El Norte (1983) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Peasants escaping mindless labor and a murderous Guatemalan government head to America in hopes for something better.

  • Peasants, tired of beingnothing more than manual laborers, are discovered by the Guatemalan army. After the army destroys their village, a brother and sister, decide they must flee el Norte. After receiving help from friends and advice from a veteran immigrant on strategies for traveling, they make their way to Los Angeles.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Part 1: Arturo Xuncax

    The first part takes place in a small rural Guatemalan village called San Pedro and introduces the Xuncax family, a group of indigenous Mayans. Arturo is a coffee picker and his wife a homemaker. Arturo explains to his son, Enrique, his world view and how the indio fares in Guatemalan life, noting that, "to the rich, the peasant is just a pair of strong arms". Arturo and his family then discuss the possibility of going to the United States where "all the people, even the poor, own their own cars". Because of his attempts to form a labor union among the workers, Arturo and the other organizers are attacked and murdered by government troops when a co-worker is bribed to betray them... Arturo's severed head is seen hanging from a tree. When Enrique attempts to climb the tree that displays his father's head, a soldier attacks him. Enrique fights and kills the attacker, only to learn that many of their fellow villagers have been rounded up by soldiers. The children's mother too "disappears": abducted by soldiers. So, using money given to them by their godmother, Enrique and his sister Rosa decide to flee Guatemala, the land of their birth, and head north.

    Part 2: Coyote

    During the second part of the film the two teenagers flee Guatemala, travel through Mexico, and meet a Mexican coyote who guides them across the border. This section includes various comic scenes relating to mutual stereotyping among different ethnic groups in Mexico. Enrique and Rosa attempt to pass themselves off as indigenous Mexicans, failing to convince one Mexican truck driver after naming the wrong destination. After their first failed attempt to cross the "frontera", where a man posing as a coyote deceives and attempts to rob them, but they succeed in convincing a U.S. Border Patrol officer by copiously peppering their responses with the Mexican word for "fuck", which a neighbor had suggested was how all Mexicans speak.

    In the second attempt to cross the border, they have a horrific experience when they finally cross the U.S.-Mexican border through a sewer pipe laden with rats.

    Part 3: El Norte

    In the final part of the film Rosa and Enrique discover the difficulties of living in the U.S. without official documentation. After staying for the night in a cheap motel in San Diego, they move further north and settle in Los Angeles. The brother and sister team find work and a place to live and initially feel good about their decision. However, Rosa nearly is captured during an immigration raid and must find a new job. Working as a domestic, she is puzzled when her Anglo employer shows her a washing machine.

    Enrique becomes a busboy and, as his English classes begin to improve his command of the language, he is promoted to a position as a waiter's assistant. He is later approached by a wealthy businesswoman who has a better-paying job for him in Chicago as a foreman, which he initially declines. He tells the woman that he does not want to leave his sister behind in L.A. Enrique soon encounters problems when a jealous Chicano co-worker reports him to immigration, causing him to flee the restaurant and seek out the businesswoman.

    When Enrique finally decides to take the position, Rosa becomes gravely ill with typhus contracted from the rat bites she received during their border crossing. When this happens, Enrique must make the tough decision of moving to Chicago, or to be by her side. Enrique chooses the later option and thus loses the position. As Enrique visits the hospital, Rosa laments that she will not live to enjoy the fruits of their harrowing journey to the U.S. Rosa sums up the film's major theme when she says to Enrique: "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."

    After Rosa dies peacefully, Enrique is shown once again waiting with the other day-labor hopefuls in a parking lot, offering his services to a man looking for "strong arms". In a bitter realization, Enrique finally learns that from his late father's words about the poor being nothing but arms for the rich holds true... even in El Norte.

    Although Enrique is temporarily employed once again, he is distracted by haunting daydreams about his dead sister's lost desires for a better life. The final shot shows a severed head hanging from a rope, which may be the same image used in Part 1.

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