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The couple, who studied filmmaking at the University of California at Los Angeles, had earlier collaborated on "The Confessions of Amans, " a tale of a tragic medieval love affair. "El Norte, " a film of "greater immediacy, " according to New York Times critic Vincent Canby, portrays a Guatemalan brother and sister who flee their country and head for the North after their father, a spokesman for land reform, is murdered. Leaving lush but oppressive Guatemala, Enrique and Rosa encounter the poverty of Mexico and the glaring contrast of wealth on the U.S. side of the border. In a scene of the film that Commonweal critic Tom O'Brien claimed "sums up its rare strength, " the characters cross into California by means of a rat-infested sewer tunnel and emerge to a view of San Diego. "The border is unique--the only place in the world where an industrialized first-world nation shares the border with a third-world country, " Nava, who has relatives in Tijuana, told Annette Insdorf of the New York Times. "In California, it's just a fence: on one side are the Tijuana slums, on the other side--San Diego. It's so graphic! This was the germ of the story."

America does not immediately upset the newcomers' expectations of a better life, although they discover that the poverty they had "left behind" in Mexico also exists in California. The pair fares well; a new friend of Rosa's finds her a job as a maid, and Enrique becomes a waiter in a restaurant. Canby remarked, "The real and most poignant point of `El Norte' is ... the ease and eagerness with which, after their initial homesickness, they adapt themselves to the gringo world.... The plastic society enchants them." Several critics noted that "El Norte" critiques America more than Latin America, and considered the film more personal than political. O'Brien, for instance, declared that "there's no propaganda in the movie, just visual poetry, suspense and emotional force."

The film is unusual in portraying Hispanic characters directly--rather than through the eyes of Anglo-American characters. "Unlike many recent films about the struggles of third-world peoples, " commented O'Brien, "[this film] actually concerns them,their viewpoints." New York Times critic Janet Maslin added, "This is one movie in which the white, English-speaking characters are strictly walk-ons; Mr. Nava thoroughly immerses the audience in the world of Hispanic exiles." In a New York Times interview Nava remarked that "in order to get films made about Latin America, you have to have Americans in the center of the story.... You don't get to know the people to whom things are really happening down there." It had been suggested to Nava and Thomas that they cast white American actors in the feature roles in order to draw audiences--an idea the filmmakers rejected in favor of employing Hispanic actors and operating on a small budget. The resulting film, according to the Christian Science Monitor,represents "clear, committed filmmaking in which talent and thoughtfulness easily compensate for budgetary limitations."

Reviewers mainly objected to what they considered the film's overly melodramatic conclusion. Canby asserted in the New York Times that the film "seems about to make one of the most boldly original and satirical ... statements ever to be found in a film about the United States as a land of power as well as opportunity" until its "arbitrarily tragic ending." Critics faulted the couple's next project, "A Time of Destiny, " on similar grounds. In this 1988 film, the daughter of an Italian-American immigrant elopes, infuriating her father. He interrupts the couple's wedding night and persuades the daughter to return home with him. The ensuing car chase by the newlywed husband results in the father's death, and the rest of the film concerns his son's obsession with avenging him. In a review of the film for Maclean's,Brian D. Johnson judged that Nava's talents better served "the deeply moving `El Norte.'"

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