On its surface, the United States has long been viewed as a secure country of prosperity and opportunity. The land of the free, the home of the brave, a place of diversity and inclusion.
At least, that’s how the story is supposed to go.
The United States’ history with Latin Americans is a long one, deeply influenced by economic, strategic, and political factors. Racist stereotypes and discrimination against Latino communities in the U.S. continue to affect many immigrants struggling to survive in marginalized social and economic circumstances.
Undeterred by these criticisms, Chicano director/screenwriter Gregory Nava has made waves in the movie industry for his three-dimensional, humanized portrayals of Latinx culture and daily life, most notably in the hit movies Selena (1997) and Frida (2002). The crown jewel of his achievements arguably resides in his 1983 independent drama El Norte, which depicts the harrowing migration of two Guatemalan Mayan siblings to America in the face of cultural alienation and political violence — relevant issues, Nava contends, that many Latinos are still faced with today (Peterson 2019).
Cross-Cultural Criticisms: Anti-Latino Sentiments and Indigenous Bigotry
The United States has been heralded as a beacon of well-being, a place where people can begin a new life of wealth, prosperity, and stability. However, Latinos have had a long history of being racially oppressed, segregated, and mistreated in the U.S. The racial difficulties Latinos and other immigrants face are not a recent topic but an ongoing one, as exemplified by Enrique and Rosa’s plight in El Norte.
Following the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996), which saw the state engage in a massive genocide against the Mayas and wipe out 600 villages, the Mayas have faced extraordinary struggles (Arias 2021). Postwar economic growth stagnated, and joblessness was high (officially recorded at 50%). Parallel power structures emerged in the country. Government functionaries and military officers embedded themselves in drug cartels. A number of unemployed young people have formed criminal gangs as a result of their unemployment. As a result, the most vulnerable (Mayas, women, youth) began to suffer. Strip mining in Maya territory started in 2004 in collaboration with mining companies that profit from laundering narcotics’ capital, fighting corruption, and ensuring impunity. The Maya lost their lands and rivers to mining, resulting in pollution and health problems for children. With no economic opportunities, bandits and street crime increased, and so did the death toll. As gangs gained muscle, wealth, and prestige, Guatemalans were exposed to the largest crime wave in their history. Ordinary citizens were deprived of any protection, forcing them to flee in search of safety and thus triggering the current state of terror at the southern border.
Through Enrique and Rosa’s eyes (as portrayed by David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez), Nava endeavors to attain audience empathy. As members of a working-class, indigenous family in oppressive Guatemala, the two teenagers represent the numerous undocumented immigrants and refugees crossing the U.S-Mexico border searching for the American Dream. In the opening scene, it becomes clear just how untenable the two siblings’ situation has become. Their father, Arturo’s involvement in a union meeting protest, results in his brutal murder by Guatemalan troops. Their mother, Lupe, is abducted soon after by government forces. Essentially orphaned and in fear for their lives, Enrique and Rosa set out for America, hoping to fulfill their dreams of a better life.
One of the most important aspects of the film is the siblings’ pledge to stick together in their quest to reach the U.S. Still, like many indigenous migrants, they are forced to mask their heritage to ensure a smoother journey across Mexico — an ostracization that is historically prevalent in Latino societies and remains to this day. Besides the constant threats of humiliation and racial discrimination, many Central American migrants in Mexico fear detection by watchful immigration agents. Without proper clearance, the siblings are nearly deported back to Guatemala, but they manage to avoid this by posing as illiterate Mexican peasants.
As painful as the cultural compromises can be, the efforts of Enrique and Rosa to shed their native language and traditional clothing reflect this indigenous survival strategy. A scene in which Rosa packs away her colorful huipil for a simple white dress symbolizes her and Enrique’s goal to increase their chances of integration, which became increasingly difficult in the latter part of the 20th century as Mexico intensified its southern border’s security.
The 1980s were the peak years of Central American immigration into the U.S., and the success of El Norte inspired a national conversation about the grim reality facing migrating Latinos. A conversation, Nava notes, that “helped create an environment in which temporary protective status was granted to refugees from Central America, which saved thousands of lives… [and] helped pass the Simpson Mazzoli Immigration Act in 1986” (Castillo 2019). Despite this progress, the difficult circumstances — cultural alienation, economic hardships, and political chaos — prompting migration more than thirty years ago are still confronting many undocumented immigrants today.
