Moral Compass Points 'Norte'

With insight and honesty,
With insight and honesty, "El Norte" portrays the human lives behind the term "illegal immigrants," which 22 years later is more topical than ever. (Artisan/Photofest)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

With immigration reform a hot topic on cable TV, talk radio and around most Americans' kitchen tables, the time seems right to revisit a film that, though made more than 20 years ago, could have been ripped from yesterday's headlines.

I first saw "El Norte" in 1984, and it's one of those film experiences I'll never forget -- not because it was great cinema (although it announced an important new talent in the filmmaking world), but because it revealed a heretofore hidden world.

Directed by Gregory Nava and written by Nava and his German-born wife, Anna Thomas, "El Norte" told the story of a brother and sister living in a remote village in Guatemala, where their father is executed by military forces while organizing his fellow workers on a coffee plantation. Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Sylvia Gutierrez) watch as their mother is killed as well, then make their way to America, "The North," where they've heard everyone has a flush toilet and a car to drive.

In a harrowing journey, Enrique and Rosa battle hunger, rats and the corrupt "coyotes" who take money for accompanying people over the Mexico-California border, all in an effort to escape political oppression and poverty. Once in Los Angeles, they begin to learn English as they start to work in their adopted country's sweatshops, kitchens and construction sites. Disregarded, exploited and condescended to, Enrique and Rosa represent that vast, nameless population of workers who make the American way of life possible even while being routinely locked out of it.

"El Norte," one of the first projects to emerge from Robert Redford's then-nascent Sundance Institute, was the first film to enjoy a significant release that showed, with compassion, honesty and tragic insight, the human lives behind such bloodless abstractions as "illegal immigration" and "undocumented workers." Movies about the immigrant experience would be released in subsequent years -- most memorably "Lone Star," "Dirty Pretty Things" and Jim Sheridan's "In America," about an Irish family that immigrates without benefit of the proper paperwork. But "El Norte" was seminal, both for its graceful blend of classical narrative and magic realism, and the power with which it brought an otherwise invisible world to life.

Nava lived up to the promise he exhibited with "El Norte," directing Jennifer Lopez in her breakout performance in "Selena," as well as "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." His current project, "Bordertown," is based on the real-life murder of Mexican woman at the maquiladoras of Juarez, Mexico, which has seen its own post-NAFTA immigration crisis.

Meanwhile, as Nava comes full circle, his first film is suffering a cruelly ironic fate: Even at its most relevant, "El Norte" is practically impossible to see. It rarely if ever shows up on television, and has yet to be released on DVD. Your local video store might have a threadbare VHS version, or you might be able to score a copy on eBay, but this classic film -- more indispensable than ever -- deserves better.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company