Review of El Norte


[Author’s Note—Raymond Williams wrote, “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language” (87). The etymology of the word began with reference to agricultural growth (the attentive care necessary to produce plants or breed animals, as in cultivation) and religious growth (the spiritual care necessary to promote enlightenment and epiphany, as in cult, which did not always denote negative connotation). The word culture has come to characterize humanistic growth, especially phenomena that represent the complexity of the human condition, collectively or individually, within a generational environment. Of course, even this definition is insufficient. Culture represents our human lives, and we are all immersed within our own individualized versions of culture, whether it involves work, family, money, politics, religion, or entertainment.

We reflectively know that the poems and stories found within the literary canon represent our culture. We know that art, music, the stage, sports, and film represent culture. In our modern environment—though some scholars might be loath to admit it—television, video games, and internet websites also qualify as cultural indicators. We often share with others what we find to be relevant and significant, and the respondents either approve or disapprove. This exchange perpetuates, fundamentally supporting the cultural conversation between individuals for eons, and we retain those cultural items that are agreed to be most worthy of inclusion. These cultural items often are designated as literary.

I am an enthusiastic explorer of popular culture. Three circumstances compel me to focus on pop culture topics for my blog at this time: 1) It’s summertime!!! 2) There has been a disproportionate amount of depressing world events taking place that compel me to look away for a moment, for preservation of good spirit. 3) I will be teaching again, so I’d like to dive right back into academia in the form of literary study! (I know…sounds riveting…this is how I relax and have fun!) I am going to celebrate life by having a cultural weekend, filled with film, stage, and music.

I start with a film I watched for the first time Thursday evening, recommended by a friend, Professor Francine Jewett, who suggested its relevance when photos of the refugees on our southern border first surfaced. Today, I share the first part of a four-part cultural leg of The Maniacal Rant, in which I explore some significance from the 1983 Gregory Nava film, El Norte.–SG]

When the mass influx of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras first started to garner the attention of the media a few weeks ago with pictures of hundreds of children being held in detention centers, I made the assumption that Americans would resist the refugees, and Republicans would find a way to blame the whole mess on Obama. I hate when my pessimism is proven to be right.

A friend recommended I watch the film El Norte to better understand the impetus for why immigrants from these countries might make the treacherous trek across Mexico to seek asylum in the fabled North. In light of the current crisis, I might suggest those who picket against these immigrants and the politicians who want to deport the 50,000+ refugees immediately take a few hours to take in the film. I would hope that it tugs at their heart-strings and makes them reconsider their anti-humanist views; although, I doubt it would have the desired effect (there goes my pessimism again).

I know that I have gained greater understanding of the rationale for immigrants who want to seek refuge in America, just from watching the film, El Norte. This film is the story of Amerindian brother and sister, Enrique and Rosa, who flee Guatemala to seek refuge in the United States after their father is killed and mother apprehended by the corrupt government. The film is over thirty years old, so the conditions involving drug cartels killing young people are not a part of this setting; the fact that real-life in Guatemala has become even more violent and unsustainable than the 80s should provide some pause, along with moments of reflection.

Arturo Xuncax, the patriarch of the family, delivered some highly relevant words to his son, Enrique, before he was brutally beheaded later in the evening:

Arturo: 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.

It’s hard to argue with these sage words, and they certainly hold true several decades later. There is a strong message of what it is like to live in poverty in this film, and how the North holds opportunity for wealth and happiness. The godmother, an authority on the North from her collection of Good Housekeeping magazines, talks frequently at dinner about how even the poorest people have toilets. “You can really pee in style,” she says. Later in the film, when Enrique and Rosa are given a dilapidated apartment in Los Angeles, they flush a truly disgusting toilet, simultaneously impressed by indoor plumbing and disillusioned by the fact that poverty exists even in the North, where a toilet and electric lighting do not necessarily qualify them as well-to-do.

Enrique and Rose’s trip through Mexico is difficult, but I don’t find the film properly captures the real hardship that takes place for transplanted immigrants who are now riding cargo trains and trekking through harsh deserts. It certainly does not capture the modern border security that is now found on our southern border. In fact, there are moments of levity, such as the running joke about how talking like a Mexican requires copious swearing or thwarting a thief who tells them they fight too hard for twenty dollars. Tijuana is painted as a place of poverty, but I don’t think the 1980s version of the Mexican city does justice to how it has evolved in reality…again, the idea of violent drug cartels are not a factor in this film.

