The Lonely Centrist

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Friday, July 29, 2005

Friday Night Video: El Norte Shines

CAFTA - the Central American Free Trade Agreement - passed the House this week by the narrowist of margins, 217-215. Now it heads to the Senate, where it no certainty to pass, but is generally considered to have more support. Though elements of both the far left and the far right rail against "globalization," there is little doubt that free trade has enriched both America and the world, and is a key component of any serious effort to raise living standards in the third world.

The week's focus on Central America caused us to pick up, for the first time in 2 decades, a stunning movie made back in the 1983, El Norte. It's our Friday night video pick for the week.

El Norte is the story of two Guatemalans who immigrate (illegally) to the United States. The 1980s, you'll recall, were a very difficult time in Central America. The Sandinistas, having ousted the corrupt Somoza dictatorship, were trying to impose a one-party communist state in Nicaragua. Their foreign policy included lending support and havens to communist guerillas seeking to overthrow the elected, moderate left government of Christian Democrat Salvadore Duarte in neighboring El Salvador. Panama was under the sway of the unpredictable strongman Omar Torrijos, and Honduras was struggling to reestablish democratic government. Then there was Guatemala, ruled by a series of brutal right wing dictators and, more importantly, a ruthless ruling class. Both Soviet and U.S. money flowed into the region. Ultimately, Ronald Reagan's policies of combatting dictatorship and promoting democracy were largely successful. But the journey has been long and arduous for all these countries, and in none are democracy and human rights yet secure. But despite the hot wars Nicaragua and El Salvadore, in 1983 no place in Central America was more chaotic and oppressive than Guatemala.

Against this backdrop, Arturo Xuncac is a Guatemalan peasant who picks coffee beans on a large plantation, under the watchful eye of an armed overseer. His family speaks their native indian language at home, not Spanish, and wears traditional dress. Arturo is also becoming a leader in organizing the local Indian peasants - what his exact goals are, we don't know. He seems to simply want some vague measure of relief from the difficult, sometimes brutal system. He tells his son Enrique, a young man of about 20, that to "the rich," people like they are nothing more than "brazos fuertes," - "strong arms." There is no indication he is a communist - or even knows what a communist is. But Arturo does want to make contact with the guerillas (who in Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America, were largely communist), hoping to find assistance.

Soldiers attack the meeting of Arturo's small group of peasant workers, and kill all in attendance. As the ringleader, Arturo's head is hung from a tree. The wives of those in attendance are rounded up and led from town. We do not see them again. In the chaos, Enrique accidentally kills a soldier. In fear, he and his sister, Rosa, visit their godmother Josefita, who urges them to flea to "el Norte" - the United States. Their knowledge of the U.S. is based on a few tattered copies of Good Housekeeping that Josefita has collected. Josefita has long dreamed of going to the U.S. She also gives Enrique and Rosa the money she has spent years saving for the journey.

At this point, the movie becomes a classic "road buddy" film, as Enrique and Rosa make their way north. They leave the lush green landscape of Guatemala, with its gentle pan flute music, and head to the more chaotic, brown countryside of northern Mexico, with its endless traffic and lively mariachi. They attempt to pose as Mexicans from the Southern state of Oaxaca, with mixed success. This is necessary because Mexico rigidly enforces its immigration laws - the Mexican government is irritated whenever the U.S. attempts to close its southern border to illegals, but it is not about to open its own southern border to the impoverished and oppressed of Central America. It is also an important ruse because, if caught crossing the U.S. border, Mexicans are merely set back down on the other side, to try again. But if Enrique and Rosa are caught and identified as Guatemalans, they will be deported home, to face the long, arduous journey again - if they can try again at all. To pass as Mexicans, they play off their own stereotypes of how Mexicans behave - including lacing their sentences with the Spanish for "f**k."

Naivete, ingenuity, and pluckiness combine to get Enrique and Rosa to the border. There they attempt to hire a "coyote" to take them across. Asked how much money they have, Enrique recalls Josefita's stash and says, "a lot." The coyote tries to rob them at the first opportunity, and can't believe these hick Guatemalans are so stupid that they thought this paltry sum was "a lot of money." (Those who think prejudice and racism are uniquely American traits will benefit from seeing the racism of the mestizos and Mexicans towards the Indians Enrique and Rosa). Enrique manages to retain their limited stash.

Their first effort to cross fails. In a humorous scene, an American immigration officer has suspicions that the pair are really Guatemalan. Enrique begins to use the f word unsparingly. "I guess they are Mexican" says the border patrol officer with a shrug.

The pair finally make it to the United States, in a horrific crossing through an abandoned sewer. Their coyote drops them in a shabby residence motel - he collects a fee from the innkeeper, in addition to all of Josefita's meager savings - where illegals hole up and look for day labor. Through luck, Enrique lands a job as a busboy, and Rosa as a housekeeper. Through hard work, they keep their relatively cushy jobs and become favorites of their respective employers. In the evenings, Rosa works to turn the little apartment motel into a home. They remain incredibly naive, but the States seem to offer much of what they dreamed of, from running water to opportunity. Eventually, Enrique is offered an opportunity to go to Chicago to work as a domestic for a wealthy matron. The job holds out the opportunity of a green card. But Rosa is not part of the deal. Enrique decides not to leave her behind, at the enormous cost of foregoing the green card and legal status. Things sour fast: Rosa falls ill from typhoid, picked up from rats in the sewer through which they crossed over. Rosa dies from the illness, and Enrique tries to claim the job in Chicago, but it is too late. Moreover, from staying home with Rosa, he has lost his position as busboy. As the movie closes, Enrique is back at the motel, seeking day labor. The foreman pulls up in his truck and says he needs workers, and the young men vie to be chosen. Enrique, suddenly no longer reticent, elbows to the front: "Yo, Yo. Yo tengo brazos fuertes." "Me, me. I have strong arms."

The movie is beautifully filmed, from the lush jungles of Guatemala, to the filthy chaos of the Mexican border cities, to the pools and manicured lawns of southern California. It combines the elements of any great road movie - humor, adventure, hardship overcome. Director Gregory Nava clearly hopes to focus on the plight of indigenous central Americans, and the movie suggests in no uncertain terms that whether in Guatemala, Mexico, or the U.S., these Indians are exploited and abused. But it is not a shallow left wing tale. The characters are deep and developed, not simple stereotypes, and Nava wisely avoids overt preaching or any long soliloquoys intended to hit us over the head with the message. What we really see are ordinary people trying to cope with life, not, with rare exception, evil people. Even Enrique and Rosa have their stereotypes of Mexicans, no less than the Mexicans (and Americans) hold stereotypical views of the Guatemalan Indians. The border patrolman would like to do his job more efficiently, but is overwhelmed by lack of time, language barriers, and sheer volume; what, in the end, is one or two more - "I guess they are Mexicans." Even the theives and coyotes of Tijuana get a fair treatment. They are not devoid of humanity; their own situation is desperate, and their behavior in some way understandable if condemnable. The rich Americans simply cannot be bothered. Along with the Guatemalan landlords and military, they come across the worst in the film, as Nava undoubtedly intended. But even they are not cardboard villians.

In short, the plight of the poor is complex, and the answers are not easy. El Norte's left leanings are obvious, but it is no film of leftist social cant. It is a complex, moving, story that treats its characters fairly. The photography is at times stunning, and the film was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay.

With CAFTA bringing Central America back to the forefront, however briefly, it is a good time to pick up this magnificent film.

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