East Bay Filmmakers Fight for Latinx Representation, by Maria Leon

Diana Elizabeth Torres stars in the locally made film East Side Sushi.

*This piece was featured in the East Bay Express here.

Inclusion seems to be a buzzword for Hollywood executives right now. In 2017, Moonlight won the Oscar for Best Picture — the first to do so with an all-Black cast centered on a LGBTQ story. Then Get Out earned more award nominations and cemented a well-deserved boost for stories told from an African-American perspective. And last month, Crazy Rich Asians topped the box office in its first weekend in theaters as the first major Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. But the rise in diversity in media hasn’t been significant for the Latinx community. “In terms of representation, it feels like some voices have been left out of the equation,” said Rob Fatal, a gender fluid experimental filmmaker based in the East Bay.

While some audiences might think Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which also won the Oscar for Best Picture, was a big step in the right direction, it showed no Latinx people in front of the camera and only a handful behind it. According to a USC Annenberg study analyzing 1,100 Hollywood films from 2017, only 6.8 percent of speaking roles belonged to Latinx actors. Yet the Department of Finance estimates that the current Latinx population in California is well over 30 percent. Of course, there are places to see Latinx people in films away from Hollywood, such as at the SF Latino Film Festival taking place across the Bay Area Sept. 14 through 30. And local Latinx filmmakers are also working to tell more diverse stories.

Take Fatal, for example. Originally from Sacramento, Fatal moved to the East Bay because of the radical community that exists here for both artists and the Latinx, queer community. Fatal believes that there is space for non-Latinx people to tell Latinx stories, but they also think it’s problematic that most mainstream films that are considered Latinx are almost always about binary people in nuclear families, gangsters, or highly sexualized women. As a queer, Latinx, indigenous person, Fatal believes it is irresponsible not to tell stories that better represent people with other backgrounds — and they’re committed to changing that narrative. Their newest feature, Technotihuacan, is made up of 16 short films by Latinx artists, edited together live on stage and accompanied by original music from a DJ. The film debuted at the 2018 National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco and is getting ready to tour the world next year.

Anthony Lucero, a writer and director born and raised in Oakland, is about to finish a two-year director’s shadowing program with ABC in Los Angeles. He finds the lack of Latinx representation in media upsetting. Lucero wants to stay away from stereotypes and put Latinx actors in films as normal, everyday people — people who eat pizza and speak English. His main goal is to give Latinx actors roles portraying detectives and doctors instead of gangsters and sexy house cleaners. “The issue is that the Oscars is still Black and white,” he said. Black and white voices control a lot of the media and Latinx and Asians are only given a little sliver. “If you want to have a voice, you need to have a lot of money in the industry, and if the powers making the decisions are not people that come from the community, our people will end up being solely represented by shows like Narcos.”

Dawn Valadez, a local documentary director and producer of social issue documentaries such as Going on 13 and The Pushouts, which just won the Imagen Award for best documentary, has been a longtime member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers and the Brown Girls Doc Mafia. She is aware that despite the push to increase Latinx, people of color, and female representation in the media, there still need to be more stories about Latinx lives, communities, and families. “I feel that my work is more like a vessel creating space for the stories of the people and communities around me to shine — sharing more than negative statistics; sharing our individual and community strength, resiliency, knowledge, beauty,” Valadez said.

Florencia Manovil, an East Bay writer, director, and producer originally from Argentina, tells stories about women. Instead of calling herself a Latinx filmmaker, she considers herself a queer feminist making queer feminist content from the perspective of someone who grew up in Latin America. Manovil likes to depict different kinds of Latinas and explore how their identities and perspectives can differ depending on where they are from. She just wrapped principal photography for the third part of her latest film trilogy Bridges and found that people in the East Bay were very generous with their time and skills because they want to support indie narratives. Other local Latinx filmmakers echoed Manovil’s experience.

But local support hasn’t made a big impact in improving Latinx representation in movies, even among local productions. Money and power remain the biggest hurdles keeping Latinx filmmakers from telling their stories. In the East Bay, many filmmakers have to associate themselves with the tech world in order to pay the bills. Often, they end up making videos that still predominantly showcase white talent and are developed by white male executives. If the decisions at the top continue to be made by the same group of people, the result is not likely to change. At least not quickly.

Lucero points to his independent feature East Side Sushi, a movie about a Mexican-American woman who wants to become a sushi chef. The film was shot in the East Bay, got released in local theaters in 2015, and found success in the indie world. But Lucero said that studios are not jumping at the opportunity to fund many projects like it. “Studios want a lot of money — not just a little bit — and it’s increasingly hard to find a budget for telling these kinds of stories,” he said.

Local Latinx filmmakers want access to resources that allow their films to gain the kind of support that other recent East Bay ventures have received, such as Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting. While they appreciate the community support, there ultimately needs to be support from Hollywood, too. “The change has to come from the studio,” Lucero said. “They need to start casting differently and including more Latinos in front of the camera and at an executive level.

