El Norte and Sin Nombre. Dangerous Journeys: Disassembling the Beast

Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009) and Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) show us the neo-realistic journeys immigrants from Central America and Mexico face on their expedition north to the United States.  Both films illuminate some of the hazards people face during their journey: environmental risks such as crossing the desert, as well as additional deterrents that “might include police corruption; violence in the form of beatings, rape, murder, torture, road accidents; theft; incarnation” (Urrea, The Devil’s 12).  In this analysis we will explore this notion of a dangerous flight by comparing El Norte to Sin Nombre, looking specifically at how each film functions in representing a realistic voyage.  Furthermore, observing how the dangers embodied in the narratives are emblematic of the journey north for those who choose to migrate.

The long trek north

Sin Nombre and El Norte’s narratives revolve around their characters leaving everything they know behind for a better life.  These films, alike many factual journeys of migrants traveling north ask us to “imagine poverty, violence, natural disasters, or political fear driving you away from everything you know,” forcing you to “traverse hundreds—or thousands—of miles across territory totally unknown… when odds are that you have never travelled farther than one hundred miles in your life” (Urrea, Across 12).  This notion precisely explicates the life experiences of Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) in Sin Nombre, as well as Rose (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and Enrique (David Villalpando) in El Norte.  Additionally, none of the characters have ever left home and are therefore naïve to the dangers that await them: Rose and Enrique both native Guatemalans and Sayra a native Honduran.  Both films use the characters’ lack of experience to provide us with fresh eyes through which we can experience the difficulties of the journey north.  Furthermore, we instinctively identify with them due to their coerced exiles: Rose and Enrique political refugees fleeing for their lives and Sayra leaving for a better life and family.  Their plight is further accentuated by the lack of monetary resources with which they set out with; therefore our empathy as spectators is intensified before their expeditions even begin.  However, the concept of poverty is also important outside our subjective gaze, as it adds to the realism of the portrayed journey.

The characters in both films cannot realistically afford their passage to the north, for example Sayra, her dad (Gerardo Taracena), and uncle have only a few paper notes (pesos), whereas Enrique and Rose are said to have twenty dollars between them when the reach the US-Mexican border.  This idea reflects well on Luis Urrea’s account of the Yuma 14 (fourteen people who died of sun exposure and dehydration while crossing into Arizona from Mexico) and the poverty embodied in their belongings which contained only a few pesos.   Urrea writes: “They came to the broken place of the world, and taken all together; they did not have enough items to fill a carry-on bag” (Urrea, The Devil’s 32).  This quote realistically echoes that our characters also set out with almost nothing, wearing only petite backpacks hardly large enough for a change of clothes (illustrating what little they have).  Furthermore, their representation as impoverished migrants is realistic in that 51% of the population of Guatemala is considered in poverty (Guatemala) and 60.0% in Honduras (Honduras). Narratively this is also expressed by Sayra and her family walking hundreds of miles to Mexico from Honduras, whereas Rose and Enrique begin their trek from Guatemala.  These elements of poverty are important because they not only provide us with our first solid element of danger in their journey (far from home with little money), but also brand the characters more vulnerable due to the transportation they must utilize in Mexico after the initial border crossing(s).

In both films our characters cross into Mexico by foot through Guatemala as many immigrants from Central America do (Nazario 83); in Sin the crossing is represented by a river, opposed to Norte where we do not see where they actually cross.  The crossing in Sin well represents several texts on the journey of Central Americans, as many choose to cross the river into Chiapas as well.  Furthermore, this ease of this crossing is summed up well here: “Guatemala is mostly a nonpatrolled river, a theoretical line in the jungle, and a passageway for absolutely everything” (Castañeda 172).  This quote illustrates the realism of the crossing in Sin as we see our characters leisurely raft across the river/border, reinforcing the notion of a vague boundary.  Furthermore, the first obstacle for Sayra and her family comes after they cross into Mexico and are strip searched by border patrol (and perhaps robbed).  Norte also supports this notion in that we assume the characters’ passages from Guatemala are met with little resistance because we do not see the crossing in the narrative.

