Around the Island

Movies at the Library: ‘El Norte’ tells poetic tale of ‘heart-scalding struggle’


In 2013, when our Lions Club named Michael Coles its “Citizen of the Year” for his involvement in and generosity to Shelter Island, Michael thanked the Lions for the award by pointing out that he came to the U.S. as an immigrant. He arrived in this country without much of an education, without a job, without knowing what lay ahead. He went on to earn a Harvard M.B.A., a Columbia M.A. in history and to become a director of Goldman Sachs, the investment firm.

“When you think about immigration,” he said, “think about me.”

Now Shelter Island and the East End are hosts to waves of Hispanic immigrants, most of whom — like Michael Coles — have only their dreams, their determination and their work ethic to help them make a permanent place in our society.

On Tuesday, October 14, at 7 p.m., Movies at the Library will screen “El Norte,” which tells the tale of two young Guatemalans — brother and sister, Enrique and Rosa — who set out for El Norte (the United States) after their father is killed for attending a meeting at which he and other braceros (pairs of arms, i.e. day laborers) protested exploitative working conditions that consign them to danger and drudgery and leave them mired in poverty.

When their mother disappears, perhaps also the victim of the local military’s anti-activist sentiment, there is nothing to hold Rosa and Enrique in the tiny Mayan village they call home.

In some ways “El Norte” is a simple story. Rosa and Enrique’s images of America come from tattered copies of their aunt’s housing magazines. Their trek northward takes them through Mexico on foot and in buses to the squalor of Tijuana. At the border, they fall prey to a coyote. When finally they crawl through a rat-infested drainage tunnel, they arrive in California — not to the storied town of movie glamour but into the shadow world of illegal immigrants. Rosa becomes a maid, Enrique a waiter. Naïveté and gumption keep them going — at least for a while.

What takes this film beyond simply the events we see on the screen — many of which are shared by hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants — is that the story is told from Rosa and Enrique’s point of view. We experience their heart-scalding, sometimes terrifying struggles with them. It is not a condescending political-lecture film but a humane and compassionate story, beginning in the beauty of the Guatemalan mountains and ending with the touching and vividly rendered realities of their new lives. Throughout, Americans are peripheral to the action and the U.S. a foreign and exotic locale.

Roger Ebert pronounced “El Norte” “a great film, one of 1983’s best … The approach of the film is not quasi-documentary but poetic, with fantastical images that show us the joyous hearts of these two people. We are touched, deeply and honestly, and we know we will remember the film for a long time.”

The movie was directed by Gregory Nava and produced by Anna Thomas, a husband-and-wife team that co-wrote the script. Nava grew up in San Diego, the son of an immigrant family. He met Ms. Thomas at UCLA’s film school. PBS’s American Playhouse financed the film; it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival to standing ovations. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay and named an American Classic by the Library of Congress.

“El Norte” runs 2 hours, 20 minutes. Please bring a pal and come to see this wonderful film. You — and we — will be glad you did.