Immigration and Colonization
Reflexiones sobre 'El Norte', de Gregorio Nava

Hugo N. Santander
American University (Kyrgyzstan)


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Synopsis: A naturalistic understanding of Gregory Nava's «El Norte» (1983) is failed beforehand. Nava draws mythical themes from Central American, Greek and Biblical texts in order to articulate a modern epic of immigration. Mexico emerges as a mythical land, akin to Africa and Zion. Epic is collective and spontaneous, rather than conceived. Epic constantly rewrites history, geography and law. In «El Norte» the cadences of the epic verses are replaced by the lyrical images and sounds of a world that finds its ultimate consummation in eternity.

From a naturalistic standpoint, the main characters of Gregory Nava's «El Norte» (1983) are epitomes of melodramatic sensibility. Born in the bosom of a peasant family, Enrique and Rosa endure hardship and injustice in their exodus from Guatemala to California. We identify with two naïve victims of legal and illegal abuse who behave according to a patriarchal moral pattern. Their decisions are easily influenced by external factors. Sexual tensions are avoided by turning a youngster and his sister into the main characters of the film-a common Latin-American soap-opera convention.

«[Nava] applies a variety of sophisticated rhetorical techniques to a sentimental, manipulative story line… Nava is clearly less interested in exploring the tragic reality of the situation than in wringing a few tears from Anglo audiences. Though his subject is a serious one and his intentions are apparently noble, Nava has made a film that is essentially indistinguishable from «Love Story1

Although «El Norte» is promoted as «a dangerous journey to a better life»2, its discourse on immigration appears, in effect, to lack consistency. Conformity, obedience and alienation, rather than indignation and protest, are the dominant passions of the film.

Nonetheless, «El Norte» was named an American Classic by The Library of Congress. Twenty years after its release -and against the forecast of its detractors, Nava's Opera Prima preserves its lyrical appeal.

I contend that a naturalistic approach to «El Norte» is misled beforehand. Its melodramatic framework is merely a structure that supports the complexity of its discourse. As Homer, as Camoes, Nava recreates migration as an epic justified by a collective memory.

As its title suggests, «El Norte» articulates a ceaseless shifting of land, from Guatemala to Mexico, from Mexico to California, from California to Illinois. The journey of Enrique and Rosa is not geographical, but mythical-as Mario Barrera pointed out as early as 1992: «What lifts this film [«El Norte»] above the ordinary and gives it its extraordinary lyrical quality, however, is its connection to myth. The story of Enrique and Rosa, and much of the symbolism of the film, comes from the creation myth of the Maya… As in the Popol Vuh, there are twin heroes who must undergo a series of trials and tests before reaching their goal. The twin heroes represent an inherently dualistic concept of the universe.»3 Barrera's comment echoes Joseph Campbell's definition of myth: «[Myth] puts you in touch with a plane of reference that goes past your mind and into your very being, into your very gut. The ultimate mystery of being and nonbeing transcends all categories of knowledge and thought. Yet that which transcends all talk is the very essence of your own being, so you're resting on it and you know it. The function of mythological symbols is to give you a sense of "Aha! Yes. I know what it is, it's myself."»4 But the ruses contrived by Hunapú and Xbalanqué against the Lords of Xibalba5 are strange to Enrique and Rosa. Although Gregory Nava weaves his narration from a variety of sources, reenacting myths from Greece, Central America and Mesopotamia, his work articulates the passive ideology of the New Testament. Hunapú and Xbalanqué, as Gilgamesh, Joshua and Ulysses are colonizers who act with boldness and defiance: vengeance is their fate. Enrique and Rosa, by contrast, are immigrants, conspicuously perseverant. They have assumed a destiny of exile: as Joseph and Moses they live and die in a foreign land.

Immigration is the antonym of colonization. From the massacres of Canaan and the battles of Aeneas; from the Nordic sagas to the series of George Lucas, the colonizer demonizes his enemy in order to justify his/her destruction. The immigrant avoids conflict. He/she submits to his enemy in order to achieve conciliation. The medieval legend of the wondering Jew is, in fact, the legend of the quintessential immigrant. He and his offspring travel from Israel to Egypt, to Spain, to Portugal, to the Netherlands, to England and to the United States as a community that conveys knowledge, industry and experience to new countries. The Jew that invades a territory with sophisticated weaponry is, by contrast, a colonizer. Immigration and colonization are mentalities in ceaseless conflict with each other.