Norte instead chooses to represent the first hazard in their journey in a scene where Rose and Enrique are caught sneaking unto the back of a truck, but instead of border patrol they are ensnared by a truck driver who does not mind giving them a ride.  However, the concept of avoiding a similar run-in with border patrol is represented by Rose and Enrique trying to blend in with the Mexican population.  In fact, before Rose and Enrique leave Guatemala they are specifically told they need to learn how to talk like Mexicans (essentially curse) and claim to be “Indians” from Oaxaca, Mexico.  This is not only to avoid deportation from the border patrol, but to avoid discrimination they might face as Central Americans; this is also portrayed in Sin when Mexican nationals throw rocks at the migrant filled train, yelling “Fucking immigrants! We don’t want you here!”  Moreover, this theme of discrimination reveals one of many very realistic threats to those crossing the border.  The hazards Sayra and her family face as well as Rose and Enrique’s as a whole are well elucidated here:

Many people from Central American countries trek through Mexico to the US, passing “through Mexico, which they call ‘crossing the beast,’ Central American immigrants, who the Mexican government has as felons, are routinely assaulted, raped, or robbed by hoodlums, including by members of the Los Angeles—based gang Mara Salvatrucha, and are hunted down by soldiers and the police, who strip them of their belongings and sometimes shoot to kill” (Novas 249).

This quote refers to the realism both films try to illuminate, a dangerous chasm that separates them from their home and Promised Land.  Furthermore, “The beast” has many faces as this quote illustrates, which well encompasses our characters’ sojourns through Mexico.

The Beast

For many crossing Mexico, riding “the beast” also refers to the various cargo trains many immigrants hazardously ride towards the north.  These trains are also referred to as the “El Tren de la Muerte” (train of death) because of the many dangers riding them can entail (Nazario xii).  For example, the sexual assault of women, death or injury from the train wheels (limb loss is not uncommon), robbery, bee attacks, kidnapping, derailing, murder, dehydration, and random acts of violence (Perasso) (Penhaul).  Many immigrants lose their lives catching a ride on these trains, “the majority of the Beast riders are Salvadoran, Guatemalan, or Honduran” (Perasso), which illuminates a tribute to realism for our Honduran characters in Sin.  Moreover, these dangers are elucidated in the film: the death of Sayra’s father (falling from the train), the Mara muggings, the attempted rape of Sayra, Lil’ Mago’s (Tenoch Huerta) murder, and the derailing of a train that postpones Sayra and her family leaving Chiapas.

The train is exemplary in Sin because it symbolizes the travel film narrative (migrant voyage), as well as functions in introducing Sayra to the many realistic dangers of traveling north through Mexico (chiefly the Mara Salvatruchas).  Writer/Director Cary Fukunaga researched Sayra’s journey by riding on the roofs of three immigrant packed trains in Mexico, including one that crossed the Chiapan countryside; his experience undoubtedly represents the realism we see in the film.  As Fukunaga recalls in an interview:

“We were attacked within three hours my first night… We were somewhere in the pitch black regions of the Chiapan country side. In the alcove of the next train car I heard the distinct pops of gunshots, always louder than they seem in the movies, then the screams of immigrants passing the word: “Pandillas! Pandillas!  Everyone scattered, I could hear them running in past our tanker car.  Not having any where to run to, I stayed on, waiting for there to be a sign the gangs or bandits were approaching us.  After a tense pause, the train rocked and continued on again north” (Indiewire).

Fukunaga’s description is very similar to the scene where Lil Mago is killed.  In fact, Fukunaga goes on to say that a man was even thrown from the train and found in the morning by authorities, near where Fukunaga estimated he fell; we are further reminded of the scene where Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) finds Lil’ Mago’s mangled body next to the tracks.

