SUBJECTS — U.S. 1945 – Current; Hispanic & California;World/Guatemala;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Human Rights; Families in Crisis;


AGE: 14+; MPAA Rating — Rated for violence

Drama; 1983, 141 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Note to Teachers:

The U.S. is currently engaged in a wrenching debate about what to do with eleven million illegal immigrants living within its borders. This film puts a human face on what is otherwise an abstract term of vilification, leading the viewer to empathize with the character of Carlos, who is in the country illegally. While there is some truth to the claim that the movie provides arguments for one side in the immigration debate, the universal human truths shown in the film are important for a full understanding of the problem of undocumented people living in the U.S. This is true no matter what position a person ends up taking on the issue. Other films that perform the same function that teachers may want to consider include A Better Life and Spare Parts.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.


Film Study Worksheet for a Work of Historical Fiction; and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.


Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.

Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.


This is the story of a brother and sister who flee the violence and economic deprivation in rural Guatemala hoping for a better life in the U.S. Their father was murdered by the government for trying to organize peasants to resist confiscation of their lands. Their mother was then taken away, never to return. The kids were next. This is the story of their efforts to find safety and a better life in “El Norte.”


Selected Awards: 1985 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen.

Featured Actors: David Villalpando as Enrique; Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez as Rosa; and Alicia del Lago as Lupe.

Director: Gregory Nava


El Norte shows some of the hardships faced by immigrants trying to get to the U.S. from Central America.

Using this Learning Guide: Students will have a visceral appreciation for the struggles of illegal Hispanic immigrants to the U.S.


There is some violence and several scenes of a severed head hanging from a tree.


Watch the movie with your child and talk about the immigration debate.


For Helpful Background, Discussion Questions, and Assignments relating to this film see the Learning Guide to A Better Life. What follows is a supplement to those curriculum materials relating to this film.


Additional Helpful Background


From 1960 to 1996 Guatemala suffered from a devastating civil war in which a repressive military dictatorship suppressed all dissent. Peasants who tried to organize to resist the landowners, like the father of Rosa and Enrique, were brutally murdered. The repression often extended to their families. This violence peaked in the 1980s, the period of time shown in this movie. In addition to political refugees, thousands of Guatemalans left home for the U.S. seeking better economic opportunity and fleeing from natural disasters. There was a devastating earthquake in Guatemala in 1976.

One of the tragic elements of this film, but one that is very realistic given the isolation of many immigrants, is that Enrique and Rosa could have applied for political asylum because of their well-founded fear of persecution in their own country. Had they been able to prove their claims, they would have been considered legal residents and given a green card.

For other movies on the Hispanic experience in the U.S., see My Family, Stand and Deliver, Spare Parts, Underwater Dreams, McFarland, U.S.A., For Love or Country — The Arturo Sandoval Story, West Side Story, and A Better Life. For college-level classes, check out Lone Star, an excellent film with a unique twist on white-Hispanic relations in a small Texas town.



The websites described in the Links to the Internet section.

This Learning Guide was been written by James Frieden and was published on December 7, 2015.

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