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We Are a Nation of Immigrants: Gregory Nava on His Masterpiece, El Norte

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We are highlighting content for National Hispanic Heritage Month all week, including interviews with Gregory Nava, Pablo Larrain, and Edward James Olmos, as well as a piece on Roger Ebert's writing about Hispanic culture in film and a personal piece by Carlos Aguilar. Come back all week. 

“Latinos have always had an innate understanding of the importance of family,” filmmaker Gregory Nava told Roger Ebert back in 1995, and few cinematic works have ever explored this principle as indelibly as the director’s timeless masterpiece, “El Norte.” Upon its release stateside in 1984, Ebert hailed the picture for being “one of the rare films that grants Latin Americans full humanity. They are not condescended to, they are not made to symbolize something, they are not glorified, they are simply themselves.” In the film’s opening act, we meet Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and Enrique (David Villalpando), indigenous Mayan siblings residing in San Pedro, Guatemala, who are forced to flee after government officials start killing civilians, including their father, as punishment for conspiring to form a labor union. Amidst crowds of stranded souls in Mexico, the pair seeks a “coyote”—an employer of immigrants—to guide their journey over the border, requiring them to crawl through a rat-infested tunnel. Once they’ve finally reached el Norte (the North, a.k.a. the United States), their segregated community looks nothing like the consumerist dream perpetuated by issues of Good Housekeeping.  

Nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Nava’s shattering, often breathtaking picture has only increased in relevance over the past few decades. To honor the 35th anniversary of its U.S. premiere, “El Norte” was screened screening in theaters around the country this past Sunday, the first day of National Hispanic Heritage Month (for a preview of our special coverage, click here). It is the first classic Latino film to be screened courtesy of Fathom Events, and is sure to be an unmissable event for cinephiles of all stripes. Nava recently spoke at length with about his extraordinary behind-the-scenes adventures, why it was worth risking his life to make this movie and the important role it can play in the modern discourse regarding immigration. 

It was a privilege having you present “Selena” at Ebertfest in 2018, and last year we welcomed Sandra Schulberg, who founded The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) in 1979. The directors whom the IFP has mentored, such as yourself and Spike Lee, have gone on to create work that remains bracingly relevant today. How did that organization foster a freedom of expression?

The Independent Film Project was very important, and it was started from the ground up. Sandra gathered all these “lone rangers” who were off making their own movies, and she brought us all together. We had no resources, no funding, nothing, but the idea of getting together and sharing our experiences created an energy that made things happen. I took the idea of the IFP to Los Angeles and along with Anna Thomas, I started the IFP West, which is now Film Independent, the group that puts on the Independent Spirit Awards. It began as a group of six people in our living room, and now it’s got around 7,000 members. All of these efforts originated from a simple idea of elevating the voices of people who needed to have their stories told. The independent film movement began before Robert Redford got involved, and was characterized by pictures like Wayne Wang’s “Chan is Missing,” Joan Micklin Silver’s “Hester Street” and Claudia Weill’s “Girlfriend,” in addition to “El Norte” and “She’s Gotta Have It.” John Sayles came out of that movement as well, and was later followed by people like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.

The first two independent films to have an impact at the box office were Lynne Littman’s “Testament,” a female filmmaker’s sci-fi drama about a nuclear holocaust, and “El Norte,” a Latino film about immigration and refugees from Central America. These are stories that were not being told by studios or our mainstream media. We were dedicated to telling regional stories—Latino stories, women’s stories, African American stories—while working with a minuscule budget. “El Norte” was made for no money, and Lindsay Law at American Playhouse—god bless him—was responsible for funding a lot of these films with a PBS budget. In fact, our film was originally funded to be shown on PBS, but our premiere at the Telluride Film Festival was so successful that the network allowed us to obtain theatrical distribution. Suddenly, we were in theaters across the country. “El Norte” played for a year at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, and for a year in New York. It was released in January, but still became the first independent film to be nominated for an Academy Award.