The scene that best encapsulates the hardship of Enrique and Rose’s trek involves crawling miles through a sewage pipe to enter the United States. Of course, this is the 1980s, before heightened attention and security has made such an entry into America impossible in this day and age, but at the time, this was a viable possibility for immigrants to reach our country. The actors did manage to convey the difficulty of such an act as believable to the audience, grimacing and sweating in the confined space. They are overwhelmed by rats at one point of the crawl, and they are real rats, as CGI wasn’t an option; Rosa’s screams are legitimately terrifying, as actress Zaide Silvia Gutierrez obviously is horrified by rats in real life.

When the pair reaches America, they find that hard, laborious work is necessary to survive in America; in fact, they have to work harder than they did in Guatemala. They overcome language barriers, but they have little success overcoming their lack of citizenship and the exploitation of entrepreneurs looking for cheap labor. Their father Arturo’s words prove to be true, especially for Enrique, who must eventually advertise his arms as the sole means of his survival in our country.

Since this film was created in the early 80s, there is a scene I found to be especially significant, since it represents the extreme technological leap we have made in thirty short years. A well-to-do American attempts to explain to Rosa, who is working as a housekeeper, how to operate a washing machine. It is overly complicated, and later, after Rosa decides to hand-wash the laundry instead, the homeowner chastises Rosa for doing so. In America, we are to do things the proper way, which means to use machines to do all the work; otherwise, it offends the sensibilities of the Americans, who believe work has not been completed “properly.” I have two strong reactions to this significant plot point of the movie: 1) This American attitude, which I believe has advanced even more so in the present, might be responsible for the tremendous helplessness that grips Americans when left on their own, without benefit of devices and machines in everyday activity…living in poverty might actually be a positive benefit for some of us, in the regard that we are better trained to survive without luxury…and I think an appropriate revenge on some Americans who selfishly whine about “their tax dollars” might be for them to live in poverty for some stretch of time…so they might empathize a bit better AND so they can learn a thing or two about what the word “survival” really means. 2) Wow, in the 80s a washing machine can seem complicated. I’d like to see the same scene in the present with a laptop instead of a washing machine. If someone from these impoverished countries has not been exposed to American technology, then it might be hopeless for some of these immigrants to find work here in America, since computer skills have surpassed labor skills in terms of landing a job in thirty short, short years. I know that some American citizens cannot keep up with the speedy takeover of technology, and we’ve been living here as it’s been happening!

There are elements of mystical realism found in the film, employing what I presume to be Mayan Indian imagery. There are beautiful fever dreams with albino peacocks. A pair of mystical sisters lives in the village and alludes of greater danger in el Norte. When Rosa enters her mother’s bedroom for the final time, a swarm of moths hauntingly paints the air. Gregory Nava’s artistic vision and implementation still hold up to scrutiny, despite the lack of technology available to him. The final, concluding scene is an effective collage to summarize the symbolism of the film in its entirety, which is not exactly life-affirming.

To illustrate, here is a transcript of a conversation between Enrique and Rosa near the end of the film:

Rosa: Life here is very hard, Enrique. We’re not free. Isn’t it true that we’re not free?

Enrique: Yes, life is difficult here. It’s true. You have to work very hard.

Rosa: 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.

Enrique: Don’t say that, Rosita. It’s hard, but we’re going to have luck. And we’ll get everything we want. And we’ll make a lot of money. And we’ll return to our village. And when we walk down the streets, people will look at us with envy. Things are changing. Yes, we’ll have a lot of luck now. I’m sure of it. The only thing is to not lose faith. That’s it. The important thing is not to lose faith.

Rosa ends up being right. Enrique is proven wrong. What strikes me is how thirty years later, there might be 50,000 refugees who are mimicking Rosa’s words at this very moment.

Works Cited

El Norte. Dir. Gregory Nava. Perf. Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, David Villalpando, Ernesto Gomez Cruz, and Alicia Del Lago. Cinecom International, 1983. Film.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford, 1976. Print.

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