El Norte (1983)
Director: Gregory Nava
El Norte is a story about two indigenous Guatemalan brother and sister, fleeing from the civil strife from their village, embarked on a perilous journey for a new life in the United States, which is simply referred as El Norte (the north) by the people. As this title has suggested, it is a story seen entirely from the point of view of the immigrants. For them U.S. is the land of legendary riches. Immigration laws are really challenges they have to workaround. But when they have arrived, the reality is a lot harder than they have imagined. They find their prospect limited to menial labor, and a life under the shadow of illegal status with a constant threat of deportation.
This is the third time I have seen this movie over the course of 20 years. Each time it is an emotional experience. And each time I see something new. This first time was in Hong Kong when I was in school. I can quickly connect the film into the movement of illegal immigrants from China to Hong Kong that we have experienced first hand. The second time I become aware of the politics in Guatemala that made life so untenable in their villages, which I have managed to miss entirely in the first viewing. Also by that time I am living in US myself and I can see the depiction of their life is very realistic.
On my third viewing, it is the film's 25th anniversary already. Guatemala has become more peaceful since then. But the illegal immigration issue in the US is more intense than ever. Somehow I see something new this time, that El Norte is a so much better place!
Seriously, this may not be what the director has in mind when he made the film. But I see the people being so much nicer to each other. Enrique was a nobody. But when he poured coffee for the rich people, the rich people said "thank you" to him! Back home they are merely despised Indians. And the military men hunted them down like animals. Here they are actually getting some respect. When Rosa refused to go to the hospital because she said she is afraid of the government, it is not only because of her immigration status. Her reaction can only be understood because she came from a society where more often than not, the government is working against the people instead of working for the people. But here, despite of her legal status, she will receive treatment from the hospital.
By calling it better I don't mean this is a rich land with flush toilet and where even the poorest own a car, as it was alleged by some villagers. It is that I truly see it as a land of opportunities. I must have somehow enlightened by Jane Jacob's depiction on how a city works. I see vibrant economy, upward mobility and training freely available to help people succeed. When Enrique was promoted from busboy to waiter, we are so proud of him. It is not that waiter is a particularly promising career. We are proud of him because we see he has grown, because he has learned enough English in just a short time and because he was recognized for his merit. Make no mistake, they are living an unglamorous life at the bottom of the social ladder. But this is more of a problem only if we judge them by gringo standard. Should we consider where they have come from, a different picture will emerge. This is a society that provides them basic security, justice and endless opportunities. All these are lacking from their village.
My new realization makes me appreciate US more and perhaps diluted the film's tragic quality a bit. Nevertheless it is still an authentic and humanistic story. I am looking forward for my fourth viewing soon.