THE LYRICAL FILM El Norte is a sobering reminder of the flip side of the American Dream: the harsh and discouraging existence of the lower-class immigrant. Through the hopeful eyes of its central adult characters--a young Guatemalan Indian named Enrique and his sister Rosa--we see the ultimate "American" city, Los Angeles, in a new light: for a change the focus is not on aging starlets, alienated gigolos, or the jaded Rodeo Drive crowd. The hopes dashed in this tale are of a humbler sort, concerning only survival and modest prosperity.
The story begins in a small village in Guatemala. The Xuncaxes (Enrique's and Rosa's family) and their neighbors speak of "El Norte" in almost mystical tones. Yet what they actually chat about is quite mundane--flushable toilets, electricity, and cars: Good Housekeeping magazine is their window on the promised land. What makes their prosaic vision doubly absurd is the peaceful beauty of their own surroundings: the vivid, innocent colors of the Indians' clothing and buildings; the quivering flowers and butterflies which bespeak a continual breeze; the soothing strum of a villager's harp; and the background warbling of exotic birds.
Director Gregory Nava pointedly demonstrates, however, that this little paradise is at the same time a mini-Hell. Enrique's father, Arturo Xuncax, a coffee bean picker, secretly tries to organize his fellow laborers. "The rich came here. They're not from here. To them, the peasant is just a pair of arms," he tells his son before running off to his fateful meeting. The workers are betrayed by a fellow villager and ambushed by government soldiers. When Enrique runs to the scene, he finds his father's severed head dangling from a tree. In a rage, he stabs a soldier to death. Predictably, the Army carts off the Xuncax family, but while Enrique and Rosa are away from the house.
Realizing that they, too, will eventually be hunted down, brother and sister decide to escape to "El Norte." Rosa literally kisses her colorful ancestral clothes goodbye (traveling through) Mexico dressed as Indians would only encourage mistreatment), while her brother reassures her, "In the North, we won't be treated this way, I'm sure of it."
On their journey north, Enrique and Rosa naively, but always intelligently, ride successive waves of shock and betrayal together. The strength of their dream propels them through daunting encounters with everything from tunnel rats to border patrols. In one hilarious scene, Enrique makes use of a friend's advice to pepper his speech with the word "fuck" in order to convince a pair of immigration officers that he is a Mexican.
Their arrival in Los Angeles marks a temporary triumph of optimism; Enrique becomes a waiter in a posh restaurant; Rosa finds work first in a garment factory (where she sees models "Just like in a magazine!") and then as housemaid to an amusingly prim matron who unsuccessfully tries to teach her how to operate a computerized washer-dryer.
Good fortune quickly ebbs, however, leaving illness and betrayal in its wake. Against the new background noise of blaring radios and L.A. street life, Enrique and Rosa slowly catch on to the different, yet equally ruthless, code of lower-class life in "El Norte." The city's glamorous women look tired and aloof throughout the film, but Rosa only begins to notice this towards the end. On her deathbed, after listening to her brother's cheery forecasts for their future, she finally breaks down and sobs, "Life here is very hard. We're not free."
The story's end completes a circle; Enrique becomes "a pair of arms," digging ditches for a corporation.
Co-writers Nava and Anna Thomas have created a fat-free and vibrant script; virtually every line is soaked with relevance and insight. The spareness of El Norte's storyline never lapses into maudlin simplicity; on the contrary, it only fosters depth. The straightforward courage of its central figures (ingenuously portrayed by unknown actors) accentuates the tragedy of their fates. "All things are lent to us," Rosa chants at her father's funeral, an astonishingly forgiving utterance, given the circumstances. But it is precisely such humility and understatement that imbues the story with disturbing conviction.
The credibility of this tragic saga resides largely within the yawning disparity between its protagonists' ideals and the un-rosy urban reality with which Americans are only too familiar. While watching Enrique and Rosa crawl for miles through a tunnel to reach America, the viewer cannot help but shake his head over their delight upon spotting the light at the end. The odds are stacked miserably against them; but unaware of this fact, the two march almost inexorably toward despair.
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