Writings: El Norte Review
El Norte: A Native American Tale of Woe
Gregory Nava's El Norte is a noble, brilliant and heart-wrenching film. The film chronicles the lives of Rosa and Enrique Xuncax, two Native Central Americans who are forced to flee Guatemala, the native homeland of their ancestors for millennia and travel to America, aka el norte.
Nava has two goals in making this film: the first is to tell an interesting story with enjoyable dialogue and well-rounded characters. Nava does this magnificently. He splits the story into three parts. In the first part Nava places his camera in a small rural Guatemalan town where we learn about the central characters, Rosa and Enrique, their family, and what ultimately make them flee their country. In the second part, he documents their difficult odyssey through Mexico and their horrific experience when they cross the Mexican-American border. And, in the final part, Nava discloses what they find in America.
Without question the film is exquisitely made. Gregory Nava is very creative when he accents different colors in each of the three segments, and in his smart use of dialogue with the great cussing scenes. But it's Nava's second film goal that captured me: that is, to fully articulate a socio-political statement about the cultural torment Native Americans face in the Americas. So, the film is about much more than good storytelling and filmmaking--as we shall soon see.
When released in 1984 critics understandably hailed the film as an excellent testament about the plight of undocumented workers. What many film critics glossed over, however, was the ancestry of the film's protagonists and how their ethnicity made living in Guatemala a living hell and their travel to America arduous. To fully understand the thesis of the film the lead characters and their family's background must be fully examined. They're not just undocumented workers who migrate to the United States, but indigenous Mayan Guatemalans who face economic hardships and political persecution in their homeland "because" of their Amerindian ethnicity. Gregory Nava uses the film to fully explain the cultural differences of Rosa, Enrique, and her family--language, religion, music, and clothing--and in the process we learn about their estrangement from society.
By inference, then, the film illustrates the plight of Amerindians in the Americas--both Central and North America. After all, the events that Enrique and Rosa experience mirror the difficulties Native Americans have experienced since Europeans first landed on this continent. Gregory Nava argues that modern society looks upon indigenous Amerindians as foreigners, ironically in their ancestral land and treat them with disdain. Ever since the beginning of the European intrusion in the Americas the native people have been relegated to the bottom rung of the social hierarchy. First to exploit the Amerindians were the Spanish; later it was the mestizo. El Norte illustrates that after five hundred years, not much has changed.
The film begins with Mayan peasants working on a field while an overseer with a rifle, supervises the work. This scene reminds the viewer of the early days of the conquista when Amerindians worked on the missions and supervised by the padres, who treated the natives with brutal whippings and cruelty. In the film, the workers speak in the native Mayan tongue and they wear typical indigenous bright folk clothing. In the background, Nava uses beautiful Amerindian flutes for music. Clearly, Enrique and Rosa are not just Guatemalans but Native Central American Guatemalans who fluently speak their native tongue, wear Amerindian clothing, and are under the control of the oppressive Guatemalan mestizo landlord.
Throughout the film the Guatemalan natives are subjected to many epithets and hatred. Through these events Nava's point-of-view becomes evident. When Enrique inadvertently kills a soldier, for example, a mestizo screams, "that bastard Indian killed Puma." Later when Rosa and Enrique flee to "El Norte" a Mexican mestizo yells to them, "Damn Indians I hope you both die," and "we have arrived to Tijuana you damn Indians." Clearly, society at large has contempt for Enrique and Rosa because of their Native American background.
Nava's use of religion in his film also further identifies Enrique and Rosa as Amerindians. And, stylistically Nava uses a beautiful and artistic film version of "magical realism" to do so. In the film the patriarch of the family is killed by the Guatemalan Army and film viewers witness, what they would consider, an atypical funeral as no Catholic priest presides during this funeral ceremony. Guatemala is a Catholic country, so the funeral stands out as a statement of the native's estrangement from Catholicism. Rosa wears bright clothes during the funeral, which, again, is unlike a typical Catholic burial. And, when Rosa begins to sing her eulogy, she does so in her Mayan tongue and the song reminds the viewer of the traditional Amerindian animistic religion. Rosa sings: "We came only to sleep, to dream. All things are lent to us. We are only on earth in passing." Clearly, these few lines articulate the Amerindian view of the world. According to Native American theology mankind does not own the land nor the animals, the "Great Spirit" only lends them to mankind. Traditional European thinking and religious doctrine, on the other hand, argue that the world exists for human exploitation.
The director, therefore, uses religion as a metaphor to explain that Enrique and Rosa do not have a European-based philosophy but an Amerindian one. After all, they are Native Central Americans.
Gregory Nava wisely uses events in the film to constantly remind the film viewer that Amerindians face an extremely difficult life. Even though Enrique and Rosa are well rooted in their native philosophy, they find life and survival extremely hard. So what's the irony the film? The answer: Enrique and Rosa are strangers in their own homeland. In Guatemala, the country of their birth, they are wanted and persecuted for having a political meeting and being native Amerindian. When they travel to Mexico, the ancestral home of the Mayans, they are exploited and abused. And when they finally arrive in El Norte, where America beckons them with opportunities, they end up continually hounded.
Overall, the film asks the viewer to consider if Enrique and Rosa are truly immigrants; or are they an ethnic group displaced by a modern culture that does not fully understand that Amerindians are the native population. Native Americans are an indigenous people who belong here and do not need documentation.
Gregory Nava has produced and directed a film that will endure. His wise choice of casting, beautiful Native American music and use of "magical realism," combine to make this a highly viewable film, one that will not only entertain and educate but also compel film viewers to reconsider how they view indigenous Native Americans.