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El Norte, deracination and circularity: an epic gone awry.

As the geometer who bends all his will to measure the circle, and howsoe'er he try Fails, for the principle escapes him still, Such at this mystery new disclosed was I

--Dante, Par. xxxiii, 133-36

Early journalistic reviews (e.g., Gold, Ebert, and Kael) of El Norte (1983), Gregory Nava's first major film, identify it as an epic. Kael, however, rails at what she considers the screenwriters' and the director's ineptitude (115), but she feels that the heroic nature of the protagonists' struggle makes the film's purported mediocrity bearable to her as an exigent viewer. Hugo N. Santander, in a piece with decidedly academic pretensions, maintains that El Norte is a migratory epic akin to The Odyssey as well as The Lusiads, in which emblematic figures Odysseus and Vasco da Gama realize deeds of national importance and personify their nations' virtues. On top of this, Mario Barrera (260-61) and Santander maintain that, in addition to the classical epics already mentioned, the Popol vuh, the Mayan creation myth, also informs El Norte. This claim derives from the following similarity: In the Popol vuh a pair of pre-human, divine siblings performs a quest after their father's death. In El Norte the siblings Enrique and Rosa, two Guatemalan Amerindians, leave their native village on a quest to what for them is the mythical land in the North.

Although El Norte corresponds to the general scheme of the migratory epic, in which characters leave their native land, endure perils, and finally reach their goal, I shall argue that this film's structure and, more importantly, its theme and message derive more specifically and extensively, albeit inversely, from an epic in which the protagonist's voyage is spiritual rather than geographical and which plumbs, if not all mankind's fate, at least that of Christendom--Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. That is, I maintain that El Norte is an epic of modernity in which economic opportunity and political freedom take the place of the union with God that Dante achieved. It is also different from the Divine Comedy insofar as it distorts Dante's ascendance from the depths of hell into paradise. In El Norte the protagonists leave a would-be paradise turned infernal only to find themselves in a similarly hellish situation at the end of their quest. This film is an epic gone tragically awry: in the course of the plot, rather than achieve their desired prosperity and new identities, the sibling protagonists Rosa and Enrique lose their authenticity, i.e., their identities as Central American Indians, descendants of the Mayans. Rosa dies in a county hospital knowing there is no place for her, and Enrique ends up as an undocumented day laborer, a pair of brazos fuertes at a construction site. Enrique's fate brings the movie full circle because early in the film his father, who wanted something more for his children, maintains that for the rich, poor people are nothing more than pairs of arms to do their work.

While most movies follow the three-act division of classical drama (Barrera 248), rarely is a film demarcated into three separate titled acts the way El Norte is. The first act or segment of the play corresponds to the Inferno. It takes place in Guatemala and is titled "Arturo Xuncax," after Enrique and Rosa's father. This patriarchal figure is known to be involved in the planning of a local rebellion against capitalist absentee landlords who have usurped the communal land surrounding San Pedro, an Indian community (see Wolf 202, 215). The second segment, of approximately equal duration, is "El coyote" and takes place in Mexico and the border region between the Mexican and American Californias. It corresponds to the Purgatorio. Enrique and Rosa are illegal aliens who assume the identity of Mexican Indians in both Mexico and the United States and who suffer hardships in their attempts to reach the Promised Land. The third segment, "The North," takes place in Los Angeles (the City of Angels), the would-be paradiso where Enrique and Rosa find work that edges them toward their dream of self-determination and economic prosperity.

Nava (Barrera 260) considers the last section, "The North," to be divided into two dramatic parts: before and after Carlos's betrayal of Enrique and Jorge at the Beverly Hills restaurant. Barrera rejoins that "some script analysts would disagree with" Nava's analysis and consider the movie divided into the three named acts. Indeed, the betrayal in the third act mirrors two earlier ones: that of an anonymous villager who betrays the conspirators in the first act and that of Jaime, a small-time thief and mugger, who tricks Rosa and Enrique into crossing the border with him so as to attack and rob them amid the brambles on the American side of the border. Each betrayal is a turning point in the action. The turning point in the final act culminates in Enrique and Rosa's catastrophe--deracination and death.

