An American classic: Gregory Nava’s ‘El Norte’ still as relevant today as 35 years ago

David Villalpando starred as Enrique Xuncax in the 1984 movie ‘El Norte,’ which has been restored and will be shown nationally on Sept. 15.
David Villalpando starred as Enrique Xuncax in the 1984 movie ‘El Norte,’ which has been restored and will be shown nationally on Sept. 15. Special to Vida en el Valle

“We filmmakers, we’re told this and we’re told that, but if we tell the truth about whatever kind of movie we’re making in our culture and our people, then we are in a way making a political statement.”

- Gregory Nava

It is difficult to separate Gregory Nava the Oscar-nominated filmmaker from Gregory Nava the political activist.

But, then, why would you?

The 70-year-old director/screenwriter is best known for his American movie classic ‘El Norte,’ which follows the saga of two Guatemalan siblings who fled a war-torn homeland to get to the United States.

The 1984 movie spurred immigration reform in Washington, D.C. and garnered best screenwriting Oscar nominations for Nava and co-screenwriter Anna Thomas. (‘Places in the Heart’ won that category).

It’s déjà vu all over again.

The Academy Archive restored the movie, which will have a special, one-time screen at 2 p.m. on Sunday (Sept. 15) at 200 theaters throughout the country. This includes Porterville, Merced, Manteca, Stockton, Fresno and Modesto.

The movie’s new showing comes at a time when anti-immigrant rhetoric from the president, the massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart by a gunman intent on killing Mexicans, and, the separating of children from their parents who seek asylum.

“The theme to the movie is timely,” said Nava during a 20-minute telephone interview. “I mean, it’s so sad we still have this horrific crisis with refugees at our southern border.

“Today, we need ‘El Norte’ – the message of humanity and compassion – more than ever.”

Lawmakers credited the movie, which cost a bare bones $800,000 to make, for helping push the Simpson Mazzoli Act that led to amnesty for almost 3 million undocumented residents. The legislation, known as the Immigration Reform and Contract Act (IRCA), was signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Nava was unaware the movie would help so many.

“I think it was incredible because we did not know the impact it had when it was released,” he said. “It played for over a year in theaters in Los Ángeles and New York.”

The movie saved thousands of lives, said Nava, because federal legislation also provided protected status for Central Americans.

“The thing I’m proudest of, that I’ve ever done as a filmmaker, is that you reach and make a movie that can move the needle that can affect people, than can change things,” he said. “Sadly, now 35 years later, protected status has been rescinded and all of those reforms have gone away.”

Those measures, he added, “have been replaced with policies of cruelty as opposed to compassion. Hopefully, we can start a dialogue about what the right way is to approach the issues that come from this crisis that we have.”

A story relatable to most immigrants today

Nava, who was born in San Diego and grew up in the California-México border, did not inject politics into ‘El Norte.’ He simply wanted to tell the tale of siblings Rosa and Enrique Xuncax, who are forced to escape certain death in Guatemala and opted to head north.

The film is from the perspective of Rosa and Enrique, so that viewers “can walk in their shoes and make the journey with them,” said Nava.

“Anybody can come see this movie regardless of what your political persuasion is because the humanity is universal. That’s the kind of story that we wanted to tell. I was very strong about doing it that way,” said Nava.

That is a major reason why Nava and Thomas spent a couple of years raising the funds (PBS’s ‘American Playhouse’ came through with half of the money). They did not want to have a studio tell them to use Anglos in the starring roles or to suggest changes in the script.

Nava and his crew numerous challenges while filming in México. Men with machine guns shut down production, Nava had to pay bribes, exposed film had to be smuggled out of the country, and a ransom was paid when their accountant was kidnapped.

Nava – who has gone on to direct the 1996 movie ‘Selena’ and executive produced ‘My Family/Mi Familia’ in 1995 – wishes more movies like ‘El Norte’ were made.

Not only are they needed, he said, but “they also make good business sense because they make money.

“Hollywood has to open its checkbook and start funding them,” said Nava, who is currently working on ‘Gates of Eden,’ a sweeping epic about the current situation on the U.S.-México border. “We want more movies like ‘El Norte.’”

Moviemakers and journalists are in the best positions to point out reality to the American people, said Nava.

When the president talks about an “infestation” or “invasion” of immigrants bent on committing crimes, someone needs to step up and point out the hard work and contributions that the immigrant community is making, he said.

“People need to see and feel the heart and soul of all the Rosa and Enriques now more than ever,” Nava said in another interview.

“It is my hope, that as we begin Hispanic Heritage Month, we can all gather at the theaters showing ‘El Norte;’ bringing friends and family as well as people who do not understand the issue, and create a dialogue to change the current narrative of hate and intolerance that plagues our nation.

“I know that if we work together, we can build something much stronger than a wall – we can build a bridge.”

Nava is donating all his proceeds from the movie to the victims of the El Paso massacre.

A miraculous restoration ... and those rats

What’s new about ‘El Norte’ in 2019?

The only update that was done was restoring the original movie frame by frame, said Nava.

“When they premiered it as the Motion Picture Academy, I and all the people that made the film were overwhelmed at how gorgeous it looked,” said Nava. “People will see a pristine, beautiful film that looks like it was made today.”

What about the rats in the tunnel?

Nava wanted authenticity in the movie when Rosa and Enrique are crawling through a sewer tunnel on their way to the U.S. They encounter rats. Lots of them.

“There were 250 rats in the scene, and we had to get 2- and 3-year-old rats, and they had to be lab rats,” said Nava.

Most lab rats are white, so Nava’s team contacted every lab in the country looking for gray and black rats. Then, they had to train them.

The actors who played Rosa and Enrique (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando) went through the rat gauntlet.

“What is horrifying is that you see it’s them being attacked by those rats,” said Nava.

The animal trainer kept the rats, who most likely ended up in an ‘Indiana Jones’ movie.

“I got a phone call from Steven Speilberg after the movie was released,” said Nava.

The famous director/producer said, “This is a great movie. I loved it. It’s so powerful. How did you do that rat scene?”

Nava suspects the ‘Indiana Jones’ rats were the same ones used in ‘El Norte.’

‘El Norte’

Director: Gregory Nava

Producer: Anna Thomas

Actors: David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Alicia del Lago, Lupe Ontiveros, Tony Plana, Enrique Castillo, Trinidad Silva

Running length: 141 minutes

Extra: An exclusive featurette with Gregory Nava discussing the making of the film with its stars, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando, who portrayed the migrant siblings.

Where: Regal Stockton City Center 16; AMC Manteca 16; Galaxy Riverbank 12; Regal Hollywood Merced 13; Regal Fresno Stadium 22; Galaxy Tulare 10; Galaxy Porterville 9; Regal Bakersfield Stadium 14; Laguna 16 in Elk Grove; Century Arden & XD in Sacramento.