Midway through Gregory Nava ’s 1984 film El Norte, a wealthy white woman explains to her newly hired housekeeper—recent Guatemalan immigrant Rosa—how to use the washing machine. The woman breezes through a dazzlingly complex set of buttons, a parody of technology’s promise. When Rosa, perplexed by the machine, winds up doing the laundry by hand, the woman protests: “I couldn’t stand the thought of her in here, scrubbing.” By centering Rosa’s point of view, the scene becomes an absurdist comedy of the easy lies that facilitate convenience.
Nava insisted on centering that perspective when he made the film, resisting suggestions to incorporate a border guard or lawyer as a main character in his landmark immigration drama. “The reason why I think El Norte has endured, whereas a lot of these other films haven’t that were made in that period, is because it really puts the people whose true story it is at the center of their own story,” Nava told Vanity Fair.
Nava has devoted much of his career to chronicling the Latinx experience; he directed Selena, and cowrote the screenplay for Frida. But El Norte was his breakout film: It became the first independent movie to be nominated for a best-original-screenplay Oscar, and had significant influence over the immigration debate at the time. Making the film wasn’t easy; Nava and producers Anna Thomas and Bertha Navarro underwent a series of harrowing run-ins with the Mexican authorities while filming there, and their shoot was prematurely curtailed over fears about its controversial nature.
Whether by virtue of the sets’ vivid simplicity or the Academy restoration it underwent a couple years ago, the film retains an unnervingly timeless aesthetic. From his home near Santa Fe, New Mexico, Nava told Vanity Fair about what went into making El Norte, which will be screened in more than 200 theaters across the U.S. on September 15, in honor of its 35th birthday.
Vanity Fair: Why did you keep this project independent?
Gregory Nava: There wasn’t an option. It was right at the very beginning of the independent-film movement. There weren’t women filmmakers; there weren’t Latino filmmakers; there weren’t African American filmmakers—our stories weren’t being told. We wanted to get them made however we could get them made. We were angry, and we were talented, and we were young, and we wanted to get our stories told. And Hollywood was not telling them.
Major studios weren’t going to make a movie like El Norte. Are you kidding me? A movie about teenage Mayan refugees—they’re going to make that movie? All in Spanish and K’iche’ Mayan? It’s not going to happen. We had to do this in outlaw fashion.
Some of the tensions and alliances that animate the plot of the film—Guatemalans who are instructed to cuss more in order to sound Mexican, and Mexicans who make fun of pochos, or Chicanos, who don’t speak fluent Spanish—seem like they might be indecipherable to the film’s non-Latinx characters. They also counter what’s seen as a widespread flattening of Latinos in popular culture, the idea that all Latino people have similar backgrounds and values.
If all you do is have perfect Latino people and all the Anglo people are evil, nobody believes that, because they know it’s not true. When I made El Norte, I showed the bad things along with good things. Forget about stereotypes; forget about everything. Just say: This is the story, and I’m going to tell the truth.
Advertisement My belief is that [if] you tell the story of a village, you tell the story of the world. The human experience is universal, right? I love War and Peace by Tolstoy. I love Pierre Bezukhov. I’m not Russian. But I read War and Peace, and I am moved by his spiritual journey and by who he was as a person. I love Hamlet. But you don’t have to be a Russian count or a prince of Denmark—you can be a Mayan refugee, like Rosa and Enrique. They also have just as much to tell us about who we are, and their experience is also a universal experience.
El Norte ’s famous scene of Rosa and Enrique being attacked by rats as they crawl through the tunnels from Tijuana to San Diego, which comes about halfway through the movie, is probably one of the most agonizing moments in modern cinema.
This was a dream-realist drama, very much influenced by Gabriel García Márquez and Miguel Ángel Asturias. I wanted to find a Latino way to tell the story, because it’s a Latino story. But dream realism isn’t just about butterflies and, you know, beautiful landscapes. It’s also about nightmares.
In the border crossing I wanted to find something that would be just as horrifying, as terrifying, as anything in a Hitchcock movie, or any horror movie that you’d ever seen. Even though this wasn’t a suspense thriller or a horror film, crossing the border often means risking your life, and what people experience trying to cross the border is horrifying. I wanted the audience to feel that. Everything in the movie is based on things that really happened to real people.
How did people react to it at the time?
The impact of that scene exceeded anything that we expected. But it had this amazing effect, because the film is a journey. When the movie begins, Rosa and Enrique are speaking in K’iche’ Mayan. They’re dressed in huipiles. It couldn’t be more different than the audience here in the United States, right? You see these images, and as the film progresses, you learn more about these characters, and you get closer and closer to them.
By the time you get into the middle of the movie—and the rat scene is right in the center of the movie—suddenly the fear has this effect of destroying all barriers. You are in that tunnel with them. You experience that with them. You are terrified. When you emerge from the tunnel with Rosa and Enrique, now you are so close to them that you are seeing the world through their eyes. And when they come into El Norte, suddenly you see your own world with somebody else’s eyes.
At the time that El Norte was released, people were fleeing civil war in Central America, and there was a heated debate around immigration. What has changed since then?
When there was a debate about immigration and refugees back in the ’80s, there was a sense that we have to deal with this with humanity, or we’re not going to get anywhere. The Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized over 2 million undocumented [people], was done under the Reagan administration. A Republican administration. Don’t forget that.
But now we have a Republican administration that’s not going to do anything like that, and it’s not going to approach this with compassion. And the end result is cruelty, and cruelty only makes the situation worse. The United States has always traditionally been about, “Give me your tired, your poor.” But now suddenly, they’re saying, Well, give me your tired, your poor— but you’ve got to take care of yourself, and you’ve got to be from Europe . So, it doesn’t count for people from Central America and Mexico? I mean, this is offensive.
Advertisement And then you see how this horrible rhetoric has led to this awful massacre in El Paso. This is a turning point for our community. We really have to rise to the occasion—not just Latinos, but all people of good conscience, and say, No, we have to build bridges, not walls.
Much of your work is devoted to exploring the dual identities that exist in the borderlands.
The border is its own world. It’s like its own country. I have family on both sides, and this is very common. You know, Trump is saying, “Go back,” and I’ve got news for him: We already are back. Los Angeles, okay? Tejas. This is our land. It’s our home.
You’ve been working on another film about migration for 10 years. Why has it taken so long?
Well, I love the project. I think it’s a powerful one. I wish that it were in theaters today. It’s been very hard to get that film made, but we’re still working on doing it.
Is there anything more you can say about it?
Well, no—I mean, except that it is about the situation today. I wanted to show how deeply this is affecting families in the United States, in ways that people don’t even realize. One thing that gets overlooked is the labor. We have a lot of work in this society that is done by undocumented people and refugees. Everything you eat has been touched by a refugee or undocumented person. Everything. Our buildings are built by the undocumented. Our food is picked by the undocumented. Our children are cared for by the undocumented. [Trump’s golf course] hires the undocumented. This is central to our society, and it’s integrated into our society. If you deport everybody, the whole economy of the United States would collapse.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
LINK ORIGINAL: Vanityfair