Academic journal article Bilingual Review

El Norte, Deracination and Circularity: An Epic Gone Awry

Academic journal article Bilingual Review

El Norte, Deracination and Circularity: An Epic Gone Awry

Article excerpt

As the geometer who bends all his will to measure the circle, and howsoe'er he try Fails, for the principle escapes him still, Such at this mystery new disclosed was I

--Dante, Par. xxxiii, 133-36

Early journalistic reviews (e.g., Gold, Ebert, and Kael) of El Norte (1983), Gregory Nava's first major film, identify it as an epic. Kael, however, rails at what she considers the screenwriters' and the director's ineptitude (115), but she feels that the heroic nature of the protagonists' struggle makes the film's purported mediocrity bearable to her as an exigent viewer. Hugo N. Santander, in a piece with decidedly academic pretensions, maintains that El Norte is a migratory epic akin to The Odyssey as well as The Lusiads, in which emblematic figures Odysseus and Vasco da Gama realize deeds of national importance and personify their nations' virtues. On top of this, Mario Barrera (260-61) and Santander maintain that, in addition to the classical epics already mentioned, the Popol vuh, the Mayan creation myth, also informs El Norte. This claim derives from the following similarity: In the Popol vuh a pair of pre-human, divine siblings performs a quest after their father's death. In El Norte the siblings Enrique and Rosa, two Guatemalan Amerindians, leave their native village on a quest to what for them is the mythical land in the North.

Although El Norte corresponds to the general scheme of the migratory epic, in which characters leave their native land, endure perils, and finally reach their goal, I shall argue that this film's structure and, more importantly, its theme and message derive more specifically and extensively, albeit inversely, from an epic in which the protagonist's voyage is spiritual rather than geographical and which plumbs, if not all mankind's fate, at least that of Christendom--Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. That is, I maintain that El Norte is an epic of modernity in which economic opportunity and political freedom take the place of the union with God that Dante achieved. It is also different from the Divine Comedy insofar as it distorts Dante's ascendance from the depths of hell into paradise. In El Norte the protagonists leave a would-be paradise turned infernal only to find themselves in a similarly hellish situation at the end of their quest. This film is an epic gone tragically awry: in the course of the plot, rather than achieve their desired prosperity and new identities, the sibling protagonists Rosa and Enrique lose their authenticity, i.e., their identities as Central American Indians, descendants of the Mayans. Rosa dies in a county hospital knowing there is no place for her, and Enrique ends up as an undocumented day laborer, a pair of brazos fuertes at a construction site. Enrique's fate brings the movie full circle because early in the film his father, who wanted something more for his children, maintains that for the rich, poor people are nothing more than pairs of arms to do their work.

While most movies follow the three-act division of classical drama (Barrera 248), rarely is a film demarcated into three separate titled acts the way El Norte is. The first act or segment of the play corresponds to the Inferno. It takes place in Guatemala and is titled "Arturo Xuncax," after Enrique and Rosa's father. This patriarchal figure is known to be involved in the planning of a local rebellion against capitalist absentee landlords who have usurped the communal land surrounding San Pedro, an Indian community (see Wolf 202, 215). The second segment, of approximately equal duration, is "El coyote" and takes place in Mexico and the border region between the Mexican and American Californias. It corresponds to the Purgatorio. Enrique and Rosa are illegal aliens who assume the identity of Mexican Indians in both Mexico and the United States and who suffer hardships in their attempts to reach the Promised Land. The third segment, "The North," takes place in Los Angeles (the City of Angels), the would-be paradiso where Enrique and Rosa find work that edges them toward their dream of self-determination and economic prosperity. …

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