Most importantly, the awareness “El Norte” raised for refugees feeling horrific violence in their homeland contributed to an atmosphere of compassion in this country that resulted in more humane laws. The Temporary Protected Status was passed for refugees in Central America, and the Simpson-Mazzoli Act subsequently legalized two million refugees in 1986. Both Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan referred to “El Norte” when they had their presidential debates. 35 years after the film’s release, the situation hasn't changed. It's gotten worse. Our desire was to bring a heart and a soul to the shadows who pervade our country, doing all of our work—picking the fruits and vegetables, taking care of our children and sustaining our industries for things like poultry and construction. Immigration has become an integral part of our entire economy and how our country runs, yet the issue is continuously being framed through a racist lens. We still see huge raids occurring in states like Mississippi and Missouri. What is being overlooked here is the contribution these immigrants make to our society. You take away the undocumented from our towns and the towns die. 

After all, we are a nation of immigrants!

Exactly! I’ll give you a perfect example. We're working on this Fathom Event with Lionsgate, and the studio’s Assistant Brand Manager, Areli Peña, told me that when she informed her father that she was working on “El Norte,” he replied, “I saw that movie when it was first released. It had a tremendous impact on me because I crawled through a tunnel.” He had made that journey himself. He was undocumented, and has since become legal. The people who crawled through the tunnels a generation ago now have children in the film business, in politics, making their contribution to our society. That's what keeps this country ever young and ever vital. It has always been that way, and that is the way it needs to stay because we are, as you say, a nation of immigrants. We’re a country that has been built by the “wretched refuse,” as the poem [“The New Colossus” by Emily Lazarus] says. People who are unwanted by other countries come here, and together, they’ve created the greatest country in the world. 

A masterstroke of the script you coauthored with Anna Thomas is its three-act structure, putting us through the wringer with Rosa and Enrique so that we understand each of their decisions once they arrive in America at the film’s midway point.

I was born and raised on the border, and I have family on both sides of it. I’m bilingual, bicultural and binational because the border is its own world. People are crossing back and forth, working on both sides. The economies are all as interconnected as the families, and mine was no exception. I have lots of family in Tijuana, and from early on in my childhood, I saw people crossing over, seeking a better life. I've always said it is from those memories that the idea for “El Norte” came, but it's deeper than that because the attack on our community and our families is not a new occurrence. During the Depression, our economic problems were being blamed, like always, on the immigrants. The Hoover administration had a policy of “real jobs for real Americans,” and since people of Mexican descent were not considered real Americans, between one and two million of them were deported in cattle cars to Mexico. A majority of them were citizens from the United States, and among them was my grandfather. 

His deportation broke up my family. My father was raised without a father, and the pain of this forced separation haunts our family to this day. I have relatives I didn't even know I had. I recently met one of my father’s sisters, who is now in her 90s. She was born in the United States and she doesn't speak English anymore. When I see families being separated on the border today, I know that the pain they generate will last for generations. So my idea for “El Norte” was born in the middle, at the border, but I understood that the border was simply part of a process. The story had to go deeper into Latin America, so you could understand the world where the people came from and why they had to leave it, as well as go deeper into el Norte—the United States—so that people could understand what happens to them after they arrive. 

It suddenly became this epic story of an epic journey embarked upon by these two unaccompanied minors to find a better life and to save their own lives. If they get captured in el Norte and are taken back to Guatemala, that’s a death sentence for them, and the situation is still the same today. People are fleeing horrific violence in Central America, and the same people who were part of these oppressive forces 35 years ago—when there was civil war in Guatemala and Salvador—are the same people who are in control now and perpetrating the current violence with the cartels in Guatemala. What would you do if you were Rosa and Enrique today? You would do what they did, because everybody has a right to find a better life and to save their life. They shouldn’t be expected to wait around until they are killed just to satisfy some policy that the current administration is trying to put forward.

David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez in Gregory Nava's "El Norte." Courtesy of Lionsgate.

