Gregory Nava is a truly important American filmmaker, of Mexican and Basque heritage, whose works, like the PBS series “American Family” (2002-04), and feature films “Mi Familia/My Family” (1995), “Selena” (1997) and the screenplay for “Frida” (2002) have made significant cultural contributions to this expressive art. His collaborative work with groups of incredible actors introduced us to several outstanding newcomers, while he has contributed to the careers well-known stars like Jimmy Smits, Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos and Salma Hayek. So, continuing my focus on important films of Latin culture in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, this week’s film gem is Nava’s 1983 “El Norte” (“The North”), a film Roger Ebert called ‘ “The Grapes of Wrath” for our time.’
This passionate, modern tale of fulfilling an aspect of the American dream details the harrowing escape of late-teenaged brother and sister from persecution during the Guatemalan civil war and their long travels up north to Mexico and finally, Los Angeles. The film’s Oscar-nominated screenplay was scripted by Nava and his then-wife Anna Thomas, based on Gregory’s original story.
The first sequence, titled “Arturo Xuncax,” concerns the siblings Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa Xuncax’s (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) who face the horrible reality of having the loss of both parents. Their father, Arturo (Ernesto Gomez Cruz) is gunned down for his union activities for local peasant coffee pickers and their mother, Lupe (Alicia del Lago) disappears from their village.
Before they leave their hometown, Enrique seeks advice from a local guy, named Ramon Munoz, who has experienced the trip up north. Ramon tells him that he’ll need a good amount of money and a lot more luck than he’s had up until now. So that he won’t be returned Guatemala, he’d better try to act more like a Mexican—suggesting he should swear a lot. He advises using the curse word, “chinga” to punctuate many comments and requests. He also warns that it’s a war zone near the US border. Rosa seeks spiritual guidance by going to a local chapel and lighting candles for her mother, father and their village.
In the second sequence, titled “El Coyote”, Enrique and Rosa are on their journey up north. They sneak on a truck, driven by a Mexican driver (Emilio del Haro), who by coincidence swears up a blue streak. From there, they have a long bus ride to Tijuana. As soon as they’re off the bus dozens of “coyotes” (slang for experts who smuggle people across the border) offer their services, for a big price.
Eventually, Enrique finds Raimundo Guiterrez (Abel Franco), the man Ramon told him to contact. For a mere $100 he’ll help him, but Enrique and Rosa are forced to pawn their mother’s silver necklace. This leads them on a long frightening trip on hands and knees, through a rusty, smelly sewer tunnel, including an attack by dozens of rats, before Enrique and Rosa make it to San Diego. Critics have noted the film’s realism in this part is punctuated by many successful attempts of Latin American magical realism, a quality usually found in literature.
The final sequence titled “The North” concerns Enrique and Rosa in the life of the illegal immigrants in Los Angeles. A friend sets them up in a run-down apartment and they begin their search for work. Rosa befriends a middle-aged woman, Nacha (Lupe Ontriveros) and gets a job pressing clothes in a factory and later house cleaning; Enrique finds a job for a catering service. Both take English classes and have high hopes before other tribulations befall them and eventual tragedy.
Newcomers Villalpando and Gutierrez give consistently compelling performances, with wide-eyed expressions of joy and amazement, as well as anguish and grief. In the end, Nava has Enrique facing a different world all alone. Thirty-five years later “El Norte” packs a powerful relevant message in a time when the issue of illegal immigrants is still just a major concern for political debate.