The village of San Pedro, where the movie begins, represents the many remote villages or republicas de indios in Mexico and Guatemala to which, during colonial times, idigenous people retreated in order to avoid the onslaught of European invaders and the enslavement, absorption, or death from disease that befell those who tarried among the new arrivals. These out-of-the-way communities were sanctioned by the Spanish Crown (Wolf 214). In them indigenous people were secure in their identity as members of a special community. They could maintain their languages and culture and have minimal contact with the colonial way of life. (1) Land was communal, accumulation of individual wealth was taboo, and, at least in comparison with mestizo culture, there was no social hierarchy based on gender. In the context of Latin America these communities were utopian (see Wolf 159-66, 195, 215-23, 226, 238-40).

However, for some time during the twentieth century, and particularly around the time of El Norte's filming, the way of life in these communities came under fire. The communal land was extremely fertile, and the idigenous people in these communities had no (modern) legal title to it. Often, through extralegal machinations and by force, this land was taken over by corporate interests in order to plant cash crops--in the case of San Pedro, coffee. In the opening scene, Enrique and Arturo harvest coffee under the watchful eye of a capataz (foreman) armed with a pistol. The workers communicate with one another in an Amerindian language variously identified as Quiche or Mayan. They agree to meet that night in an abandoned hacienda.

The harvest scene shifts to a house in which the foreman offers money to a worker to find out where the conspirators are to meet. The worker betrays them, and after dark the would-be rebels meet and, as far as one can tell, are massacred by a platoon of soldiers. Arturo survives the original attack and knocks out and disarms one soldier, El Puma, only to fall prey to other soldiers when he cannot engage El Puma's submachine gun. Enrique, left at home by his father, hears the gunshots and runs, armed with a machete, to the hacienda where he finds his father's head hanging from a tree. (2) When he attempts to take it down, he is attacked by El Puma, whom he manages to kill.

After funerals for the fallen men, the soldiers return to round up the conspirators' family members, including the Xuncax family. (The two protagonists are not taken because Rosa was off at the shore of a lake washing clothes, and Enrique had taken refuge in a canyon.) Enrique, having heard stories of life in the North (reiterated in an earlier scene) from his godmother, resolves to emigrate. Since both Xuncax offspring are in danger, Rosa accompanies him.

Clearly, life in this idyllic Amerindian community has been turned into a hell. While these communities were never able to support a growing population (Wolf 228-30), insidious capitalism and state terrorism made them unbearable. Indeed, entire villages disappeared during the conflicts between native populations and Central American governments during the 1970s and 80s (Insdorf). And it is only natural that Enrique and Rosa, having lost their family and being in danger themselves, should want to leave.

In preparation for their trip, Enrique consults the first of many guides or Virgils: (3) don Ramon, who has been to the United States. Don Ramon advises Enrique to disguise himself linguistically (4) as a Mexican Amerindian both in Mexico and in the United States, so that if caught he will not be returned to Guatemala and forced to face certain death. Don Ramon warns him that he will need a first-class coyote to smuggle him across the border between Mexico and the United States and recommends Raimundo Gutierrez. (5) On the evening of their departure, Rosa sheds her native apparel for a modest white dress and black shawl, which she believes hide her Amerindian identity. She wears them all the way to Tijuana and wears similar clothing on her first day on the job in Los Angeles.

The second part of El Norte takes place in Mexico, where Rosa and Enrique meet their second Virgil, in whose truck they attempt to stow away when he stops to repair a flat tire. He discovers them, makes fun of them, has them help him replace the tire, and heads north with them toward Oaxaca. This Virgil lives up to the stereotyped Mexican male described by don Ramon; his speech is vigorously seasoned with vulgarity.

The next scene occurs some days later, when Enrique and Rosa find themselves on a second- or third-class bus bound for Tijuana. On this bus they exchange insults with a Mexican who is bothered by corrientes de aire (drafts) from their open window and who, at one point, displays his racial prejudice when he says, "!Indios malditos, ojala que se mueran!" In a dream Enrique is visited by an assassin who pins him to the ground and is about to slit his throat when their irate fellow passenger awakens him and welcomes brother and sister to Tijuana, "El cagadero del mundo." On leaving the bus, all passengers are besieged by potential coyotes who, for a price, offer to help them cross them into the paradisiacal land of plenty.