Economic precarity, corruption, crime, violence, and increasingly, climate change, drive migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many Guatemalans and Hondurans are below the poverty line, and most work in the informal sector, which robs them of social protection. Moreover, as noted by Paul J. Angelo, “the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Latin America in public health and economic terms, has laid bare governance deficiencies across the region” (2021). Meanwhile, populist politicians and corrupt officials undermine democratic checks and balances, leaving residents angry and disenfranchised. Similarly, according to a 2016 survey of recently deported migrants by the Pew Research Center, 91% of Guatemalans “cited work as a main reason for coming, as did 96% of Hondurans deported from the U.S. and 97% of deported Salvadorans” (Cohen et al. para 13).
This fast-paced increase in migrant entries from Central America was also caused in part by misguided Cold War policies that hurt local economies and sparked endemic violence in the region, displacing thousands of migrants up north. The problem is that, rather than accepting them as refugees (Massey 801), many immigrants face restrictive and exclusionary procedures at the border, which creates a growing crisis as families are ripped apart.
Likewise, Nava’s pacing and direction further symbolize the terror and desperation many indigenous, and Latino migrants have faced. Through conversations shared by Enrique and Rosa, the film demonstrates that tighter immigration controls in Mexico have increased the difficulty for Central Americans to cross over. The siblings’ desperation to reach America is further solidified by a frantic montage of the dilapidated Mexican slums contrasted with the prosperous suburbs of America, where “everything is so beautiful” (“El Norte,” 1983). Yearning to live their lives fully and freely, Rosa and Enrique remain steadfast in their determination to reach “El Norte,” and it is this resilience that carries them through their perilous journey, which climaxes with an appalling crawl through rat-infested sewage tunnels.
Trouble in Paradise: Separated Families, Problems with Socioeconomic Integration, and the Threat of “La Migra”
In Los Angeles, Enrique and Rosa manage to find low-paying jobs as a busboy and housekeeper, but both teenagers struggle to fully acclimate to American culture and values. One might presume that Enrique and Rosa’s lives will finally change for the better, but Nava disagrees: “If all you do is have perfect Latino people and all the Anglo people are evil, nobody believes that, because they know it’s not true… My belief is that [if] you tell the story of a village, you tell the story of the world. The human experience is universal, right?” (Aguirre 2019). Among the more jarring aspects of their new home is the competition between different groups of Latinos; trouble ensues when Enrique’s boss promotes him over the other workers, pitting him against his colleagues.
Currently, there are about 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Pérez-Nievas, Santiago, and Mallet-García (2021) provide statistics that indicate that Mexico (5%), Guatemala (7%), El Salvador (4%), and Honduras (3%), are the top five countries of birth for undocumented immigrants. According to Flores (2017), there are approximately 1.3 million undocumented children and 1.6 million youth between 18 and 24 in the United States. Despite the controversy surrounding undocumented migrants, several attempts have been made to legalize at least a portion of the undocumented population, especially young people who came to the U.S. as children. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) was one of the first initiatives introduced by Congress in 2001 to address issues relating to immigration.
The bill, however, failed to pass in several different versions over the following years. This inertia in the legislative process led the Obama administration to use its executive authority to provide temporary relief to these individuals. The Obama administration approved DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) on June 15, 2012, which gave some youth who would have qualified for the DREAM Act a temporary reprieve from deportation and a work and study permit for a period of two years. Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans, and the Caribbean make up most DACA-eligible individuals and nearly three-fourths of the undocumented population. Nevertheless, it was announced by the Trump administration in January 2017 that it would revoke the DACA program in March 2018, putting its approximately 800,000 recipients at risk of deportation. The Supreme Court later overturned the Trump administration’s executive order rescinding DACA in 2020 because it failed to respect the Administration Procedure Act (“Supreme Court Overturns Trump Administration’s Termination of DACA”). A memo released by the Biden administration in January 2021 outlined its push to fight for immigration reform (“Preserving and Fortifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)”), including protections for children.