Fukunaga knew well the hazards and vulnerability migrants on the train face through personal experience and research, revealing why he chose to reinforce these hazards through other filmic elements.  In fact the first time Sayra and her family approach the train we are bombarded with warnings of the danger it represents.  This is accomplished first through a medium (tracking) three shot of them walking through the center of many immigrants who are waiting for the train.  Here we hear the sound of a string section playing slow minor chords as the film cuts to a frontal medium shot and then rear shot of Sayra and her family in selective focus; this separates them from the background and therefore showing us that they are vulnerable outsiders who are far from home.  Furthermore, everyone around the train is watching them while ‘sketchy’ looking youths begin to whistle and click at Sayra; her father then reinforces our concern by looking towards her as we cut to a loose close-up.  The idea of danger is further encompassed by Sayra’s father when they finally reach the door and partial shelter of the open train car.  Sayra’s father states: “Not half of these people are going to make it.”  However, the chief component that represents the danger of the train is made clear in the aforementioned scene, represented by dramatic music.

We hear dramatic music the first time Sayra and her family attempt to board the train, coupled with the voice of a fellow traveler as he says, “No train.  One derailed up ahead today.  Many killed.”  This motif is represented in low pitch string and brass instruments often layered with synthesizer sounds of a much sharper timber; these sounds act as a kind of internal diegetic soundscape for the danger the protagonists feel during their journey.  For example, this idea is illuminated before and during the dramatic killing of Lil’ Mago.  Here, we are only provided with the diegetic sound of rain and voices as Lil Mago, Willey, and Smiley begin to pace up the train robbing people.  However, we hear the sound cut in as they approach Sayra for the attempted rape scene and also when her father falls off the train (again reminding us of Fukunaga’s experience).  This music is also quite similar to what we hear when Wiley (Edgar Flores) is killed, but a slightly altered minor theme (also used to represent the danger of the approaching Mara).  It is reasonable to say that all of this music serves a dual role: it enhances the filmic drama and as a byproduct intensifies aspects of realism like her father’s death and the attempted rape scene that ends in Lil Mago’s death.

In contrast El Norte is a film that shows us the journey north through melodramatic situations often only accompanied by diegetic sound (such as in the sewer crossing and fight with the coyote).  Rose and Enrique’s crossing of “the beast” is deemphasized by moments of quirky comedy such as the aforementioned carefree and constantly swearing truck driver, as well as scenes like the bus where we see Rose and Enrique playfully fight over the bus window with another passenger.  The film’s histrionic qualities are reinforced by a three part episodic division that detracts from the drama as “it does not really stimulate the viewer to reflect upon the social reality portrayed.  Instead, it functions to reduce each segment to the status of a parable or fairytale” (List).  Moreover, its lack of non-linearity due to its ellipses between segments diminishes the film’s realism and therefore the film as a genuine story about leaving Guatemala and crossing Mexico.

In contrast, we see some ellipses in Sin’s narrative, but we are still provided with enough narrative info, even if just in the extreme long shots of the train drifting through the Mexican landscape.  This is further reinforced by the chronological way in which Sayra’s father talks about how long the trip will take, even showing Sayra on a map.  Furthermore, Willy and Sayra’s flight from a realistic and blood thirsty Mara is relentless and reinforced by a “mix of professional and non-pro actors” that help create “a documentary-like texture that greatly enhances this elemental tale of struggle, unexpected tenderness, and tragedy” (Lally).  The actors further add to the believability of the narrative and therefore the idea of a realistic linear journey to the north.  Moreover, the realism perpetuates a linear filmic world of danger that draws the viewer into an idiosyncratic state through the constant threat that Sayra, her family, and Wiley face in Mexico.  A critic well defines the idea of this relentless dramatic landscape here:

“Unlike many films on Latin American migration, Sin Nombre gives little attention to trials and triumphs on the U.S. side of the border. Instead, it forces viewers to gaze upon the perils of making it through Mexico with body and soul intact… By turns both wrenching and tender, it draws viewers into a landscape that sometimes seems ruled by the devil himself” (Caterine).

Although Sin focuses more on the dramatic and visceral in its representation of crossing Mexico, there are still examples of vivid scenes in Norte geared towards the realistic; specifically in the two scenes Rose and Enrique cross the border.

