El Norte (1983)

brooke I’m trying to think of the last movie that punched me this hard in the gut. Or in the heart.

casey We usually write these recaps immediately after watching the movie, and it’s hard to put my feelings into words right now. What do you say about something like El Norte? For starters, it’s good.

brooke It’s really good. Brief summary:

Enrique and Rosa  Xuncax (David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) are a brother and sister of Mayan descent living Guatamala during its long civil war. The workers in their village, led by their father Arturo, are organizing against rich landowners who, as Arturo tells Enrique, only see the poor as arms to do their work. Soon the military ambushes a gathering of workers, beheads Arturo, and begins clearing all indigenous people from the village, a nod to the actual genocide committed against the Maya during the war. Ricky and Rosa’s family is rounded up, and the siblings left with a choice: stay and wait to be slaughtered or go north.


casey Early in the film the characters speak of el norte in reverential tones, as a place that represents the freedom and wealth they’ve been denied, at least for the lucky ones who can get there. But as Enrique and Rosa make their way through Mexico to Los Angeles, they learn that the reality is not quite as idyllic as they’d imagined.

brooke Among many other things, they deal with the threat of immigration raids, deep poverty, and a lack of medical care. Though they escaped certain death in Guatemala, life in Los Angeles proves far more difficult than their godmother’s stories about nice cars and flushing toilets led them to imagine.


casey This makes the movie sound very grim, and it occasionally is. But what makes El Norte great is its warmth and it’s light touch. The story has affection for all its characters, beginning with Rosa and Ricky, whose sometimes naive optimism propels the movie forward. They’re just kids dealing with some cruel realities, but they mostly maintain their sense of humor throughout and it’s hard as a viewer not to fall in love with them. Just about every minor character is likewise portrayed with sympathy and humor.

brooke I really enjoyed that. Everyone Rosa or Enrique interact with is a fully-formed human with a personality. The world they inhabit is fully believable.

casey I also liked that the movie’s commentary about immigration is direct without feeling didactic. As you said, it feels like a fully realized world, even though the siblings only experience a small slice of it.

brooke And the way fellow immigrants treat Rosa and Ricky for being indigenous and Guatemalan reminds us that it’s more complicated than just Mexicans crossing the border.

In the end, though, the world doesn’t treat them well. At one point Rosa delivers a heart-wrenching speech about having lost their home and how hard it is to live in el norte. She’s wants to fit in, but that goal is always out of reach. There’s another scene where she watches a blonde lady idling in a Mercedes convertible, and without any dialogue, Gutiérrez and director Gregory Nava convey Rosa’s desperate desire to live with that level of freedom, to truly be a part of the society around her.

casey Scenes like that are so effective precisely because they feel so ordinary. The are small interactions that we’d normally take for granted.

Let’s talk about the end of the movie. While most of El Norte is restrained and straightforward, the climax introduces a high-stakes twist in which a character is literally forced to choose between family and future success in the most melodramatic way possible. Did that work for you?

brooke It felt very much like a “movie” moment, but I think it’s worth it for the payout in the the final scene, when Enrique, after many ups and downs, finds himself waiting in a line of day laborers. A truck pulls up and the driver asks for men with “strong arms,” which mirrors exactly what Ricky’s father once told him: the rich only see peasants as arms to do work.

casey And Ricky, the idealist and optimist for most of the movie, is unable to turn down the job. In that moment, in this world, his arms are all that he has to offer.

brooke What makes the whole thing so poignant is how perfectly the end ties everything together. Rosa and Ricky have left their home, endured a hellish border crossing, and scrambled to find work and learn a new language in a strange country, only to find that while their conditions may be slightly better, their prospects are not.

casey They’re still the lowest rung, just on a nicer ladder.

brooke Exactly. I’d recommend El Norte to anyone. And honestly, I’m surprised I’d never heard of it before.

casey It’s such a humane (and human) story. Maybe the climax didn’t work quite as well for me, but that last scene is incredibly powerful. And despite the movie being over thirty years old, it still feels as relevant as if it had been made yesterday.


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