This week, an abandoned truck was found in a remote area outside of San Antonio, Texas. Fifty-three people died from the extreme heat. Every day, it seems, there are fresh tragedies. I weep for this tragedy, like I did for the others, like I imagine I will again, maybe tomorrow, when I hear more news of how ugly the world often is.
When I learned about this event, I immediately thought about El Norte, a film I saw when it made its theatrical debut in 1984. El Norte tells the story of Mayan brother and sister Enrique and Rosa. At the start of the film, their father, Arturo, a coffee picker in Guatemala, attempts to form a union and is killed by government agents in retaliation. His severed head is hung on a tree, a threat to any others who might fight against exploitation. Enrique attempts to retrieve his father’s remains and is attacked by a soldier. They fight, and Enrique kills the soldier in self-defense. He and his sister hide out to escape the sure punishment that is coming, before fleeing to the United States, “El Norte.”
Their passage across the border is harrowing. There is a now-famous scene where the two, traveling through a sewer pipe, are overrun by rats. But making it to the North provides no haven. They suffer the vulnerabilities of undocumented workers—Enrique works as a busboy and day laborer, while Rosa works as a sweatshop seamstress and domestic servant. Ultimately, Rosa falls fatally ill from typhus, the result of a rat bite.
The film left a strong impression on me as a child, because it told a fleshed-out story about why people cross the border and what they find after crossing. Behind all of the legal and policy justifications for controlling entry and exit, there are simply human beings. The Indigenous brother and sister in the film were burdened by the ravages of history, state sovereignty, militarism, and law, fugitives both in and from their native land.
Laws, no matter how enshrined and jealously guarded, are not immutable. They are decisions. And they are decisions made for social organization. Many Americans talk about breaking the law as if it is presumptively a bad thing. But the Augustinian precept that what is not just is not law has been part of generations of organizing against injustice. El Norte is a film in which the protagonists are lawbreakers. They are also innocent victims of an unjust social order. Decency requires us, as viewers, to be on their side.
I do not know the stories of the 53 dead people in that truck. But I know that they had stories and they had yearnings. I know that inside the truck, they were sweltering, hungry, dehydrated, and delirious. I know that the survivors, especially the children among them, will be haunted by their proximity to the mass death.
Empathy for immigrants in cases like this is often boiled down to “They were just seeking a better life for their families.” While generally accurate, that shorthand is inadequate. It absolves us from attending to how our laws and policies create these conditions. Smugglers who treat immigrants with absolute disregard are guilty, but so too are policy makers who view death as a risk that is just assumed when people flee countries that have long been destabilized by U.S. foreign policy (Central America is ground zero for this), the weapons industry, and, at heart, the logic of settler colonialism that made the Americas. El Norte is masterful because it allows us to witness Enrique and Rosa in the thick of a hemispheric architecture that began with Columbus, a treasure-seeking agent for an imperial queen.
Empathy is a feeling, but values tell us what to do with it. Although El Norte is fictional, it—like Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, and Brother From Another Plane, the classic 1984 film about a Black man from outer space being chased by bounty hunters—pushes us to think critically, in addition to feeling deeply. It pushes us to contemplate the ethics of policing national borders that become death traps. It teaches us that our capacity for solidarity with other human beings is much greater than rules and ideologies.
Each death inside that truck was a tragedy. But the discovery was just one in a cascade of tragedies over the past several weeks. As we grieve them, and brace ourselves for more heartbreak, we must remind ourselves, It doesn’t have to be like this. Societies are not static; they are being made each day. If you haven’t already, it is long past time to start dreaming up a different world. Lives depend on it.
This article has been updated to clarify that several of the 53 individuals who died did not perish at the scene.