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El Norte (1983) tells the story of two teenage Mayan siblings, Rosa and Enrique, who decide to escape their village when their union organizing father is murdered and their mother is taken away. They first go to Mexico where they are victims of extreme poverty and crooked coyotes, but when they go to America they find a less prosperous reality than they thought. Both struggle with finding jobs and losing their identity.
The Guatemalan Civil War
After the 1954 Coup, Guatemala saw inequality increase. The Alliance for Progress promised prosperity however no more than 2% of the growth trickled down to the poorest 20% in Guatemala. Workers outnumbered jobs 30 to 1 and while the president of Guatemala had a reported salary of $650,000, the average Mayan Indian made $82 annually. Still, the US provided the Armas administration with $80 million in the first three years after the coup. Eventually, Armas was assassinated and Miguel Ydigoras Fuentes took his place (against the US’s wishes). Still, once president the US approached him for a favor. They wanted to use Guatemala as a military base for the invasion of Cuba.
Ydigoras agreed which left the Guatemalan people feeling used by the US government. When a group of left-wing junior military officers revolted in 1960, Guatemala’s civil war began. The civil war would last 36 years and from 1966 to 1976, death squads killed 50,000 Guatemalans. That was just the beginning. The country was devastated by an earthquake in 1976 which destroyed villages and left 25,000 dead and a quarter of the population homeless. Several generals ruled over Guatemala with the aid of US-funded military death squads.
By the time peace was achieved, there would be 150,000 dead and 50,000 “disappeared”. In one village, Mayans who requested government assistance in protecting their lands were killed and within two months, 1,500 Mayan civilians were killed in the Chimaltenango province. In the cities, students and labor leaders were gunned down and disappeared. During one protest, 38 were killed. After a guerrilla uprising in 1982, the military scrambled and General Efrain Rios Montt, the most vicious leader of this era, rose to power. He went after the guerrillas and slaughtered thousands of Mayan villagers on the suspicion they were subversives as well. 900,000 Mayans that were not killed were forced into special patrols to help the army. Still, Reagan declared he was a man of great integrity who was totally dedicated to democracy. Days after Reagan’s endorsement, Guatemalan soldiers went to the village of Dos Erres and slaughtered at least 162 people in 3 days and the US government sent $15.5 million in economic aid. In total, more than 75,000 civilians were killed in the early 1980s and 20% of the population was displaced and half a million Mayans became internal refugees.
The Disappearance of Mayan Culture
Rosa and Enrique start their journey in a very closed Mayan community and soon find themselves far away from their culture. Though they promise to follow the ideals of their parents, they almost immediately stray. Tragically poetic, in order to pay for the coyote to take them across the Mexico-US border, Rosa sells her mother’s precious jewelry. This is the first sign that coming to America requires you to let go of your culture. When they get to the US, they change, even more, Rosa especially. Rosa gets a makeover to look less Indian and has to stop washing clothes by hand because her boss tells her she has to use the laundry machine. Her attempts to reconnect with her culture come when she has already succumbed to an illness caught during her escape when she turns to Mayan remedies. Sadly, it’s too late, her journey to be successful in America has made it impossible for her to survive as a Mayan woman. Maybe on the other side, she can be a Mayan woman, but not in this world. Enrique may not die but he also loses a major part of his Mayan identity. Before he goes away to America, his father tells him that the rich in Guatemala only see the poor as strong arms and they forget about their hearts and minds, but in America, Enrique seems to forget this. After his sister dies, he goes back on the street to wait for a truck to come by looking for day laborers. When one does come and all the men yell how qualified they are, Enrique yells “strong arms”. Unlike Rosa, he has not tried to rekindle his Mayan side, he is not someone with a heart and mind, he is an arm.
An equally interesting aspect of American culture is the segregation and different stratifications of nationalities and ethnic groups. Since this movie was made by a Mexican-American director, these different hierarchies among Latino-Americans which may not seem visible to white Americans or even Latin Americans, are put onto center stage for the film. Within the Latino neighborhood, Rosa and Enrique reside in, Mexicans are at the top of the food chain. After experiencing racism in Mexico, Enrique pretends to be Mexican once he gets a job. Even when he gets close to another Mexican worker there who, like him, does not have papers, he does not reveal his heritage. His fear of this prejudice prevents him from really opening up with anyone in the country. Though the saddest and most surprising event in the movie is when his jealous Chicano coworker calls immigration on him. We would expect those of Latin American descent to stick by their own, but as is often the case, the need to be accepted into white society supersedes the need for solidarity. Many famous activists within the Chicano movement like Cesar Chavez have even expressed anti-immigrant sentiment while also wearing their heritage with pride. This confusion and desperation is best exemplified in Rosa’s deathbed decree: “In our own land, we have no home. They want to kill us. … In Mexico, there is only poverty. We can’t make a home there either. And here in the north, we aren’t accepted. When will we find a home, Enrique? Maybe when we die, we’ll find a home.” Hopefully one day the solidarity Rosa and Enrique’s parents taught them can shine through, and people like them will finally find a home.