El Norte (1983)

By Afra Nariman

El Norte (1983)

Directed by: Gregory Nava
Stars: Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, David Villalpando

Plot Summary

A brother (played by David Villalpando) and sister (played by Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) from a Mayan village in Guatemala flee their massacred village and begin their journey to “El Norte,” the north. They make their way through Mexico and make the perilous journey across the border into America, in hopes of finding a better home. Life as illegal immigrants prove to be harder than they imagined.


El Norte is one of a kind in the story that it tells. Not many films have been able to portray the lives of immigrants in America so completely. Through a 3-part story, the film presents the three stages of immigration from Guatemala: the why, the how and the what its like when you get there. In the first part, titled Arturo Xuncax, the name of the two kids’ father, we are shown the reality of the life that immigrants are escaping from. Although the land is majestic and full of beauty, their lives are far from the bliss it may look like from afar, when all you see is the overwhelming nature surrounding their village. While taking a stand for their land, Arturo is murdered by the army, who continues their wrath in their destruction of their village and search for Enrique and Rosa, the children of Arturo. With heavy hearts, the two children make the decision to leave their home and head north to America, where their family had always spoken highly of. In a moment of mystical realism, two elderly women in their village warn them of the danger in the north before they head out, foreshadowing the harsh reality that immigrants are bound to experience in America.

Their journey involves making their way to the Mexico-America border, which is the setting for Part 2 of the film, titled El Coyote. After a while of living in poverty in Mexico, pretending to be Mexican in order not to be sent back to Guatemala, they finally find a coyote who agrees to take them to the other side of the border… into America. The path to America, through abandoned tunnels filled with a bad stench, rats, and darkness, is excruciatingly difficult to bear, but the two Mayan children fight through it, in hopes of making it to America and living a better life.

The last part of the film is titled El Norte. They have made it to America and now begin their new lives. Enrique and Rosa have different experiences in America, but both realize the same thing: It’s not that much better than what they left. Nacha, a woman who has taken Rosa under her wing, responds to Rosa’s claim that the neighborhood they are in looks similar to Mexico and not the rest of America, by saying, “You don’t think gringos want to live with Mexicans do you?” Rosa realizes that they live in segregated neighborhoods, impoverished compared to the promised north that she has heard stories about.

One of the most telling scenes of the entire film is when Enrique is at his first day of work as a busboy. He is thrilled to work that day for $20, and comes out into the dining room to serve a ton of rich people who are at the restaurant he’s working at, sipping wine and eating fancy pastries in middle of the day. No scene highlights the separation felt by immigrants better than this one. Rosa, on the other hand, after escaping an immigration raid of the first place she found work, teams up with Nacha and becomes a cleaning lady for a rich family. A meaningful scene in her story in El Norte (the north), is when she is attempting to operate the washing machine on her first day on the job. The culture shock of everything around her is a lot to get used to right away.

After some time passes by and both children are doing relatively well, things begin to take a turn. Enrique is outed by an envious co-worker, leading immigration police to raid his place of work and force him to flee. Without a job, Enrique begins to do what others have been telling him to do all movie, think about yourself. He is told at one point, “You’ve got to look out for yourself or you’re fucked.” Deciding to put less weight on family, he decides to leave to Chicago and take a job that would get him a green card, but that means leaving Rosa behind. At the same time, Rosa falls deeply ill. The dilemma that presents itself to Enrique is a fight between his value of family and his desperation for ensuring his own survival. His original reluctance to go to the hospital beside Rosa shows how America has changed him. Work and money has grown in value for Enrique, which in the struggle for survival, is true for many immigrants who may have been presented with similar dilemmas. In the end, family prevailed and Enrique stayed behind to be with Rosa. In the hospital, Rosa opens up to Enrique about the blunt reality of living in America as an immigrant. In a heart wrenching moment, she says to her brother:

 “Life here is very hard, Enrique. We’re not free… In our own land, we have no home. They want to kill us. There’s no home for us there. In Mexico, there is only poverty. We can’t make a home there either. And here in the north, we aren’t accepted. When will we find a home, Enrique? Maybe when we die, we’ll find a home.”


That emotional expression of the reality lived by Rosa and Enrique is the gist of their experience in El Norte: segregated, used, not welcomed and constantly living in fear of the immigration police. In more instances than not, America is not a free home to those seeking a better life. In the very beginning of the film, their father says something extremely important to Enrique, before being murdered later that same day, that captures the essence of the film and the real-life experiences of immigrants hoping to find a home:

“I’ll tell you something, Enrique, that my life has taught me. I’ve worked in Mexico. I’ve worked on plantations at the coast. I’ve worked in many places, and everywhere it’s the same. For the rich, the peasant is just a pair of arms. That’s all. We are just arms to do their work. They treat their animals better than us. For many years, we’ve been trying to make the rich understand that the poor have hearts and souls. That we feel. That we are people, and we’re all equal.”

Arturo (the father)

His father’s message was never forgotten by Enrique.

There is no film quite like El Norte. After watching this film, the hardships endured by illegal immigrants will become more than just stories to you; they will be felt and understood. If you don’t know much about the topic, this film is definitely an emotional and educational experience that will surely help you understand the reality of life: the why, the how and what, that is the immigrant experience of coming to America. El Norte is a story of family, of hope in the hardest circumstances, and of tragic reality. The film exhibits the importance of keeping faith in a better world to come, even when that vision is foggy or just simply invisible. It’s a story that shines a light on the push and pull between family and survival, when survival is no longer a given. No film highlights these realities in such an all-encompassing and accurate fashion as does El Norte. From a production standpoint, the film has some flaws, but through some creative camera shots and angles, fitting music to accompany the culturally defining story, and through doing a spectacular job of highlighting the culture of the village, primarily in the first part of the film, El Norte does what it needs to in order to get it’s necessary story and message across. A beautiful, yet tragic story told in poetic fashion that is as relevant as ever today. Everybody should watch it; there are little to no films like this one.


Rating: 3.5 out of 4.


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