Because the address for Raimundo Gutierrez is no longer current, and because no one knows where to find him, Enrique and Rosa are stranded in Tijuana and razzed by a group of loutish Mexicans. A man named Jaime appears to come to their rescue, dispersing the teasers and offering the two shelter and company in crossing the border. At nightfall they pass through a hole in the border's fence and proceed northward. After dark they stop, ostensibly so that Jaime can relieve himself, but actually so that he can prepare his attack. After a fight, which, thanks to Rosa's help, Enrique wins, Jaime learns that the money he expected to get from the robbery was a trivial amount. At this point the three are discovered by United States border guards. Jaime flees, and Rosa and Enrique are taken captive.

The border guards suspect that the two may not be Mexicans. When interrogated, Rosa and Enrique deny that they are literate. Enrique laces his speech with stereotypical Mexican vulgarity to convince their captors that they are Mexican, and the two are returned to Tijuana rather than to Guatemala.

In Tijuana they live a hand-to-mouth existence until Enrique locates Raimundo Gutierrez, who, as a favor to don Ramon, agrees to smuggle them to Los Angeles. To meet their expenses (US $100) Rosa sells her mother's silver necklaces--the last remnant of their Amerindian existence in San Pedro. Purged of their identity and their native artifacts, don Raimundo takes them to a drainage tunnel that begins on the American side of the border and empties into a dump in Mexico. For ten excruciating minutes the scene shifts between Enrique and Rosa's crawling through the fetid, rat-infested tunnel, reminiscent of the cave Virgil and Dante traverse between hell and purgatory, (6) and the trip of a border patrol surveillance helicopter that hovers over the United States exit to the tunnel as Rosa and Enrique prepare to emerge.

Once the danger is past, they exit and, to the music of the third movement of Mahler's Symphony no. 4 in G Major, they breathe their first flesh air in several hours. They are joined by Raimundo, who brings them food and identifies the lights of San Diego for them. (7) Mahler's music continues into the following scene, a dramatic aerial nighttime shot over downtown Los Angeles accompanied by the majestic finale of the third movement. This is ironic because Mahler intended this symphony to reflect a child's vision of paradise and innocent country folk and their view of life (Mann). Rosa and Enrique have passed, purged of their language, their culture, and their native belongings into what as innocents they believe to be paradise.

Whereas Virgil abandoned Dante at the end of Purgatory, Raimundo (actually a blend of the guides Virgil and Matilda, who led Dante through an Edenlike garden to Beatrice) delivers Rosa and Enrique to don Mocte, Mexican American exploiter of illegal aliens. This satanic instantiation of Beatrice pays Raimundo seventy-five dollars for Rosa, for whom he finds immediate work in a sweatshop, and allows both Rosa and Enrique to stay and pay the rent on a squalid room in his establishment--the Lazy Acres Motel.

The next day Rosa goes off to work in Mr. Chu's sweatshop, where she meets Nacha, a much more benevolent guide to the new world. Nacha spirits Rosa away when agents from La Migra (then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service) raids the shop on her first day of work. Nacha takes her to a barrio cafe and treats her to lunch. During the lunch Nacha proposes that the two work together cleaning houses. She teases Rosa because of her clothes, saying, "Pareces india," catching herself only after having made this faux pas. She takes Rosa to Sears, where, realizing one aspect of her notion of the American Dream, she buys, on credit, brightly colored clothing and makeup that Rosa believes make her look American. When she and Enrique meet that evening at the motel, he asks, "?De que circo te escapaste?" He remarks, "Pareces un payaso." Rosa has made an attempt to assimilate to the new culture, whereas Enrique's clothing tastes remain more traditional, especially for his sister.

Enrique also finds employment that day. After an exchange in pantomime, Lenny, an employee at an expensive Beverly Hills restaurant, takes him off for a day's work--for twenty dollars. At the restaurant Enrique readily adapts and shows himself to be talented and eager to please. He meets Jorge, a Mexican illegal from Chihuahua, who, as don Ramon predicted, believes Enrique is from southern Mexico, since he cannot tell a Guatemalan Amerindian from a Mexican Amerindian. He also meets Carlos, a Mexican American, or pocho, who cannot speak Spanish and who chafes at Jorge's heckling in a Spanish he probably understands but cannot speak. Later Carlos resents Enrique's obvious talent and enthusiasm for work.

