The New American Dream
I really think it says something about us as a nation that people are willing to crawl through tunnels of rats to get into our country. I mean, okay, this movie is fiction. On the other hand, it's about a lot of things that are real and are still happening, even thirty years later. The filmmakers' experiences with the Mexican police are pretty awful, and they weren't poor Indian peasants from who-knows-where. And indeed, the scenes filmed in the immigration offices were a bit scary for the actors, because it turns out that they didn't have legitimate work permits for the United States. In other words, the scenes which end with the characters' getting deported could have ended with the actors' getting deported. No one overstepped their boundaries, but it would have been perfectly legal and a legitimate use of their authority. However, all that is still better than, say, facing death squads, as the characters would have done if they had stayed in Guatemala.
Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) Xuncax are of Mayan descent. They live in a small village in Guatemala where they hear stories about [i]El Norte[/i]--the North. However, they never think they'll go there and think they'll live and die pretty much the way their people always have. However, their father, Arturo (Ernesto Gómez Cruz), is part of a unionization movement, and he is killed by the forces of the government, which isn't well disposed toward the Maya at the best of times. Enrique and Rosa pretty much have the choice of flee or die, so they make their way out of Guatemala. They go through Mexico. In Tijuana, a coyote (Abel Franco) helps them across the border, and Enrique and Rosa become part of the great mass of illegal immigrants into the United States. She works in a sweatshop and then as a housekeeper, and he gets a job as a busboy. And they struggle to better their lives as immigrants have always done.
Indeed, quite a lot of their experience isn't unusual, starting with the fact that they both work to learn English. Indeed, it's worth noting that their teacher is herself of Asian descent. Their class is multicultural, though Rosa's new friend, Nacha (Lupe Ontiveros), is astonished that Rosa thinks the [i]gringos[/i] would live among the Hispanics. Nacha is herself undocumented, as evidenced by her statement to Rosa that she never works anywhere that she can't find an escape route out of in case [i]inmi[/i] comes calling. Enrique, too, makes a good friend who is an illegal immigrant, and they look down upon those Hispanics whose families have been in the US long enough that they have lost their Spanish. Which is, eventually, pretty much all of them. It is because of this dispute that Enrique loses the good job he has gotten as a busboy, one where he is able to get a better job as his English improves. And, no, Rosa doesn't understand the washing machine, but she's still good at her job.
Of course, it's true that the movie does not focus on any potential damage to American society caused by illegal immigration. I think pretty much everyone can agree that Rosa, at least, did absolutely nothing in Guatemala to merit having her life so in danger, and Enrique only did a little more, nothing to the extent of validating death squads. They are noncontroversial heroes for a film about illegal immigration. It is also true that the movie acknowledges that there are a lot of people in Tijuana making a lot of money of poor, desperate people like Enrique and Rosa--and not all of them are as benevolent as Raimundo. The life Enrique and Rosa live in the US, to our eyes one of astonishing degradation and desperation, is one of wonder to them. They have a flush toilet and electric lights. Yes, it's still pretty terrible in a lot of ways, but it becomes possible to them that they will be rich enough to own their own car. Enrique made twenty dollars in a day!
And, you know, no one was hanging anyone's head from a tree. Honestly, the only way to stem the tide of illegal immigrants into the US is to improve conditions in the countries from which they come. At the time this film was made, life was difficult for people like Enrique and Rosa because the Guatemalan government was still enforcing the separation of the native population from those of European descent which had been in force for centuries. As Arturo tells Enrique, all they want from his people are a pair of strong arms. The dream of [i]El Norte[/i] is a place where a person is not solely defined by who their ancestors were, a place where you can better yourself through your own hard work. Of course, as Rosa points out, once you do get there, they don't want you. On the other hand, Enrique's boss was paying Enrique less in a day than he spent making floral arrangements. You could tell they provided Enrique with a meal, because he couldn't afford to eat there on what he was paid.