The birth of a mythical narration is spontaneous, rather than conceived. I was about five years old when I met a rambling child in Bucaramanga, Colombia. I asked him about his family. He told me that long time ago, in a remote region, he lived with his parents and his siblings in a luxurious farmhouse, along a lakeshore. His parents had several horses and a train of servants. They lived happily, until certain day a jealous neighbor burnt their house and murdered his family. He miraculously survived and moved to our city. That was why, he added, he had to beg his daily bread every morning, from door to door. His story caused an indelible impression on my imagination. His humiliating work was invested thereafter with a noble purpose. Yeas later I understood that he had enacted the myth of the fall of Adam and Eve, the epic of the son of Aphrodite, the sale of Joseph by his brothers. A victim of poverty, he had given a cosmological dimension to his childhood. He was aware, as Homer, that gods gave suffering to men, so that the bards might sing their woes (Odyssey, V, 804 - 806).

The myth renders the complexity that morality, sociology and psychology tend to abbreviate. Life relies in complexity, rather than on unity. The characters of «El Norte» are resilient to an anthropological, psychological or sociological discourse. Had Nava included schizophrenic patients in his film, «El Norte» would have become another exploration of the weakness and failure of family bounds in contemporary society. Instead, Nava recreates types that embody humanity as a whole.

Voices of a dominant discourse bind Nava's cinema to the artistic expression of a particular minority6. Without denying the cultural background of his work, «El Norte» appeals to viewers of all races, creeds and nations. By drawing episodes from a particular mythical consciousness, Nava reenacts a universal epic.

Today, as when «El Norte» was first screened in the Sundance Festival of 1984, the US government categorizes its citizens according to race and language: African-American, White, Native-American and Latino. Without debating the political outcome of such categorization, the racial and linguistic test cracks before the vast group of Latin-American immigrants. How to tag bilingual men and women? How to include Spaniards? What about Latin-American families with a German or African background? The identity of the Latin-American immigrant could have been blended in the Christian creed, were it not challenged by a system that insists in isolating the cultural diversity of those who bear Spanish or Portuguese surnames.

«El Norte» displays the bafflement caused by this categorization when Enrique and his illegal-Mexican friend talk about Pocho:

He is also a Mexican, isn't he?

No! He's a «Pocho,» he can't even speak Spanish-the dummy...

What does «Pocho» mean?

A Chicano... He's an American citizen, but his family came from Mexico.
That's why he has to do the same shit we do [to wash dishes].

The viewer, who had previously identified Enrique as a Guatemalan illegal immigrant, complies with his new identity without resistance. Mexico becomes the common place of Latin-American kinship. A mythical land consecrated by religious traditions, necessarily unreal in time and space-as once Africa was for the African-American artists of the 1920's7. A mythical space grows as law constraints the social mobility of the immigrants. By approaching vast groups of illegal immigrants under a single category collective memory is born. Africa and Mexico gain terrain in the US, as Zion gained terrain in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th century.

Enrique and Rosa's Guatemala, as a particular country-determined by history and geography, is absorbed and ultimately replaced by a new mythical space. This sacrifice creates, nonetheless, a growing feeling of culpability. The French writer Paul Ricœur beautifully explores the variations of this conflict. «[Myth] is a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men of today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man understands himself in this world.»8

As the first images of «El Norte» roll on the screen, Nava reenacts the myth of the creation. «From the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters» (Gen., 1: 1-2). A void background is lit by clouds in movement. We hear water running as the screen becomes loaded with biblical imagery: a steep mountain, an abysm, dense vegetation, birds, dogs, men…

The film introduces us to the family life of Enrique and Rosa in Guatemala. Civilization and primitive life are interwoven during the first part of «El Norte»: Josefita meets Enrique's family in a house lit with candles, although the park in front of the house is lit with electric bulbs. Josefita talks about the US life style, prodded by Enrique and Rosa, but almost immediately we realize that Enrique has already acquired a prior knowledge of the US through TV: «And in TV, [life there] looks superb.» Where has Enrique seen TV before? Does not Enrique's family house lack electricity? When and how often does he see TV if (as the first scenes suggest,) he's used to work from dusk to dawn everyday? Unresolved questions.

The next sequence of «El Norte» dramatizes Enrique's father's death by Government soldiers. Why is he murdered? Is he a member of a revolutionary group? Is he a founder of a communist organization? Is Guatemala undergoing a civil war? Again, it will be pointless to formulate answers. The death of the father has occurred at a symbolic level. His head hangs from a tree, as the forbidden apple of the Eden.