While the amount of time passed between their first day of work and their accommodation to their new life is unclear, (8) Enrique and Rosa transform the filthy motel room into an attractive apartment. They take free night classes in English. Rosa teams up with Nacha, apparently making good money as a house cleaner. And Enrique, now known as Ricky at work, gets a promotion to waiter's assistant--"Mas dinero," according to Lenny. On top of this, don Mocte, their landlord and exploiter, is visited by Alice, a factory owner from Chicago, who is looking for a foreman. Don Mocte introduces Alice to Enrique, whom she considers perfect, but who declines the lob because this woman wants no family to come, only the new foreman. Enrique still values family, i.e., his relationship with his sister Rosa, over economic opportunity and the promise of a green card in the future. Save for their precarious status, the protagonists have entered modernity's material paradise, yet maintain their family solidarity.

However, paradise is subverted first by the semi-satanic figures of Jorge and Carlos, then by typhus. Jorge, as a sexually hierarchical non-Amerindian (Wolf 239-40), convinces Enrique that rather than spend an afternoon with his sister, he should go off on a binge with Jorge to celebrate his promotion. Carlos calls La Migra and informs them of Jorge and Enrique's (illegal) presence at the restaurant. And Rosa, after feeling sick for a day or two, faints on the job. Nacha takes her to a county hospital where Nacha interprets for her. She tells the admitting nurse that Rosa is very sick, then admits that her friend has no official identification--no Social Security card, no drivers license, no green card. That is, Rosa has no identity in the United States. She is finally admitted once a conscientious physician recognizes how seriously ill she is. Agents from La Migra raid the restaurant. Jorge and Enrique manage to escape but must once again join the masses of irregularly employed illegals.

Not knowing that Rosa is gravely ill, Enrique finds Alice and tells her he now wants the foreman job and that he is willing to leave Rosa behind. She accepts his offer and instructs him to meet her at the airport for a "red-eye" flight to Chicago. In the meantime, Nacha has been sent to search for Enrique. They meet at the Lazy Acres Motel, and Enrique entreats Nacha to take care of his sister for him. He is out of work and cannot pass up the opportunity to go to Chicago. At this point Enrique has shed the last vestige of his traditional values: work has become more important than family. Nacha understands this and says, "Enrique, Rosa se puede morir, pero tu ya estas muerto."

After some suspenseful minutes with scenes shifting between Rosa's hospital room and the airport, Enrique appears at Rosa's bedside to hear her final declaration of hopelessness: they are hated and hunted down in Guatemala, disdained in a wretched Mexico, and persecuted in the North. Enrique counters with a paean to the American way of life and their future when they can go back to San Pedro wealthy and with their heads held high. As he finishes, Rosa dies.

Enrique now is stripped of his family, his nationality, his ethnicity, his job, and the opportunity for a better life. Like his sister, he too has no identity. The following morning at the Lazy Acres, he hears the bustle outside and, rather than stay home to make funeral arrangements for his dead sister, he makes the sign of the cross before an icon of the Virgin of Guadalupe and joins the day laborers who jostle to be chosen for jobs at a construction site. The god of work has trumped the Virgin and all of Enrique's cultural traditions, including a funeral for his sister.

A capataz announces that he is looking for men with strong arms. Enrique flexes his and is chosen, only to find himself in a position totally analogous to the first scene in the movie: he is once more an anonymous manual laborer under the supervision of a callous foreman. The epic gone awry has come full circle, returning a devastated and deracinated Enrique to a state of peonage.

As a veteran of no fewer than eighteen viewings of El Norte, I could not help but notice the repetitive shots of circular objects throughout in this movie: the full moon, the sun, heads, straw hats, tortillas, griddles, wheels or tires, drums, headlights, analog clocks, a cement mixer, sweet rolls, a water wheel, and, of course, the horrific tunnel. While many everyday objects are circular, and facial close-ups and head shots (imperfect circles) are commonplace in contemporary movies, Nava's circular images, along with the circularity of El Norte's plot, are far too frequent and repetitive to be accidental. Once one notices the predominant circular motif, every circular object stands out. And this circular leitmotif establishes another link to Dante's Divina commedia and its circles in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

Act One, "Arturo Xuncax," lasts thirty-eight minutes, during which the camera focuses on a gamut of circular objects. By far the most predominant ones are heads and straw hats. As one would expect, heads and hats often occur simultaneously. Because straw hats symbolize peonage and low status in the Latin American hierarchy, and because the focal characters in this act are peasants, it seemed that this motif, in addition to the hats' circular shape, only signified local color. However, when Enrique reaches the hacienda, the first indication of his father's fate is his straw hat, which Enrique finds on the ground and which immediately precedes the first shot of his father's hatless head dangling decapitated from a tree. Clearly the hat motif is more than local color; it is a regularity that is suddenly broken by the climactic scene of the severed head of a sympathetic character.

