather than the riskier mountain route.
Finally, Part III: “El Norte.” Rosa and Enrique find themselves nearly destitute but able to rent a place of their own. And the North does indeed have the very amenities Josefita promised: electricity, a refrigerator, running water, a flush toilet. Of course, reality is a far cry from the shiny, modern examples in Good Housekeeping and the irony is not lost on either of them: “Now all we need is to find a brand new car we can have without any money,” Rosa laughs. It is the first of many disappointments, some of them easier to swallow than others.
El Norte‘s rerelease is timely not only because the Guatemalan civil war finally ended last December, after 36 years, but also because the U.S. market is hot, it seems, for all things Latin. It is significant, I think, that seventeen years after El Norte was made, the issues it tackles, the circumstances the protagonists endure, are still recognizable in the U.S. to the point of seeming virtually unchanged. Rosa becomes a housekeeper; Enrique gets a job as a busboy and back-waiter. Today, Chicanos and immigrants are forced into the same “shit-work” as the Central American refugees in Nava’s movie. Even as the mainstream U.S. purports to embrace “diversity,” entire populations find themselves displaced, dispossessed, and disillusioned by the empty promise of open-armed prosperity. Rosa and Enrique must face the sad reality that their father’s hopes for the North have proved hollow: “Life is very hard here,” laments Rosa, “We are not free.”
Nava’s film reinforces that oppression is cyclical and unending in its final images. Enrique, after suffering yet another series of tragedies, stands outside a motel in a crowd of other Latinos, hoping to be picked up for day labor. “I need strong arms!”, the foreman calls out as he pulls up in his pickup truck. It is a bitter realization that Arturo’s words about the poor being nothing but arms for the rich holds true even in El Norte. As the haunting Mayan traditional music reasserts itself, Enrique jockeys for a position on the truck, holding up his arms to show their strength. It is clear in this heartbreaking moment that in El Norte, they have only traded a familiar oppression for a foreign one.