A Coyote Fence

The Mexico-US border is fraught with hazards that immigrants face on a daily basis.  The annual death rate for those crossing the US border has risen since the release of Norte, from 266 deaths in 1998, to 472 in 2005 (Frist 1).  Therefore, it is logical to expect each film to portray the danger of the border in dissimilar ways.  The US side of the boundary (river) in Sin is protected by two border patrol vehicles that we see when Sayra and Willy arrive at the river; we see the vehicles through an extreme long shot, thus highlighting the distance and therefore its low threat to the characters.  In contrast, Norte emphasizes the danger of the border patrol because Rose and Enrique are worried about being sent back to Guatemala, not only because home would be bring their literal deaths, but their other “draw to the US is obvious — flush toilets and electricity” (Charity).  However, the threat of deportation is presented to us in the whimsical scene where the two border patrol guards attempt to trick them into admitting they are not Mexican through an arbitrary test of wit, therefore detracting from the very real danger they face if they are returned home.  The scene ends when the guards give up and send them back over the border into Tijuana, where they finally meet their second coyote, who guides them over the border through the sewer.

In Norte our characters meet their first coyote in a rundown part of Tijuana; here they explain that they are looking for a coyote who is a friend of someone from their village.  This reflects many true stories of Central American immigrants who sometimes use coyotes who once helped someone they know from their rural community (Castañeda 121).  However, in looking for a coyote they have never met they invite danger as naive tourists.  Norte alludes us to this threat through the close-up of their new coyote, who wants to know if they have money and more importantly if it is “a lot?.”  The coyote is ultimately the one who leads them into the custody of the border patrol after he fails to rob them.  This mugging scene is puerile in that the struggle feels half-hearted due to the unrealistic way in which they fight, essentially rolling around on the ground together till Enrique finally kicks the coyote in the testicles.

In contrast to Norte, the balsero (rafter) that Willy and Sayra hire to help them cross the water divided border keeps his distance, showing us that he is afraid of Willy, perhaps because of his gang tattoos.  In fact, the balsero only seems to be only interested in being paid, as we see when he snatches the camera quickly from Wily’s hands.  Although neither of these coyotes are a real threat in the film, it is significant that Norte at least portrays an assault on Enrique, even if it does not appear particularly endangering it reinforces the film’s melodramatic qualities.  They do however represent realism in that both coyotes are portrayed in stereotypical and yet honest fashions.  As writer David Spener explains, “coyotes often played the role of the ‘bad guy’ in the stories told about the migration process by a variety of social actors [immigrants] who did not otherwise share similar points of view” (Spener 205).  Moreover, he explains that some of the most popular negative personality types in coyotes tend to focus around the greedy (Sin) or the robbing ‘thug’ (Norte).  Therefore, it is fair to say that their representations are not far off within the category of negative coyote experiences on the border.

The portrayal of the border is Sin appears unrealistic when comparing it to the many stories in Luis Urrea’s (The Devil’s) or Spener’s work (Spener) about the difficulties that have forced many to cross in the harsh Arizona desert.  In contrast, we see a border in Norte that is heavily patrolled through several extreme long shots with patrolling helicopters and SUVs.  We even see Rose and Enrique get caught during their first attempt (where Enrique is attacked).  However, there is no way of knowing where Sayra actually crosses in the film due to there being many areas in Texas where rivers intersect with the border (Spener 30-31), therefore there is no way of verifying the ease represented in her crossing.  We also do not see her meet up with her coyote after the river, so her journey cannot be fully understood within the contexts of realism and danger.  Sayra’s appearance at the end of the film near a phone booth in the US further devalues the veracity of her journey through due to ellipsis, not unlike Norte and its abridged and episodic narrative.  The film is less concerned with Sayra’s crossing and instead focused on showing us Willy’s final encounter with the Mara and therefore failed crossing; illustrating perhaps  that the price of freedom for many immigrants is often the loss of loved ones.  In contrast, Norte succeeds where Sin fails in the case of showing a more realistic and patrolled border outside of San Diego, California.  Norte is more authentic in its representation because by 1984 the border was already “officially militarized” due to “Operation Blockade” (Spener 43-46) and the “crossing routes had moved deep into the Arizona desert.  For most people, the journey remains as awful and degrading as a long crawl through a rat-filled tunnel” (Lustgarten 2).  This quote well describes the geographical gauntlet one might face in the 1980’s or present while highlighting the final crossing sequence from Norte and what it might represent symbolically.