How did Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando adapt to acting on camera, following their experience onstage? 

They're both so brilliant, and they were so young. I think Zaide celebrated her twentieth birthday on the set. They had training, of course, but they were just naturally gifted actors, and I have to give a shout-out to them because their beautiful performances are why the film was a success, and why it continues to be so well-loved. We just did a new roundtable with them for the Fathom event, and Zaide said that she and David gave everything they had—all their love, all their passion—because the story is so important. Their work is not the result of my great genius. The experience of making “El Norte” transcended all of our individual egos and concerns. We were a family making a film under impossible circumstances. What we had to say was so important that it motivated us all, and filled us with enough passion to go the extra mile in every circumstance, and make the film be as strong as it turned out to be. 

I also believe that there is an alchemy to a location that infuses you with a reality. In “El Norte,” we were on 100 locations that traced the actual journey from Central America to Los Angeles, and in every case, what you're seeing is where these things really happened. At the opening of the film, of course, we couldn't shoot in Guatemala because there was a civil war, but we were in Chiapas, which occupies the same Mayan highlands, right by the border. We were in real Mayan villages with real Mayan people at a time of political unrest that made the locations very dangerous. Being in that world informed the actors’ performances. Since we weren’t allowed to shoot along the border, we filmed the scene with a 35 millimeter camera hidden in our Volkswagen van. I was driving around and the actors were out in the street, doing the scene where the coyote comes and takes them to the fence, which was the actual fence. While Zaide and David were outside waiting for Mike Gomez, who played the coyote, a real coyote came up to them and said, “You know, this isn't a good place to cross—come with me and I’ll take you to a better place.” [laughs] 

We couldn’t get official permission from either the American or Mexican unions to do anything, so “El Norte” became an outlaw film, a living testament to the famous Mexican statement, “Es mejor pedir perdón que permiso,” which translates as, “It’s better to ask pardon than permission.” It's very hard to bring actors back and forth across the border between the two countries because they have very strict laws. We couldn't make a deal with the Screen Actors Guild to bring Zaide and David up from Mexico to be in the movie, so we had to find a way to do it without the involvement of the unions. Zaide and David came into the United States on tourist visas, and were actually shooting in the United States as undocumented workers. 

At the time, the Border Patrol was accused by the media of being secretive, so there was this very small window in which they agreed to cooperate with filmmakers, newsmakers and documentarians. After reading our script, they only asked for one adjustment. I originally had the Border Patrol with guns drawn when Rosa and Enrique were picked up, and they said they would never do that, so we had them holster the guns. They let us use the real Border Patrol helicopter and vehicles for no money. As for the three-language scene where the officers try trapping the siblings into revealing whether they are from Central America, that was filmed in the real Border Patrol office where interrogations took place. Zaide and David were undocumented when filming that scene in the Border Patrol office, and they were terrified. Thankfully, no Border Patrol officer asked to see their papers.

On the film’s excellent Criterion edition, you share incredible behind-the-scenes stories about walking through a crowd of people brandishing machetes, and having your footage held for ransom. How were you and Anna able to maintain a sense of control and assurance amidst such strenuous circumstances?

We almost got killed on this film, and we eventually got kicked out of Mexico by guys with guns. It was scary and dangerous, but we had become funnels for this powerful story of injustice, and that is what united us. We had witnessed so much oppression, and there was no awareness of it. I have to give a shout-out to Jim Glennon, our incredible cinematographer, and David Wasco, the production designer, who later went on to do “Pulp Fiction,” and then won the Academy Award for “La La Land.” This was David’s first film, and it’s still his favorite film. Everybody hung in there together because they believed in the story, and as a filmmaker, I have to thank everyone who was involved in it from the bottom of my heart. Jim Glennon has unfortunately passed, but his whole family came to our premiere of the Academy’s magnificent restoration. 

