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In his review of the American cinema and the city, Clapp1 argues that immigrants played an important role in the development of American film. According to Clapp, “Immigrants were involved in the creation of the American cinema as an audience, were often the subject matter, and installed themselves in production and distribution”2. This was partly because the immigrant communities in American cities grew consistently throughout the twentieth century, despite the rough conditions faced by immigrants in the United States.
The lives of immigrant communities were among the most popular topics explored in cinema, as writers and directors attempted to offer their perspectives on the hardships experienced by recent immigrants and their motivations for seeking a better life in America. This essay will outline the key aspects of immigrant life as shown in El Norte (1983) and La Cuidad (1998).
Also known as The City, is split into four distinctive parts, each one exploring a particular aspect of immigrant life. The first and the final part reflect on the job-related difficulties. First, the film shows Latino men who have to agree to physically difficult and dangerous, but low-paying jobs, as there are no other opportunities available. In the final part, a woman struggles to get paid even though she works full-time and needs money to send to her ill daughter.
Besides low income, another problem that is explored in La Cuidad is limited access to housing and education. For example, in the third part of the film, a man cannot enroll his daughter in school because he lives in an old wagon. Throughout the film, immigrants face issues such as lack of income, education, housing, or job prospects. This creates a stark contrast with the widespread perception of America as the land of opportunities, showing that these opportunities are not readily available to immigrants. Still, as the characters agree to live in such conditions and are not willing to return home, there is a sense that the life depicted in the movie is better than the one they had in their native land.
On the other hand, explores the entire story of a Guatemalan family and the struggles that force a brother and sister to try and escape to America. The primary subject of the movie is not the struggle of living in an immigrant community, but rather the motivation to become an immigrant in America. Throughout the film, the audience is exposed to the horrors faced by the characters in their native land, as well as their hopes for a better life in the North.
For example, at the beginning of the film, one of the characters states that in America, every immigrant owns a car. Similarly to La Cuidad, El Norte shows that these idealistic expectations are untrue and the characters’ efforts are futile: although they manage to escape the danger in their native land, Rosa still dies, whereas her brother is left with no stable job or money.
Overall, both films explore the lives of immigrant communities in American cities, depicting themes such as poverty, lack of education, homelessness, and low income. The films also attempt to unravel the characters’ motivations that drove them to move to America, concluding that the lives they have in the U.S. are probably still better than the ones they had in their homeland.
The City (La Cuidad). Directed by David Riker. Performed by Joseph Rigano and Mateo Gómez. New York: Zeitgeist Films, 1998. DVD.
Clapp, James A. The American City in the Cinema. Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2013.
El Norte. Directed by Gregory Nava. Performed by Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando. Arlington: PBS, 1983. DVD.
- Clapp, James A. The American City in the Cinema. (Piscataway: Transaction Publishers, 2013), 35.
- The City (La Cuidad), dir. David Riker, perf. Joseph Rigano and Mateo Gómez (New York: Zeitgeist Films, 1998), DVD.
- El Norte, dir. Gregory Nava. perf. Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando (Arlington: PBS, 1983), DVD.