Enrique and Rosa’s gradual estrangement is painfully evocative of the traumatic effects of migration; while not as extreme as the immigration policies of the Trump administration, the siblings’ final conversation also demonstrates how hopeless the struggle of immigrants can truly be. This sense of despair is accurately summarized in Rosa’s last lines: “We couldn’t stay in our village because they wanted to kill us, and we couldn’t stay in Mexico because of the extreme poverty, and here we can’t find a home because they don’t accept us. Perhaps the only place where we will be able to find a home is when we die” (“El Norte,” 1983).
After the success of El Norte, Nava’s resume and reputation as a screenwriter and director flourished. Despite the recent attacks and controversies on Latinos, he remains confident that the film’s legacy is long-lasting: “I feel optimistic about the spirit of the Latino people. This country needs us… And I have faith in the spirit of this nation. We go through crisis, but we always do the right thing in the final analysis. I do have hope for the future, I really do” (Rife 2019).
El Norte is currently available only for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, Fandango, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu. Its total screen time runs for 139 minutes, and the content is rated R for: violence and gore, frightening and intense scenes, alcohol and drug use, non-sexual nudity, and strong language.
“Alert: Supreme Court Overturns Trump Administration’s Termination of DACA.” National Immigration Law Center, 30 July 2020, www.nilc.org/issues/daca/alert-supreme-court-overturns-trump-administrations-termination-of-daca/.
Aguirre, Jessica Camille. “‘The Border Is Its Own World’: Immigration Milestone El Norte, Revisited.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 12 Sept. 2019, www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/09/el-norte-movie-anniversary-immigration-border-gregory-nava.
Angelo, Paul J. “Why Central American Migrants Are Arriving at the U.S. Border.” Council on Foreign Relations, 22 Mar. 2021, www.cfr.org/in-brief/why-central-american-migrants-are-arriving-us-border.
Arias, Arturo. “From genocide to Hieleras: The never-ending Maya genocide.” Liquid Borders. Routledge, 2021. 183-196.
Biden, Joseph R. “Preserving and Fortifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).” The White House, The United States Government, 21 Jan. 2021, www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/20/preserving-and-fortifying-deferred-action-for-childhood-arrivals-daca/.
Castillo, Monica. “Acclaimed Immigration Film ‘El Norte’ Returns, More Relevant than Ever.” com, NBCUniversal News Group, 14 Sept. 2019, www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/acclaimed-immigration-film-el-norte-returns-more-relevant-ever-n1053111.
Cohn, D’Vera, et al. “Rise in U.S. Immigrants From El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras Outpaces Growth From Elsewhere.” Pew Research Center, 7 Dec. 2017, hispanicad.com/agency/research/rise-us-immigrants-el-salvador-guatemala-and-honduras-outpaces-growth-elsewhere.
El Norte, directed by Gregory Nava (1983; New York: Independent Productions/American Playhouse), Film.
Flores, Antonio. “How the US Hispanic population is changing.” Pew Research Center 18 (2017).
Massey, Douglas S. “The Real Crisis at the Mexico‐U.S. Border: A Humanitarian and Not an Immigration Emergency.” Sociological Forum (Randolph, N.J.), vol. 35, no. 3, 2020, pp. 787-805.
Pérez-Nievas, Santiago, Guillermo Cordero, and Marie L. Mallet-García. “A Tale of Two Countries: The Sociopolitical Integration of Latino Immigrants in Spain and in the United States.” American Behavioral Scientist (2021): 0002764221996750.
Peterson, Karla. “San Diego filmmaker Gregory Nava on the return of 1984’s ‘El Norte’–and why its message matters today.” Chicago Tribune, 12 Sept. 2019, https://www.chicagotribune.com/column-san-diego-filmmaker-gregory-nava-on-the-return-of-1984s-el-norte-story.html.
Rife, Katie. “Director Gregory Nava on Why His 1984 Immigration Drama El Norte Is More Relevant than Ever.” Film, The A.V. Club, 10 Sept. 2019, film.avclub.com/director-gregory-nava-on-why-his-1984-immigration-drama-1837908169.