Regardless of the physical representation of the border we see in both films, the final scenes illuminate very realistic hazards to those crossing the US-Mexico border.  In Norte this is provided through direct suspense, represented by an enclosed and rat infested sewer pipe, whereas Sin uses the encroaching Mara that aim to kill Willy whom Sayra hopes to cross with.  The danger of gangs is not to be understated, nor probably the protection Wiley’s presence provided for Sayra in her journey; represented when he saves her from rape and later from the gaze of the balsero as she undresses.  Moreover, this idea is encompassed in the real life story of Enrique (in Enrique’s journey)who comes into protection during his crossing of Mexico due to a chance encounter and friendship with “El Brujo” (Nazario 85).  However, gangs as aforementioned constitute a very serious threat for migrants crossing “the beast.”  Especially in the case of the large numbers of the Mara in Mexico, who have been deemed a serious threat due to their ultraviolent nature and are even being pursued by an international taskforce (FBI).  In contrast, the crossing in Norte expresses hazard through the combination of nature (the rat) and the manmade waste of Tijuana (sewer system).  Furthermore, this symbiotic relationship could be read as the final depiction of the dangers of Mexico for our protagonists.

Norte’s depiction of the oppressive, dark, and rat infested sewer pipeline Rose and Enrique have to crawl through, shows us the dramatic apex of their crossing.  Moreover, it uses this moment of extreme tension and danger to expose reality.  This idea is explained here: “When they [Nava and his wife] learned that some immigrants cross the border through sewers and are attacked by rats, they decided to add it to the film” (Lammert).  This idea is further illuminated here: “Hopeful foreigners, only steps away from the legal port, swim through sewage, scramble through sewage pipes, scale wall and fences, and crawl over arid hills to get into this country (Scott).  The sewer seen is interesting in that during the rat attack we cross-cut from a long shot of Rose and Enrique covered in rats to an extreme long shot of the border patrol’s helicopter.  This can be translated in at least two ways: one is best represented in the building of tension because we think that perhaps the helicopter might save Rose and Enrique, even though they are underground.  Also adding to this tension is the fact we cannot always see them during the attack because the film forces us to look at the helicopter.  The second idea is that the cross-cutting between the two symbolically function to show us the oppression immigrants must overcome, in that they must defeat nature and man during their crossing.  This idea is expanded upon here: “Rosa and Enrique pass underneath the U.S. border in an abandoned sewer drain and are attacked by rats, a powerful metaphor for the dehumani­zation inflicted upon everyone who undertakes such a crossing” (Lustgarten).  Another critic writes: “It [the pipe] stands as a hyperbole of the sacrifices and ordeals immigrants endure in their passage to a land of opportunity” (Brakel 172).  Whatever the case might be, the rat scene is constructed from the real experiences of immigrants from Tijuana and therefore well represents authentic danger.


As we have explored, realism and danger are represented in different ways in both films, from the melodramatic scenes in El Norte to Fukunaga’s attempts at hazard driven neorealism in Sin.  These differences in representation no doubt reflect the filmmakers’ wishes to explore different topics.  This is revealed in an interview where Fukunaga talks about feeling the need to make a film that represents  “the times we were living in,” which he believed meant that it had to be “about the journey itself” in the case of Sin (Indiewire).  This focus on the journey rather than on the entrance into the US further reflects an altogether de-emphasis on the border as a physical boundary.  Instead the border symbolizes the end of the road for Wiley’s journey (his death) and the beginning of a new one for Sayra (her emergence into a new family in New Jersey).  These elements in Sin further reflect on the hardships families face during their voyage, we see this specifically in the separation of Sayra from her only close family in Honduras (grandmother), as well as in Wiley’s symbolic flight from Smiley and the only family he knows (the Mara).  Moreover, there separation from their prospective families through violence is a reference to the many that die during the journey.  Furthermore, these elements of family, violence, and danger are cyclical within the ever changing ranks of the Mara as we see in the death of Lil’ Mago and initiation of Smiley; therefore representing a real threat for future travelers.