Likewise, because facial close-ups are commonplace in movies, one could be inclined to discount the head shots as part of the circular motif, but their recurrence leads up to the climactic shots of Enrique's father's head. On top of this, the last shot of Arturo Xuncax's head begins a match cut with a full-screen shot of the full moon, then the circular funeral drum, whose beat provides the cadence for the fallen conspirators' cortege. After the funeral sequence, during which the heads of Rosa and the group's betrayer occupy the screen, Nava focuses his camera on a spiderweb that is imperfectly circular but which symbolizes the intricate and dangerous network in which the characters in this movie find themselves enmeshed.

The final circular object I shall note for the first act is the waterwheel at don Ramon's sugar cane mill. Like the straw hat, the severed head, and the drum, this object recurs in the final, despairing minutes of El Norte. It appears eight times in Act One. In one two-minute section it appears five times as the dominant image. Relentlessly and indifferently it turns and grinds, just as the world turns, eternally oblivious to the plight of its inhabitants.

Act Two, "El Coyote," lasts thirty-five minutes. Once again head shots prevail. The more explicit circles in the second act are lighted flashlights, straw hats, headlights, the moon, steering wheels, and wheels and tires. But by far the most dramatic instantiation of the circle are the ten minutes devoted to Enrique and Rosa's crawling through the drainage tunnel from Mexico to the United States. There are ten shots of the tunnel's two extremities, twenty-nine shots within the tunnel, and six circles of light created by the flashlight's reflection on the camera lens. Associated with the tunnel is the circular logo on the border patrol helicopter and the circle its searchlight creates on the ground around the American end of the tunnel.

In this section, then, the circle connotes movement. Enrique and Rosa get their first ride because a Mexican trucker has had a flat tire, which he stops to replace. Nava directs several shots at the truck's tires: running, bursting, being taken off, lying on the ground. While the trucker changes the tire, Rosa and Enrique sneak into the truck bed, but are caught. The trucker lets them ride in the cab, where the steering wheel appears eight times.

Enrique wears his straw hat in nineteen different shots. On the bus, he is slapped awake with a hat by the irate fellow passenger who welcomes them to Tijuana.

Raimundo Gutierrez leads Enrique and Rosa through a dump to the Mexican end of the tunnel. Predominant in the dump are discarded tires, including one that is standing up and through which viewers see Raimundo, Rosa, and Enrique as they approach the tunnel. Enrique enters the tunnel hatless.

To judge from my students' obvious discomfort, the ten minutes of the protagonists' crawling through the tunnel must rank among the most agonizing sequences in movie history. It stands as a hyperbole of the sacrifices and ordeals immigrants endure in their passage to a land of opportunity. Even after my many viewings of the film, I empathize with Rosa and Enrique, and with them I breathe more deeply and easily once they emerge on the American side.

Act Three, "The North," lasts over an hour and is the longest segment of the movie. While it contains 251 shots of heads, the straw hat only appears in nine shots at the beginning of this act, then it virtually disappears for some fifty minutes of filming, except for two shots during Rosa's hallucination, in which her father reappears. Indeed, during the bulk of the third act the circle seems to disappear as a dominant motif. The moon and sun are noticeably absent in Nava's shots of the Los Angeles sky. (9)

Still, there are striking incidents of the circle that lead up to its re-emergence as a dominant image in the last five minutes of the film. After don Mocte shows Rosa and Enrique their room, Rosa goes into the bathroom and observes the feces-smeared toilet bowl. The camera is trained on the bowl before and as Rosa flushes it. When Enrique is left behind by the recruiters of day laborers, Lenny shows up in a BMW, and again the car's headlight dominates the screen. When the two leave, Nava shoots one of the car's tires "digging out" on the gravel of the motel's courtyard.

Once Enrique's persistent optimism is shattered by Rosa's death, the remaining five minutes of the film are replete with circles. Enrique opens a drawer and retrieves his straw hat then goes out to vie for work as a day laborer. In this section the straw hat, recurs prominently another thirteen times when Enrique and the other contenders swarm around the truck where the capataz is looking for men with strong arms to work at a construction site. At the site Enrique and the audience stare into a small, round cement mixer relentlessly rotating and beating the cement. It is the American melting pot reincarnated as an impersonal, violent machine. (10) While working, Enrique appears to associate the work site, the foreman (which Enrique could have been had he gone to Chicago), and the cement mixer's rotation to Guatemala and don Ramon's water wheel, the funeral drum, and his father's severed head, which is the last shot of the movie.