Nava presents «El Norte» in three parts: Guatemala, The Journey and The North. In Guatemala Nava appears to reject the conventions of naturalistic cinema. Such lack of coordination is a constitutional element of the myth: «I shall regard myths as a species of symbols, as symbols developed in the form of narrations and articulated in a time and a space that cannot be coordinated with the time and space of history and geography according to the critical method.»9 We are before the logic of a dream, or, as Kafka wrote, of a nightmare. As Enrique and Rosa move away from their Motherland, historic and geographical references become clearly outlined.

During The Journey Enrique and Rosa meet El Coyote, who cunningly persuades them to hasten their journey to the US. A true knowledge of the world seems to lie beyond. «And the serpent said unto the woman, ye shall not surely die… then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil (Gen., 3: 3-4). El Coyote describes Tijuana as a «Lost city… [where] no one owns anything». But almost immediately we learn that Mr. Gutiérrez owns a restaurant in Tijuana. Spatial and temporal coordinates remain unclear until Enrique and Rosa arrive at San Diego, and the Promised Land is unveiled before their ecstatic eyes.

«El Norte» slowly emerges as a symbolic representation. The perils endured by two Central American peasants are ennobled by their cosmological fate. We participate in the reenactment of the human fall, the expulsion from paradise and the exodus from an oppressive country to a Promised Land. This reenactment is solemn. Enrique and Rosa represent the viewer from the perspective of a collective memory-they are not realistic characters, but symbolic representations of the Male and the Female humanity. «Eve, then, does not stand for woman in the sense of a 'second sex'. Every woman and every man are Adam; every woman sins 'in' Adam, every man is seduced 'in' Eve.»10

The epic of «El Norte» is the epic of any past, present and future immigration. Someone has broken a covenant by leaving his/her native country. Religion, family and land are betrayed. The sequence where Rosa walks through his town in the middle of the night, prior to his journey to the US, is revealing. Rosa's nervousness is mainly due to a growing sense of culpability. She enters into a church to offer three candles to the Virgin Mary: one to her father, a second to her mother and a third to the village. A clear betrayal of her ties with religion, family and land. Once outside the church, she covers herself with a scarf. Her hands tremble. A window is abruptly closed, and she meets two old women. This scene is edited in a sinister mood. One of the women asks Rosa three times «Where are you going?» Wrinkled women who recall the Fates-the third being enacted by Don Ramon-who besides a water wheel warns Enrique about the perils of his journey.11 Rosa hesitates, unable to articulate her answer. Her ties with her past had been abruptly cut. As she runs away the town fades off from our memory. We witness an empty space: the memory of a dead memory. Rosa trembles, for she has sinned. «Sin is a religious dimension before being ethical; it is not the transgression of an abstract rule-of a value-but the violation of a personal bond.»12

The betrayal of this triple bond (religion, family and land) is displayed at three levels: cosmic, oneiric and poetic.

The above mentioned sequence closes in an image of the moon. Enrique and Rosa must leave in order to accomplish their epic: «Exile is a primary symbol of human alienation,»13 writes Ricoeur; an Alienation that, nonetheless, becomes a liberation. Submission is ameliorated by faith-or by a firm belief that any suffering will be short-lived. Exile appears to be the main theme of any mythology. Gilgamesh, in fear of death, travels in search of an answer to immortality. Ulysses and Sinbad abandon their motherland in search of glory or prosperity. The Old Testament is a ceaseless chronicle of banishment and exile, e.g. Joseph's sale, Moses' exodus, Elias' journey.

The migrant, on the other hand, is guided by his/her dreams. Deprived of wealth and power, Enrique and Rosa obey the whispers of nightly visions. Rosa's agony is announced by her mother in a dream. She solaces her daughter, whose lonely life in the US has become harder than in Guatemala. By appearing from the dead, Rosa's mother prepares her resurrection. In a second dream Rosa's father gives her a bunch of flowers and a fish-symbols of love and eternity. Soon after she dies.

The poetic dimension of «El Norte» is articulated by folk songs, e.g., Rosa's song before her father's burial, and the voice over when Rosa and Enrique leave the village.

But the myth does not only justify the being-there; it also purges moral guilt. Immigrants never leave their motherland by their own will; there is an external force that drives them off. Would Enrique and Rosa have remained in Guatemala, they would have undergone torture and ignominy in the same way that the Jewish community would have continued enduring slavery in Egypt. As Adam and Eve leave the paradise under the sword of an angel, thus Enrique and Rosa leave their village instigated by the soldier's weapons. By blaming an external force, the mythical hero is exculpated. «Arguing from the fact that our freedom is beset by desire, we seek to exculpate ourselves and make ourselves appear innocent by accusing an Other».14 The myth, as a fictional creation, manipulates the historical truth. Nava, as Homer, becomes a lawgiver and historian.

