In a former life, I was a Spanish teacher, and each school year I did a lesson on illegal immigration. Unsurprisingly, the majority of my classes felt a wall should be built between the United States and Mexico, forever barring those hoary Mexicans from jumping the border and infiltrating our fair land of Dairy Queens and prom queens. When pressed, my students claimed they were not heartless monsters but professed fear of Americans losing jobs to the Mexicans, our taxes helping out non-citizens, and the scourge of crime increasing. In an age of Lou Dobbs and Fox News, it is difficult to blame these naïve teenagers for aping what they hear on TV and from conservative, xenophobic families. But after watching Farmingville and discussing the issue, many--but not all--of the students realized fear was the root cause of their anti-immigration sentiments.
Now, I wish I could show El Norte, finally out on DVD, to my classes. It is a story that puts a human face on the people some media outlets are attempting to dehumanize, using a shock-and-awe strategy that allows us to persecute at an easier clip if our victims remain faceless.
Of course, when El Norte was released in 1983 with PBS funding, immigration and terrorism weren’t the hot button issues. The Cold War was trickling to its end, and the CIA was busy toppling governments and installing regimes in Central America. For a brief moment, our country proffered a hesitant sympathy to those being persecuted by brutish Latin American dictators. But while many American films of the epoch tackled third world politics, director Gregory Nava opted to present the more humanist tale of Mayan brother and sister Rosa and Enrique escaping Guatemala after the national army wipes out most of their village.
El Norte has three distinct parts: The first takes place entirely in Spanish and K’iche’ as the pair prepares to flee Guatemala, the second chronicles their journey through Mexico, and the final section concerns what happens once they arrive in California, or “el norte.” Using a combination of raw realism and sequences of magical realism, El Norte is part Gabriel García Marquez, part John Steinbeck. Roger Ebert calls the film a “Grapes of Wrath of our time,” as the family dreams of the luxurious trappings of American life, such as green lawns and flushable toilets. When Rosa finally gets her own excrement covered toilet, she is able to look beyond the shit and marvel that it, at least, flushes.
But we know better than the protagonists and aren't surprised when their wide-eyed optimism meets with tragedy. Still, there is something refreshing in Enrique’s excitement as he gets a job as a waiter in a swank restaurant. As a nation, we take our comforts for granted. Would you be excited to work in a sweat shop? As the pair learns English and tries to assimilate into American society, Nava slowly sneaks in his insidious message. Our society and its comforts are built on the backs of those who come to the States in search of what we have. Just watch as Rosa, after landing a cleaning job, stares in bewilderment at a fancy washing machine. We know she will never own such a washer, but instead continue to work for someone who does.
Its depiction of this dehumanization of an entire population is what makes El Norte so effective. As my students and I take for granted comforts like clean public toilets and green lawns, the film gives us the rare opportunity to think about the people who clean those toilets and trim those lawns.