The story of Gregory Nava’s grandfather was something his family never talked about. The director and Oscar-nominated screenwriter’s grandfather was one of two million people of Mexican heritage — many of them U.S. citizens — deported (or coerced to self-deport) during the Great Depression by local, and sometimes federal, authorities.
“My family was ripped apart,” Nava told me during an interview ahead of the rerelease of his 1984 drama El Norte. “It was a family secret. It took time for me to find out about it. People keep these kinds of secrets because they want to conform and assimilate.”
A one-night only screening of El Norte takes place in theaters nationwide September 15. Nava recognizes the film’s rerelease is a good chance for Latino parents to speak to their children about their family’s history — especially since U.S. history is repeating itself today with President Donald Trump enforcing, what Nava calls, “draconian policies.”
“We need to teach our children who we are and where we came from,” he said. “We need to stand strong and educate them to never forget their past.”
Some of the Trump administration’s cruel practices, Nava points out, include President’s family-separation policy introduced last year that removed thousands of children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to deter migration; mass deportation of nonviolent undocumented immigrants; policies that punish immigrants for accepting government assistance and Trump vilifying Latinos and other immigrants — an action many of the President’s critics say is responsible for the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart earlier this month where 22 people were killed by a white nationalist targeting Mexicans.
“Our Latino community is in crisis,” Nava said. “All of us are under attack, not just immigrants. We are all in those cages with those children. All of us are in that Walmart in El Paso. We must rise to the occasion and get our message out about who we are, so that what’s happening in America right now can never happen again.”
Nava said it starts with compassion — the same compassion he wrote in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for El Norte. The film follows two indigenous teenagers who flee a Civil War in Central America to find a better life in the U.S. At that time, communist revolutions in countries like Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala raged on, which inspired Nava to make his two protagonists Guatemalan.
“I was deeply moved by these true Americans — these Native Americans,” he said. “They had been ripped from their homes and suffering from genocide. I knew I had to tell their story, which is universal.”
In 1993, El Norte was selected for preservation by the U.S. National Film Registry in the Library of Congress. It celebrates the 35th anniversary of its theatrical release this year.
“[The rerelease of El Norte] is so bittersweet because 35 years later, the situation has not changed on the southern border,” Nava said. “In fact, it’s gotten worse. The message of El Norte is more relevant than when we originally made it. All Latinos need to get together again in a positive way. This should be a call for action.”
There is potential for a movement, Nava said. Today’s political climate reminds him of what took place after El Norte was originally released in the U.S. in 1984. Two years later, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which “legalized” most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Nava likes to think El Norte had a hand in motivating immigrants to demand the government recognize them as citizens.
“[El Norte] had a tremendous impact when it was first released,” he said. “The thing I’m most proud of is how the immigrant community picked up on the film and went to the government and got protective status. We thought, ‘We’re on the right track.’ Yet, it’s gotten derailed and now we’re worse than we were before. It’s tragic.”
The country is suffering, Nava said, because the Trump administration “has no humanity.”
“They don’t understand who we are as a nation,” he said. “They don’t know that immigrants are the ones who built the United States and who keep it young and vital. From all those immigrants comes our future.”
But can Hollywood help sustain a brighter future for America by simply making movies like El Norte, Sin Nombre, A Better Life and others? Do fiction films really wield that much power? Nava believes it’s vital that Latinos are portrayed on screen in positive ways, so that more people know that in real life we’re not all drug dealers and criminals — an identity Trump has tried to cast on the culture since announcing his run for presidency in 2015.
“It’s an important thing to do, and we need to do more of it,” Nava said. “Hollywood has a major part in this. They have to open up their pocketbooks to let more Latino filmmakers get their films made. People don’t see many of us on screen, and when they do see us, we’re narcos. That negative portrayal creates a negative effect.”
Getting more opportunities for Latinos is something Nava has been fighting for his entire career. He’s had to prove himself every time he wants to make a new movie that his last success — from El Norte to Mi Familia to Selena — wasn’t a fluke and that Latino stories are important enough to tell.
“It’s a sad commentary that Latinos have the worst representation of any group in our country,” he said. “But, I believe a sea change is coming. We have won our place at the table. Now, Hollywood has to respond. They need to see our heart and soul.”
This interview was initially published by Remezcla.com