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El Norte Still Speaks Volumes

It’s a film my wife had been pestering me to see for years. Blockbuster online listed it always as a “very long wait.” Hate that.

It was released the year I graduated from high school, so no wonder it got past me. I had bigger fish to fry. Like cracking my first Pabst Blue Ribbon shortie and coordinating a summer road trip to Madison.

Illegal immigration was not really on my radar. All the Canadians I met seemed like nice enough folks, and man they could play some hockey.

El Norte (1983) was directed by Gregory Nava. His script was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

It tells the story of a brother, ‘Enrique,’ (David Villalpando) and sister, ‘Rosa’ (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), fleeing Guatemala after the brutal murder of their family. Their journey is a rough one, eventually landing them in a rat-infested sewer tunnel taking them from Tijuana to San Diego. The film was shot on over 100 locations, accentuating the “journey of the Americas,” the “mestizo.”

Rule #34 in the Lars Beckerman handbook clearly states steering clear of political banter. Not always easy in this highly charged partisan atmosphere.

Of the big issues on the table at present, illegal immigration is for me the most complex. Turmoil and oil costs in the Middle East? I tend to agree with our President: speak softly and carry a big stick. We only differ on the size of the stick. Universal health care? Here, I disagree with our President. I think we all can recognize that at its core there is a relatively small amount of American citizens in our multi-car, multi-cell phone, flat screen society that need government sponsored one-size-fits all “free” health insurance.

But immigration, illegal and legal, is a policy discussion that effects a massive chunk of our economy, and wreaks havoc on too many of our families. Living in the shadows, always fearful of being deported, must be incredibly stressful and degrading.

What I admire most about El Norte is the integrity of the plight to a better life, which included, without apology or pandering, an eagerness for assimilation into American society. The immediate recognition that hard work pays dividends, and upward mobility is available to all.

Some things will never change. Oppressed people will always do what they have to do to get out from under dictators or totalitarian regimes. Look at what is happening in South Korea this past year. The flight of so many dissidents from the North, many resulting in the agonizing conclusion of being sent back to a government that will not forgive.

Much of the imagery of El Norte was inspired by Diego Rivera. Many shots reminded me of Frida Kahlo. The entire first act is lit primarily by kerosene lamps and candle light, emphasizing a third world origin, void of electricity and modern civilization.

This contrast accentuates the startling cultural differences; and for me, the things we take for granted. Electricity. Telephones. Plumbing. Toilets that flush. Police who don’t shoot you on sight.

Director Nava describes El Norte as classic pre-Colombian mythology, with dueling protagonists, the story of the man and the woman. The class theme of rich and poor is heavy in this film (“rich only view the poor as a pair of arms that work”), but the sustaining message of El Norte is family and survival. The two young actors deliver sensitive and thoughtful performances.

I don’t know anyone who is against legal immigration. People from all over the world continue to crave for and dream of making it to the United States of America for a better life. That should make all of us who are blessed to call this our home proud. The sticking point for most Americans on this enormous problem is the simple philosophy of assimilation. 

2 thoughts on “El Norte Still Speaks Volumes

  1. I’m in!! sounds pretty good – I’ll have to take a peek and see for myself. Sadly, I’m sure there are people against even legal immigration but no sir, not I. My dad brought my mom here when she was 17 and although everything was legal, without the possibility of even that notion, I wouldn’t be here. It’s crazy how spoiled Americans have become and how ungrateful we are of a country where as my dad put it “we have hundreds of choices of cereal. when I was in East Berlin, they gave you 1 kind.” Ok, I’m done now.

    • There is a poignant moment in Oliver Stone’s 1993 Heaven and Earth when the young Vietnamese girl, fresh on American soil, walks into the gigantic super market and is in awe of all of the product choices. So true, BFJ. I propose we all take inventory more often and remember how blessed we are.

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