Commercial filmmaking often follows promising trends, whether consciously or not, and the result may be a spate of similarly themed movies appearing on the market at roughly the same time. For example, in the 1980s one such trend was the so-called “save the farm” films, in which Hollywood stars struggled valiantly to hold onto scenic family farms. Another short-lived but important trend was “border cinema” that dealt with tensions at the U.S.-Mexico border. When studio-funded these stories were told mostly from the American point of view; The Border (1982) with Jack Nicholson is emblematic of this approach.
Something of an outlier among border movies was Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) which, though not a box office hit, was a critical success and has proven to be immensely influential in the decades since its release. Nava tells the story of two siblings who flee Guatemala after the murders of their parents and journey to the north (el norte) along the length of Mexico. Like so many before and after them, Enrique and Rosa dream of finding a new home in the United States free of political violence and persecution. However, their faith and their resilience are tested at every step as challenges mount, leading to what must seem in hindsight an inevitable conclusion.
In interviews co-writer and director Gregory Nava traced the origins of El Norte to his experiences growing up in San Diego in a border family with relatives in Tijuana, Baja California. The young Nava crossed the border several times a week, often wondering who lived in all those cardboard shacks on the Mexican side:
“The border is unique—the only place in the world where an industrialized first-world nation shares the border with a third-world country…on one side are the Tijuana slums, on the other side—San Diego. It’s so graphic! This was the germ of the story.”
In his review Roger Ebert called El Norte “the Grapes of Wrath for our times,” and its impact is undiminished. The film is frequently shown and discussed in high school and college courses that touch on border issues, immigration, indigenous rights, and multiculturalism. In this program moderator Ross Melnick and guests Colin Gunckel and Mirasol Enríquez reflect on the genesis, production, reception, and legacy of the film in the context of both the “border cinema” of the 80s and newly emerging Chicanx filmmaking.
No matter how culturally insightful, no film can linger in the memory unless it speaks directly to audiences. El Norte is first and foremost a profoundly moving story, elevated above mere melodrama by its unblinking devotion to realism, its visual beauty, and the mesmerizing performances of the two leads, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando.