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Film / El Norte

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“In the North, we won’t be treated this way.”

El Norte ("The North") is a 1983 film directed by Gregory Cava.

Enrique and Rosa Xuncax are ethnic Mayans living in a village in rural Guatemala. Their father Arturo attempts to organize the local coffee pickers into a union, which gets him and his fellow workers murdered by a squad of government stormtroopers. After Enrique kills one of the soldiers and most everyone else in the town is rounded up by the government goon squad, Enrique and Rosa flee for "el norte", i.e., the United States.

They make it to the USA after a difficult, harrowing journey, and they manage to find work. But they continue to struggle, and it turns out that America is not, after all, the land of paradise.



  • An Immigrant's Tale: They don't come much sadder than this one, as Enrique and Rosa's trip to America brings nothing but tragedy and grief.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Symptoms of murine typhus will develop 1-2 weeks after infection. Although the film is vague it seems pretty certain that more time than that has passed, as Enrique and Rosa have found a place to live, decorated it, found jobs, and taken ESL classes for long enough to pick up basic conversational English.
  • Billions of Buttons: Combined with the language barrier, when a Rich Bitch white lady tries to explain to Rosa and her friend Nacha how to use the washer and dryer. Rosa doesn't get it, and gets in trouble for washing the clothes by hand.
  • Brick Joke: Enrique is told that Mexicans curse constantly and that he has to use the F-word constantly to fit in. In one of the only jokes in this unremittingly grim movie, the first Mexican he and his sister meet has a filthy mouth, saying "Motherfucking tire!" when his truck gets a flat. And later, Enrique does in fact trick a Border Patrol agent into sending him to Mexico by saying "chingana" a lot.
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  • Call-Back: Early in the film, Arturo tells Enrique that the local landowners only care about "strong arms" to work for them—the lords don't see their laborers as human beings. Arturo wants better for his son. At the end, the guy in the truck is calling for "strong arms" for manual labor, indicating that America is Not So Different from Guatemala and that Enrique will never have a home or a better life.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Swarm of Rats in the sewer pipe. They're terrifying, but later Rosa dies from the typhus she catches from the rats in the tunnel.
  • Contrast Montage: While all the coyotes are working to draw the business of the travelers getting off the Tijuana bus, a montage of the grim scenery of a Tijuana shantytown is immediately contrasted with the stereotypical painted houses and manicured lawns of American suburbia.
  • Country Mouse: When Enrique and Rosa arrive in Tijuana, they're mocked by the locals for being innocent rubes that expect to be able to find their coyote by his name only. Since they actually are innocent rubes, they gullibly fall for the assurances of the first person who is nice to them, who promptly tries to rob them in the desert.
  • Downer Ending: Rosa dies. Enrique loses his best chance at a better life, and is left a common manual laborer just like he was in Guatemala, with no hope of a better life.
  • Dream Sequence: While on the bus, Enrique has a nightmare in which Don Rodrigo, the Guatemalan coffee lord who sent the army after the workers, finds him and cuts his throat.
  • Ethereal White Dress: A variation late in the movie. Rosa wakes up in her house in Guatemala, wearing a white night shirt, she sees her mother and father wearing all white traditional ensembles, when they take her outside to talk, a coupe of albino peacocks roam around the yard. When she snaps out if, she collapses in the middle of the mansion she and her friend are cleaning.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: Being illegals, they have no other choice.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier:
    • The Border Patrol agents speak Spanish, but they don't speak the native Mayan dialect that Enrique and Rosa use to talk to each other.
    • Enrique and his buddy at the restaurant use this to mock another kitchen employee, a Chicano who doesn't speak Spanish.
  • Hope Spot: Their situation improves when Enrique gets a promotion at the restaurant, and things look even more promising when Enrique gets a job offer to be a factory foreman. But Enrique loses the restaurant job when a waiter rats him out to Immigration, Rosa gets sick, and nothing but disaster follows.
  • The Illegal: Enrique and Rosa. They suffer.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: She doesn't actually cough, but when the ESL teacher asks if she's OK and Rosa says she feels a little tired, it's not hard to guess what's going to happen.
  • Match Cut: From the fruit truck that Enrique and Rosa hitch a ride on, to the green bus taking them to Tijuana.
  • Ominous Fog: The village is wrapped in fog and mist when Enrique and Rosa make their escape, suggesting that bad things are in their future.
  • Rain of Blood: Enrique, who hears the shooting, goes to the old church to investigate. Some blood drips on him. He looks up to see his father's severed head hanging from a tree.
  • Separated by a Common Language: The villager who helps Enrique gets started on his journey tells him to claim to be Mexican if he's caught by Border Patrol. He tests Enrique by asking him to say "It's very hot", and when a bemused Enrique says "Hace mucho calor", the villager says that's wrong—he has to say hace chingana calor, "It's fucking hot." Apparently Mexicans curse constantly. When Enrique makes it to Mexico he finds out that his friend was right.
  • Swarm of Rats: The worst thing about Enrique and Rosa's terrifying crawl through a sewer pipe to America is when they are run over by a swarm of rats. Disease-bearing rats.
  • Tempting Fate: When a friendly fellow in Tijuana offers to help Enrique and Rosa across the border, Enrique says to her, "I told you we'd be lucky!" Their new friend turns out to be a con artist who tries to rob them.
  • Title Drop: Many references to their destination, el norte.
  • Tragic Dropout: Enrique is offered a promising job as a factory foreman in Chicago, one that not only would be a lot more money but could earn him a green card. But when his sister falls deathly ill, he misses the plane to be by her side. In the end he's shown on a day-labor job in the L.A. area shoveling concrete.


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