Clearly, the close-up head shots, while at first scarcely noticeable since they are commonplace in contemporary movies, constitute a motif whose counterpoint is Arturo Xuncax's severed head. And this severed head, like Enrique, evokes the millions of undocumented workers who come to wealthy countries to work with their arms and hands (clearly not their heads) at jobs local citizens and legal, more highly educated immigrants disdain. Enrique's story has ended where it began, and as the hero in a tragic, circular epic, Enrique sees the truth only after he and Rosa have been despoiled of all identity as human beings: their nationality, ethnicity, language, culture, family, and name.

Whereas the template for El Norte is clearly Dante's Divine Comedy, it is an epic manque. Enrique and Rosa's upward progress from the depths of hell to paradise has gone awry owing to a vicious circle of oppression. This movie shows that citizens living under oppressive regimes do not escape oppression by leaving their countries. It demonstrates that there is no earthly paradise for all the planet's inhabitants. One may infer from it that only a radical break from the past and present can change the fate of the world's aggrieved masses.

Another movie in which circles provide a leitmotif is Max Ophuls's La Ronde. The image of a merry-go-round recurs, and as in El Norte, the action comes full circle at the end (Williams, "The Circle" 37). What Alan Williams says about the characters in La Ronde applies equally well to Rosa and Enrique. He maintains that, owing to the circle motif and the circularity of the plot, viewers "experience the characters simultaneously as characters and as examples [his italics] of patterns of behavior of which they are unaware" ("Keeping" 49). Throughout all but the final minutes of El Norte, Enrique and Rosa are unaware of their quest's doomed nature. Only at the end of Rosa's life can she articulate their rootless plight. Only at the construction site, where Enrique's consciousness (if it is Enrique's and not just the director's) shifts between the construction site, the cement mixer, don Ramon's water wheel, the funeral drum, the setting sun, and his father's dangling head, can he be said to discern the hopelessness of an unjust world.

Enrique and Rosa's voyage to paradise is thwarted by circularity. What was will be once more. As personifications of deracinated illegal immigrants the world over, they are also hyperboles of Americanization. The great bulk of American citizenry descends from immigrants who entered the country legally and illegally for reasons not unlike Enrique's, Rosa's, and Jorge's. If not immediately, within a generation or two they or their descendants shed most of their ancestors' cultural baggage: their language, their ethnic dress, their religions, their folkways, food, and even their family names. (11) Like Enrique, many of our forebears sacrificed their identities to the god of work. The lucky among their heirs have been able to find work that satisfies or at least placates our longing for a meaningful existence. Will that be true for the descendants of the world's Enriques? (12)

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Laurence Binyon. Dante. The Selected Works. Ed. Paolo Milano. London: Chatto & Windus, 1972.

Barrera, Mario. "Story Structure in Latino Feature Films." Chicanos and Film. Ed. Chon A. Noriega. New York: Garland, 1992. 245-68.

Camoes, Luis de. Os Lusiadas. Ed. Frank Pierce. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1981.

Canby, Vincent. "A Fine Movie Fueled by Injustice." New York Times 22 Jan. 1984: sec. 2, 17.

Ebert, Roger. "Odyssey to El Norte." Mother Jones Feb.-Mar. 1984: 29-31, 50.

Gold, Robert R. "Another $1 Million Biz Seen for the Hispanic Film El Norte." Variety 15 Aug. 1984: 5.

Insdorf, Annette. "El Norte, On Screen and in Reality, a Story of a Struggle." New York Times 8 Jan. 1984: 17.

Kael, Pauline. "El Norte." The New Yorker 20 Feb. 1984: 114-15.

Mann, William. Notes to Mahler: Symphony no. 4 in G Major. Cond. Otto Klemperer. The Philharmonia Orchestra. LP. Angel, 1962.

Mott, Gordon. "Two Young Actors Who Journeyed to El Norte." New York Times 22 April 1984: 17, 19.

Nava, Gregory, dir. El Norte. Cinecom/Island Alive, 1983.

