Gregory Nava's El Norte has come to be regarded as the definitive portrait of the experience of undocumented Latin-American workers in the United States. Released in 1983, Nava's film has lost none of its lyrical and thematic power as it follows two Mayan Indian teenagers, brother and sister, whose dreams of a better life in America belie the fact they are simply trading one form of dehumanization for another.
The film's direction and script -- co-written by Nava and Anna Thomas -- are spare yet purposeful. At times, Nava and Thomas's work feels a bit clumsy with its jabs at broad cultural stereotypes (fatuous gringo employers, vulgar Mexicans, etc.) and liberal dips into melodrama, but El Norte is also lyrically eloquent, steeped in dreams and visual metaphors that allude to a portentous future for its protagonists.
When their father is murdered and their mother arrested during a massive crackdown on peasants seeking to rally against a greedy local landowner, Enrique (David Villalpando) and his sister Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) make the hard trek from their Guatemalan village to el norte -- America, which they envision to be the land of peace and opportunity, starkly different from the poverty and persecution oppressing them. So they set out from Guatemala, northwards through Mexico towards their destination, Los Angeles.
Enrique and Rosa are naïve, but they're resilient, even enduring a harrowing passage through miles of a disused sewer line running across the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a sequence of brutal irony, as they're made to crawl on their hands and knees through the sewer pipe -- in effect, brought to the level of vermin, the animal world's equivalent of the lowest classes. Nava and Thomas twist the irony deeper when, in a harrowing sequence, Enrique and Rosa are attacked by rats in the sewer.
Once in Los Angeles, Nava and Thomas offer a gritty depiction of the world of undocumented workers, all living (or rather hiding out) in hovels. In the mornings, bosses come looking for laborers, and Enrique joins the packs of men, all eager for jobs and to be plucked up like so many dogs by the recruiters. Enrique and Rosa both find work, Enrique as a waiter in an upscale restaurant and Rosa first as a factory worker and later as a maid in the affluent suburbs. INS raids are common, as both Enrique and Rosa discover, and every bit as dreaded as police raids back in Guatemala. Not surprisingly, America is a slow-burn lesson is disillusionment -- a land overflowing with wealth, but which demands that they sacrifice bonds of family and goodwill, and behave like wolves if they're to partake in their adopted country's so-called "dream."
Nava and Thomas's screenplay is a model of narrative movement, and of how to infuse complex themes into an efficiently structured story. In deft, sure strokes, they move Enrique and Rosa across a large canvas from the Guatemalan and Mexican countryside to Los Angeles. Their humility and sense of discovery is beautifully developed as they navigate the American terrain, with its electric lights and washing machines. But, in time, they realize this is also a cruel land, where materialism and profit rule above all. When Rosa observes a beautiful blonde and her boyfriend in a Mercedes convertible parked outside her employer's posh home, we feel her alienation, her heartbreak, as she realizes that America will always be out of reach to her, a fantasy that will never heal the wounds of her past.
Circles appear throughout El Norte -- we see the shape everywhere, from the moon, to the circles of a sewer pipe or a cement mixer -- symbolizing the vicious cycle of fate, the evil eye. The peasant, in the words of Enrique and Rosa's father, is nothing "but a pair of arms" for the ruling classes. His opposition to his rulers sealed his fate, and El Norte questions whether Enrique and Rosa are trapped in that same cosmic cycle -- in which the poor are inevitably exploited and destroyed by the very nature of their circumstances. El Norte may be seen either as a grim acknowledgment of that cycle, or, depending on how we read Enrique's startling vision in this masterful saga's closing moments, a determination to break free from it.