In the last section of «El Norte» Rosa contracts typhus. A growing guilt worsens her condition. Rosa has sinned, and her sin brands her with defilement. Whereas the doctor wants to find out whether Rosa has contracted a contagious disease or not, Rosa's main fear is to be identified as impure-an impurity which is not caused by a physical disease, but by her guilt and shame. She has not only abandoned her motherland; she has pushed her way in a society that is not her own. Her uneasiness grows in the belief of chastisement: «suffering is surcharged with ethical meanings. If you suffer, if you are ill, if you fail, if you die, it is because you have sinned.»15

Rosa ultimately incarnates the lamb of the New Testament. With her death Enrique is redeemed. His compassionate feminine sensitivity grows with his sister's death. By forgiving the world that destroyed her, Enrique is healed from his selfishness and ambition. Jorge, the Mexican, had already taught him that loneliness was the condition of survival. Happiness, as it was experienced during his early days in Guatemala, must be indefinitely procrastinated in the United States. Enrique becomes a workman, an alien controlled by a system no less unfair than the system he withstood in Guatemala. With such an end «El Norte» accomplishes the teleological function of the myth: it is projected towards the future-its real function is to justify the being-there-now for the being-there-for-always. «The fulfillment of the Promise, which at first appears to be at hand ('All the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever... Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee' [Gen. 13: 15-17]), is constantly postponed.» After enduring painful experiences Rosa and Enrique accept their ultimate fate in forgiveness. «The wealth of the interval [of the exile] is such that the end itself changes its meaning.»16 Enrique and Rosa's cosmological journey is not accomplished in this life, but in eternity. Immortality unfolds and preserves the myth. Past, present and future are diluted:

On the peak of the past
The future still sings17

«El Norte» acquires ground as a universal epic. The cadences of verses have been replaced by the lyrical images and sounds of Central America and California. Enrique and Rosa reenact the first couple who once upon a time migrated from Africa to a hostile world.


[1] Dave Kehr, in The Chicago Reader.

[2] Publicity slogan for «El Norte». Cinecom International, 1983.

[3] Barrera, Mario, «Story Structure in Latino Feature Films» in Chon A. Noriega, ed. Chicanos and Film. Representation and Resistance. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), p. 233.

[4] Campbell, Joseph 'Mythic Reflections: thoughts on myth, spirit, and our times,' interview with Tom Collins, in In Context No 12 (Langley: Winter 1985/86,) p. 52.

[5] «So impressed were the Lords by [the twin's] powers over death that "their hearts were filled with desire and longing" to submit themselves as volunteers for so marvelous a piece of magic. "Do the same with us! Sacrifice us!" they exclaimed. The twins agreed. "And so it happened that they first sacrificed the one and then the other of the Lords. And the twins did not bring them back to life." Everyone in Xibalba panicked and ran. "This is the way the Lords of Xibalba were overcome."» McClear, Margaret, POPOL VUH: Structure and Meaning (Madrid: Colección Plaza Mayor Scholar, 1973) p. 31-67.

[6] On the control of multiculturalism as akin to the control of discourse see the last chapter of Michel Foucault, Les Mots et Les Choses ( Paris: Gallimard, 1966.)

[7] «It became clear-to Langston Hughes at least-that the Africa being evoked was not the real one but a mythological, imaginary ‘Africa’ of noble savagery and primitive grace». Kobena Mercer, «Black Hair/State Politics,» in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures ( New York: MIT) p. 256. The author relies on Hughes sensibility towards Africa: «I was only an American Negro-who had love the surfaces of Africa and the rhythms of Africa-but I was not Africa.» Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea (London: Pluto Press, 1986.)

[8] Paul Ricœur, The Symbolism of Evil, tr. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) p. 5.

[9] Ibid., p. 18.

[10] Ibid., p. 255.

[11] The wheel is one of the oldest symbols of humanity. Kurosawa made use of it in his adaptation of Macbeth “Throne of Blood”.

[12] Paul Ricœur, Op.cit., p. 52.

[13] Ibid., p. 18.

[14] Ibid., p. 256.

[15] Ibid., p.31. Cfr. p.p. 43-44, y p. 241.

[16] Ibid., p. 263.

[17] Salinas, Pedro, Poesías (Barcelona: Barral Editores, 1971), p. 799.


© Hugo N. Santander 2002
Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad Complutense de Madrid

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