Audiences who come to this Fathom screening will see this movie in a way it really hasn’t been seen for 35 years. It seems like a new movie. We had the European premiere at the Berlin Film Festival a couple of months ago. There were a thousand people there, and we got a 15-minute standing ovation. Zaide and David were there, and it was the most wonderful experience. It testified to the universality of the story. People were deeply moved by the beauty of the film, and said that it could have been made yesterday. We only had a crew of five people when we shot “El Norte,” and I was just out of film school. Yet Jim and I decided that we were going to make images that were just as beautiful and spectacular as anything in a David Lean movie. Nobody cares about what’s behind the camera, people only care about what ends up on the screen. We utilized our incredible locations to create the sort of imagery that could be found in an epic Hollywood movie.

Enrique becomes a "pair of arms" in Gregory Nava's "El Norte." Courtesy of Lionsgate.

To what degree were you involved in the editing process with Betsy Blankett Milicevic, particularly in regards to the masterful use of juxtaposition when building suspense? The presence of lights from cars and planes—and the moon—create a heightened sense of paranoia.

You have to plant these things and establish them up front. I really believe in suspense as opposed to surprise. I actually cut a lot of the film myself on a Movieola, since we didn’t have money for flatbeds, and then Betsy came in midway through. I edited the rat scene, for which we had shot tons of footage. People don’t realize that it’s only a minute-and-a-half long. They think it lasts for hours. [laughs] The entire tunnel scene is ten minutes, but the actual rat attack is a fraction of that length. Betsy edited a lot of the sections set in the United States, and then did the overall trim of the movie. Your observation regarding juxtaposition is absolutely correct. The intercutting in order to establish suspense is key to cinema and particularly crucial to this film from the very beginning. The minute the movie starts, you see these guys working, and they're asking each other, “When are we going to meet?” You know there's something going on, so when we cut back to the family’s daily life, as they joke about flush toilets in the North, there's always this cloud over it. By the time the father, Arturo, has to leave, there’s no need to explain the danger because it’s already so prescient.

When I make a film, the first thing I think about while structuring the story is the end. I want to know where the film will end, because I want it to have a cathartic impact on the audience. “El Norte” starts with Enrique working in a coffee field, and ends with him reduced once again to a “pair of arms” at a construction site. That’s the ending I wanted, so the beginning had to be the same, thus completing the circle. He ended up exactly what he began, only now he’s in the United States, so rather, it’s a spiral. Everything that happens between those two points is like an Exocet missile going right to that ending. I like a structure that stays taut, where every scene is bringing you to that cathartic moment at the end. There's no rambling on or going off point. As he’s pulling off those coffee beans, you observe that the guy overseeing them has a gun, which signals that the workers are oppressed in their own land and that they’re going to stand up for their rights. If you look at the film again, you'll see that every single instance of suspenseful cutting is designed so that at the end of the movie, when Enrique is digging that ditch, you are feeling the catharsis of this young man’s journey after having lost his sister.

I also wanted to do a film that was about the Mayan people, using imagery from their culture that had never been put onscreen before, and I don't think it's ever been put onscreen since. The fish in the flowers, the clustering of the white butterflies and the decapitated head are all images that come directly from Mayan mythology and spirituality. Their sense of time is circular—that is, time repeats itself—and I wanted to reflect that in the structure of “El Norte.” Throughout the film, there are massive amounts of circular imagery—the turning of the water wheels, which is associated at the end with the turning of the cement mixer, as well as the turning of car wheels and truck wheels, along with the moon and the sun. In the Popol Vuh, which is the Mayan creation myth, the heroes are twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. In almost all pre-Columbian mythology, there are no single heroes, there are always twin protagonists. I wanted Rosa and Enrique’s stories to be equally important, not only because that's true to the world that we were depicting on the screen, but also because I wanted the balance of male and female experiences as they go to different destinies. Some people who read the script were initially resistant to the idea of twin protagonists, but when the film was released, nobody had a problem with it. 

There’s a powerful linkage of three shots, cutting from the decapitated head to the moon to the drum, and it's all edited on the drumbeat, another example of that circular imagery coming around. 