El Norte on the other hand is less concerned with the travel narrative and is more narrowly focused on a theme we will call the escape from realism out of desire for the other.  The other in this case being what these neo-mayan caricatures believe to be the Promised Land they are told about by their godmother through magazines.  The idea basically is that the narrative is driven by Rose and Enrique’s want not just for a better life, but a life in the US that reflects the state of fantasy each character belongs to, represented by what Rose sees in the housekeeping magazines (washing machines and cars).  These ideas of fantasy are further reinforced by the almost carefree way they wade through the real dangers of Mexico, such as the threat of deportation.  Furthermore, this idea reflects the naivety of Rose and Enrique as country bumpkins and illuminates the idea that their journey through danger is dreamlike or at least melodramatic and therefore improbable.  Writer Linda Fregroso further expands on this idea, explaining that “EI Norte uses supernatural images to interrupt the seamless logic of realism, reconfiguring in this fashion a narrative reality distinct from rational political discourse and from most commercial films” (Fregroso 110).

This focus on the lightening of dangers associated with border crossing in Norte can certainly be read as the filmmakers attempt to focus our attention on the entrance of the US, rather than the flight from Mexico and Central America.  However, this reduction of danger makes Norte feel patronizing in the way it devalues the realism of the immigrant journey through its use of melodrama and fantasy.  This idea is well stated here: “El Norte deserves credit for being one of the first films to engage American cinema in a discourse on the immigrant experience, but its approach to the material—shallow, condescending, and hectoring—undermines its stabs at brutal realism” (Osenlund).  Furthermore, it is Nava’s concentration on what Fregroso further explains as the filmic representation of “the allegorical Maya-Quiche Indian” who is molded from a social reality that “derives from an alternative logic to that of bourgeois reason” (Fregroso 111).  Additionally, she explains that Nava’s characters are purposefully fashioned from the Mayan origin story Popol Vuh, not out of a factual immigrant story and therefore non-reality.  Her idea expounds the purposeful juxtaposition of the folkloric Mayan (oppressed like later Guatemalans) to US culture (the bourgeois), but more importantly illuminates the idea that Nava is more concerned with cultural relativity and economic discourse than portraying a realistic journey like Fukunaga in Sin.

In many ways the voyage in Sin could be considered self-reflexive and reminiscent of what Susan Dever explains as a “participatory ethnography” (Dever 125-126), in the sense that though the story is fictionalized, many of the ideas encompassed therein were experienced through the filmmaker or related to him through those he spent time within Mexico.  Moreover, his film ensemble contained many gang members who work to further emphasize this idea of participation as part of a collaborative filmography about the immigrant journey.  Furthermore, these elements of realism are no doubt homage to Italian neorealism films in that he focuses on the journey of the impoverished and the conditions of everyday life.  In the end both films work to contrast ideas of realism within the immigrant voyage, showing us that Sin is more concerned with an accurate journey, although it to fails like Norte in showing us the whole story.  Interestingly Sin is referred to by one critic as “the most moving and well-told saga of Latin American immigrants bound for the USA since 1983’s El Norte” (Claudia).  So perhaps in the end the passing of time has allowed for the true stories of immigrants to come further into the mainstream through films like El Norte, helping topave the way for a more realistic portrayal of the dangerous journey many face.


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El Norte. Dir. Gregory Nava. Perf. Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, David Villalpando, Ernesto Gómez Cruz. Criterion Collection, 1983. DVD.

Sin Nombre. Dir. Cary Fukunaga. Perf. Paulina Gaitan, Marco Antonio Aguirre, Leonardo Alonso. Universal Studios, 2010. DVD.

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Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.
About Jeremy Shattuck 46 Articles
Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.