in Criterion Month

El Norte (1983)

Man, what a week to be watching this movie. As if the constant, ever-escalating crisis at our nation’s border wasn’t already a reminder enough that we should all be a little more empathetic toward the huddled masses looking for refuge in America. Then comes along our racist-in-chief to once again make it known that any immigrant or person of color should “go back where they came from”. Meanwhile, a film like El Norte shows that for many immigrants, they can’t go back to from where they came. And even though America might not always be the land of opportunity it’s often billed as, it can offer a new start for those willing to brave the journey to get there.

El Norte begins at a small village in Guatemala, where we’re introduced to an indigenous family, who talk over dinner about the allure of ‘El Norte’ (a.k.a. The North). Their country is in the midst of a Civil War, and one night the family’s father Arturo goes to meet up with some other workers in the hope of forming a union. However, the workers are infiltrated by a group of government troops and gunned down. This leaves Arturo’s son Enrique (played by David Villalpando) and daughter Rosa (Zadie Silvia Gutiérrez) fearing for their lives, and with the desire to make the arduous trip north to America.

So they make the trip up through Mexico to find a “Coyote” who was a friend of Arturo, who will take them across the Mexican border. After a few fruitless attempts to get across the border, Enrique and Rosa end up making it through an underground tunnel while being attacked by rats. Undeterred, they make it to the other side while meeting up with their coyote, who eventually gets them to Los Angeles. There, the two of them adjust to working as a waiter and as a housekeeper, while the constant threat of deportation looms in the background. Enrique proves to be a hard worker and gets a job offer to go work as a foreman in Chicago. He goes back and forth on whether he can part with Rosa, which becomes an even harder decision when Rosa becomes gravely ill.

There are plenty of movies about immigrants, but I’m not sure I’ve seen any that have forced me to look at America through the eyes of an outsider quite as effectively as El Norte. By showing the customs that Enrique and Rosa embrace in their native Guatemala, and then clashing with Mexican customs, before ultimately having to adapt to the realities of ’80s America, we get a potent snapshot of what America looks like to someone poor, beaten down, and with nowhere else to go. There’s a scene in the restaurant Enrique works at after he first gets hired, where the camera lingers on these rich white people eating dinner, who seem almost alien to the viewer after spending the first hour-and-a-half with these refugees. Yet, as a white viewer, you’d think these are the people I’d be identifying with. Not so while watching El Norte.

It’s this ability to communicate the Latin immigrant’s perspective that makes it come as no surprise that the film is often a staple of human geography and multiculturalism college classes. I do almost wish that the film was a little less straightforward at times, since some of the scenes do border on melodrama. Meanwhile, a few of the narrative beats feel a little too familiar to your typical “downtrodden people living on the fringes” type of stories. I’m a little mixed on whether this gives the film a timeless quality that lives up to Roger Ebert calling the film “a Grapes of Wrath for our time”, or if it just makes the film occasionally hokey. Either way, the light touch of magical realism weaved into the film keeps it from feeling like a routinely depressing story of hardship, and like a unique product of Latin American artistry.

More than anything, I’m just amazed that a film like this got made. I have to assume that Guatemala (or any of the Central American country’s ravaged by political unrest in the ’80s) didn’t have a film industry at the time, and so a film like El Norte being made with this degree of authenticity feels like a miracle. Fortunately, director Gregory Nava, the American son of a “border family” did extensive research and clearly had a personal desire to tell a story that was becoming more and more common at the time, and of course now is part of a conversation we’re having on a daily basis. It doesn’t have any clear cut answers as to what we should do with these immigrants or what they should do once they’re in America, but it makes it quite clear that empathy is a good place to start.