For me, it’s impossible to discuss Gregory Nava’s brilliant El Norte, a sweeping saga of two siblings fleeing social repression for the States, without first mentioning Alambrista!, Robert Young’s treatment of a Mexican worker crossing the border into California looking for a better life. Stylistically the two are as different as night and day – Nava invokes magical realism as a template to heighten the horrors of the journey north, while Young depends on absurdist and surrealist elements to illuminate the brutal nature of his hero’s trek. But both films see the same contradictions, abuses, and tragedies inherent in the Latino struggle within the American capitalist machine. The sacrifices these outsider characters make, both physical, psychological, and moral, deepen the complexity of their situation without demonizing the American collective. The real villain of both films is the situation itself, where people are put into impossible scenarios, forced to choose one family member over another, a job over love, personal survival over familial growth.
Nava’s film in particular displays a devastating sense of clarity in regards to the tragedy of it’s characters Rosa and Enrique, a brother and sister exiled from their Indian village in the lush, foggy mountains of Guatemala by the threat of a fascist Military regime. El Norte begins with the destruction of their family, the direct cause of Rosa and Enrique’s plight, graphically displayed when their revolutionary Father is ambushed by soldiers and beheaded to invoke collective fear. It’s almost Herzogian when Enrique finds his father’s head hanging from a branch, the dead eyes staring back with the menacing epic backdrop overwhelming the frame. Nava introduces both the themes of regret and pragmatism in one stunning moment.
As Rosa and Enrique travel through Tijuana, then up to Los Angeles, the journey is expectedly rough – they’re double-crossed by a Coyote, then forced to crawl through horrific miles of sewer pipes to pass into America (the film’s most memorable and frightening scene). But more importantly and unlike Young’s film, El Norte shows the siblings make good on their opportunity in Los Angeles, learning English, working somewhat rewarding jobs, only to have the illusion of their success crumble under the prejudices of their surroundings. This dichotomy makes the film a two-pronged attack on the immigration issue still raging today. On the one hand it’s hell on Earth to get to America, but exponentially worse when consumed and defeated by the petty jealousies and betrayals of your own brethren in the same situation. In this regard, El Norte indicts a certain negative sensibility more so than any superficial groupings of race or social status. Rats come in all shapes and sizes, all creeds and colors, and El Norte shows how debilitating the disease of doubt can be.