Popol vuh. Trans. Dennis Tedlock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Santander, Hugo N. "Immigration and Colonization. Reflexiones sobre 'El Norte.'" 20 May 2004 <>.

Tibon, Gutierre. Diccionario etimologico comparado de nombres propios de personas. Mexico, D.F.: Union Tipografica Editorial Hispano Americano, 1956.

Williams, Alan. "The Circles of Desire: Narration and Representation in La Ronde." Film Quarterly 27.1 (1973): 35-41.

--. "Keeping the Circle Turning: Ophuls's La Ronde (1959) from the Hay by Arthur Schnitzler." Modern European Filmmakers and the Art of Adaptation. Ed. Andrew Horton and Joan Magretta. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. 38-50.

Wolf, Eric. Sons of the Shaking Earth. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1959.


(1) Zaide Gutierrez, who played the part of Rosa, reported that in the village in Chiapas (Mexico), where the first act was filmed, the inhabitants spoke little or no Spanish and had never seen television. Indeed, they were so far removed from the national life that some did not even know what a movie was (Mott 19).

(2) A precedent for this scene occurs in the Popol vuh (113). The father of the questing twins, One Hunahpu, fails a test set for him by the lords of Xibalba and is sacrificed. His body is buried, but his severed head is placed in a tree.

(3) When I call don Ramon and other helpers "Virgils," I do not mean that they have the same cultural status as the poet Virgil, only that they have more extensive experience than Enrique and Rosa and that, analogous to the original Virgil in the Divine Comedy, they guide the protagonists toward their goal.

(4) While there are considerable grammatical and lexical differences between Guatemalan and Mexican popular Spanish that persist in Enrique's speech, don Ramon's advice to Enrique is to intensify his use of vulgarity. Enrique's and other characters' use of chingar and its derivatives provides a humorous motif through much of the movie.

(5) Don Ramon Munoz is a mixture of Dante's Virgil and Vasco da Gama's (Camoes's) Velho do Restelo (see Camoes 106-8), himself a descendant of Nestor and Cassandra (106, Pierce's footnote). This old man warns the Portuguese of the perils of challenging the world's order by attempting to sail around Africa to the Orient. The names of these two guides, Ramon and Raimundo, are actually variants of one another. Raimundo, 'protector,' is the original Spanish and Portuguese form of Raymond, whereas Ramon, now widespread in Spanish, is Catalan in origin.

(6) Dante only briefly describes his trip through the cave: "There is a cave that stretches underground [...] The Guide [Virgil] and I entering [...] toiled to return into the world of light." Whereas this passage was evidently arduous, it received extremely short shrift compared to Enrique and Rosa's ordeal between Mexico and the United States (see Purg. xxxiv, 127-39).

(7) Similar to Enrique and Rosa, while still in the cave, Dante and Virgil sight "those things of beauty that heaven wears/Glimpsed through a rounded opening, faintly bright;/Thence issuing, we beheld the stars." (Inf. xxxiv, 137-39). Enrique and Rosa's "stars" are the lights of modernity rather than those of the heavens.

(8) Vincent Canby remarked that "the real and most poignant point of 'El Norte' is not the tragedy that befalls the brother and sister, but the ease and eagerness with which, after their initial homesickness, they adapt themselves to the gringo world." Had Canby seen the film as allegory rather than a personal drama, he might not have considered their quick adaptation so unsettling.

(9) The absence of both moon and sun in Los Angeles reflects one of the sentences Enrique and Rosa learn in their English classes. To "How is the weather in Los Angeles?" Ms. Saito's students are taught to say, "It is usually very smoggy."

(10) This scene is presaged by a huge (circular) mixing pot at the restaurant. The mechanical mixer turns and beats the dough with no human controlling it.

(11) In a writing assignment on how Enrique and Rosa's experience related to students' family histories, one student wrote that when her great-grandfather immigrated to Detroit in the early twentieth century, the family name was Urbanowski. In 1911 they changed their name to Rudzinski, thinking that it sounded more American. Her grandfather's family "Americanized" it even further--to Runyon.

(12) I am grateful to my students with whom over the years I have discussed El Norte. The ideas in this paper derive from our class discussions. I also thank my wife, Linda A. Wimer Brakel, M.D., and my friend Ira Konigsberg for having read earlier drafts of this paper and having made suggestions for its improvement.

Arthur Brakel

Ann Arbor, Michigan
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Author:Brakel, Arthur
Publication:Bilingual Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2004
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