I see a lot of student films that peter out at the end of each scene because they do nothing with the transition. I’m always telling them, “The moment of transition from one scene to the next is one of the most important moments in your film. That is the moment where you can make very powerful comments about everything that's being done.” In a sense, the scene is moving to the moment of transition, and when you have that moment, that's when you have your impact. And not only does it have impact, it keeps the story moving. I don't like fade outs and fade ins. I prefer to keep it moving, and that particular moment needed a powerful transition. The “head/moon/drum” series of shots is one of my favorite cinematic transitions that I've ever done. 

What led you to select Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” as the music that bookends Rosa and Enrique’s journey? As in “The Elephant Man,” your film illustrates how this music conveys the journey of a soul from the mortal realm to the spiritual one, navigating the transition between life and death.

Oh that is wonderful. I love this conversation! You’re very smart, and I’m getting questions I've never gotten before. We didn't have a composer because I couldn't afford one, so I had to put together the soundtrack myself. I was inspired by how Stanley Kubrick would handle the soundtracks for films like “2001” and “Barry Lyndon.” Just because we can’t afford a composer doesn’t mean we can’t use the greatest composers of all time. Though The Folkloristas scored the pre-Columbian music and the period-specific folk music, I wanted a bittersweet theme that would be representative of the United States. “Adagio for Strings” had all the emotions that I was looking for. It conveys what is beautiful and horrible, tragic and elegiac about the United States. I wanted to bring it in just twice—first when Rosa and Enrique are being uprooted and decide to go to the North together with the hope of finding a better life. It was very important to me to show that these siblings do not want to leave their land. People don't want to leave their homes. They do it because they have to. 

Rosa attends a funeral in Gregory Nava's "El Norte." Courtesy of Lionsgate.

At the end, Rosa and Enrique have found that the North is not what they expected it to be. As Rosa dies, the music repeats—only in a sense, it's reversed. Now it is the North that is the tragedy. It has proven to be just as lethal as their homeland. Whereas the attack is physical in their homeland, where people are trying to kill them, the attack is spiritual in el Norte because it attacks the essence of who they are. The undocumented people I interviewed come from the worlds of familia and community. When Rosa lights the candles in church before she leaves Guatemala, she says, “For my father, for my mother and for my village,” because it is her family and community that is number one for her. In the North, it's all about the individual. You’ve gotta do what you need to do to survive, and fuck everybody else. For the undocumented people I spoke with, this mentality tears at the very essence of who they are. It’s a tough reality for them to accept and to live by, and it leads Enrique to make that horrible choice at the end of the movie. 

The Barber composition conspicuously contrasts with Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 4,” which concludes the second act with a triumphant swell as Rosa and Enrique gaze at the San Diego skyline. 

It’s a beautiful piece that expresses their triumph in reaching what they envision as their Promised Land. Mahler’s music also has a childlike quality to it. It’s not like a piece by Beethoven or Wagner, which are very dark and grand but serious. “Symphony No. 4” views the world from the viewpoint of a child, which is appropriate for this moment in “El Norte,” since Rosa and Enrique are viewing the United States with innocence. They’re seeing these lights for the first time, and they don’t know what they’re getting into. Even though they are innocent in the sense of their status as fish out of water, they have seen far more than the people around them, like the guy who runs the motel or Mrs. Rogers, the lady of the household where Rosa works. These siblings have faced guns, seen people massacred, crawled through rat-infested tunnels and endured horrendous violence. In this way, Mrs. Rogers is naive and innocent when compared to Rosa, just as Rosa is innocent when trying to work her employer’s washing machine. 

I was working with the Mayan refugee community to gather information for the film, and many of the incidents Rosa and Enrique find themselves in come from those conversations. The idea of pretending to be Mexican is funny, but it’s also no laughing matter, because if you fail at that, you’re dead. One of the wonderful people I was working with, Luis Marroquín, came up to me and said, “You know, Greg, we're helping you with the script, could you help us?” There was a huge influx of Mayans fleeing genocide who were living in the MacArthur Park area, working almost exclusively at sweatshops in downtown LA. The designer brand, Sasson Jeans, was having its clothing being made entirely by Mayan refugees. These women have made the most beautiful embroidery and wardrobe in the world, and now they’re making jeans at this horrible sweatshop, so they were eager to seek employment as maids or nannies. Luis asked if I could help them locate people capable of taking on a live-in, and I found a professor of astronomy at UCLA who just had a baby. So I took this young woman—her name was Rosa, I kid you not—over to this family and they hired her. 

Since Rosa didn’t speak English, and the lady of the house didn’t speak any Spanish, they were both calling me and I would translate for them. One day, Rosa told me about how she couldn’t make heads or tails of the washing machine, so she ended up washing the family’s clothes in the sink before drying them out in the lawn. As soon as she told me this story, I immediately wrote it into “El Norte.” When we shot the scene, we were working with a Sears and Roebuck machine, so I called the company to request permission for using their product in the film. They initially agreed, considering it was free publicity for them, but after I sent them the scene, they sent a statement back saying, “We decided that we really don't have enough inventory and we can't help you,” because they didn't want their machine to be known as the one that your Hispanic nanny can’t operate. Then I called up Rosa’s employer, and she said, “Rosa has really worked out well for us. We love her!” I replied, “Well, you could return the favor. We’d like to borrow your washing machine.” [laughs] So the washing machine in the movie is the actual one from the real incident that gave birth to the scene. 

What impact did Roger’s championing of “El Norte” have on your career as a whole?

My first film, “The Confessions of Amans,” won Best First Feature at the Chicago International Film Festival in 1976, so Roger was anticipating “El Norte.” He saw it, loved it and then got Gene Siskel to see it, who also loved it. After they both gave the film a glowing review on their TV show, there were lines around the block wherever it was screening. Roger was a great man because he didn't believe critics should be perched in an ivory tower. He felt his job was to get in the bushes to find those new voices and support the ones that needed to be heard. When I spoke at his memorial at the Chicago Theatre, I said, “You could fill this theater with filmmakers who owe their careers to him.” Spike Lee would say the same thing. He went out of his way to find and support our films, and part of the reason the independent film movement was so successful and so many of its films had an impact was because of him and his show. I’m so sad that Roger is no longer with us. He got my movie immediately, because he understood that the most powerful thing a movie could do was to have you walk in somebody else's shoes, and feel their feelings. That’s what “El Norte” does, and that’s why he championed the film so passionately. 

In his Great Movies essay published 15 years ago, Roger wrote, “I’ve read reviews criticizing the film for its melodrama, but it occurred to me that the lives of many poor people are melodrama from birth to death. It takes a lot of money to insulate yourself in a less eventful, more controllable, life.” 

Roger hit that nail on the head. The hard reality we show in “El Norte” is true. It's only overwrought melodrama from the perspective of people who live very nice lives and don't want to believe that this can be true. I don’t see how anybody could still feel that way after seeing children in cages, families being ripped apart and the massacre in El Paso. “El Norte” tells the truth, and that is why the film is a classic that has endured. Roger was a man for all ages. He really could put himself in the heart and soul of others, and that's why he was so important. I have to give a shout-out to Chaz as well. She’s absolutely wonderful in how she’s carried on his legacy and kept his spirit alive through writers like yourself at, and through everything she does. That spirit is so much needed. I’m also grateful to the Academy for doing this restoration, and I’m overjoyed that audiences around the country will be able to take this epic journey with Rosa and Enrique once again.

To purchase tickets to the 35th anniversary screening of "El Norte" at a theater near you, visit the official site of Fathom Events. Nava will be donating his proceeds from the screening to the Paso Del Norte Community Foundation to aid the victims of the El Paso massacre and Families Belong Together to aid refugee families and children at the border.

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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