“I’m going to do my best when I’m working on TV to fight the stereotypes and not cast Latinos as the bad guy.”

In the East Bay, Venezuelans keep the holiday tradition alive to connect to their heritage, by Maria Leon

Maria Leon (right) made hallacas in Oakland when her mom visited from Venezuela.

*This piece was featured in the East Bay Express here.

Just like every Venezuelan, I grew up making hallacas every December. Similar to Mexican tamales, hallacas are a traditional Venezuelan dish eaten around the holidays. Corn dough is stuffed with guiso, a stew made out of beef, pork, and hen, plus a number of garnishes like pickled vegetables, olives, raisins, onions, and others depending on the region. Then, the hallacas are wrapped in smoked banana leaves and boiled over firewood.

Growing up, my family drove across the country for 16 hours to the Andes to see my grandma and make hallacas. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors got together to dedicate an entire weekend to the tradition. We hosted friends to the sound of gaitas (Venezuelan Christmas music) and drank rum and eggnog. We’d also make a big pot of chicken soup with hearty root vegetables for people to eat while they worked.

But things are different now. According to The Guardian, Venezuela’s inflation is comparable to Germany’s World War crisis and Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation of 2008. Reuters reports that the official minimum wage of the country is $1.61 per month, yet a box of powdered milk, according to Business Insider, can cost $700. People struggle to find the most basic of food products. Needless to say, the average person can no longer afford to make hallacas every holiday season. How can people keep traditions alive amid hardship?

Ingrid Leon, a Venezuelan living in Walnut Creek, said that the hallaca used to be a symbol of Venezuela’s former bonanza, back when the economy gave residents access to products from abroad such as paprika and olive oil. The economic downturn that has ravaged the country for the past eight years has affected every Venezuelan. “When I talk to my mom or my brothers at home, they say that having a hallaca is a luxury. It’s no longer a tradition achievable by all, so there’s envy and shame,” Leon said. “When the holidays come, many people cannot afford to eat hallacas. Some might be considered lucky to have one to share one with an entire family.” For Venezuelans living in the East Bay, however, the local bounty means they can preserve the hallaca tradition here.

Kareen Santiago, a radio producer in San Leandro, felt proud when she made hallacas on her own for the first time. She said that despite the arduous work, she was glad that her son could stay connected to his Venezuelan roots. Kiko Rodriguez, the Venezuelan chef of Federico’s Grill in Fremont, makes hallacas with his family every year. (“Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them,” he said.) He thinks it’s important to understand and honor the tradition because “the hallaca is a perfect representation of the multicultural Venezuelan heritage.”

The word “hallaca” means “package” in the indigenous Tupi-Guarani languages. The tradition started with Spanish landowners who would throw opulent banquets and chuck the leftovers, even though they consisted of meat and other delicacies. Indigenous landworkers and African slaves would then make meals — like hallacas — out of the food scraps.
Cultural traditions are an important way to connect with our history and create strong bonds with our families and communities. It’s for that exact reason that Carolina Abolio, owner of Oakland arepa purveyor Miss Arepita, doesn’t want her business to serve hallacas. “Making hallacas is a lot of work, but it’s also a great, big party with family and friends,” she said.

“To me, hallacas is like chicken soup, like being home.” Doris Farias de Pulgar thinks otherwise. She earned a living selling hallacas in Venezuela before moving to San Jose three years ago. She chokes up when she talks about the family and friends who cannot afford to buy olives or raisins for hallacas back home. Even for herself, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make money off of hallacas in Venezuela because the cost of ingredients rose daily. By the time she was ready to deliver an order, she needed to charge four times as much just to cover costs. She was surprised to find it’s financially easier to make hallacas in the Bay Area than in Venezuela, so she decided to start her own small business.

When her vegetarian daughter wanted hallacas for Christmas, Faris de Pulgar recognized the potential to earn a profit off of hallacas here, especially amongst vegetarian or gluten-free eaters. Now, she uses the profits from her business to help people back home. She and her daughter ship ingredients and send as much money as possible to as many people as they can, especially around the holidays.

Venezuelans in the East Bay agree that throwing a party to make hallacas is a great way to connect with family, childhood memories, and our home country, but there’s still debate about what matters most. For Rodriguez, the guiso is clearly essential, but Abolio says the key is the presentation. (“The hallaca is an elaborate art piece that you put together and enjoy eating later,” she said.) Others say the most important ingredient is love. Even if you are using vegetables instead of meat — or whatever few ingredients Venezuelans can find back home — people will be able to taste the difference when you put your heart into it. What matters most, however, is not one particular ingredient but the ability to celebrate Venezuelan history by making them at all, whether at home or abroad.

I made hallacas in California for the first time a couple of years ago when my mother came to visit me in Oakland. We made them on Christmas Eve with the company of good friends, gaitas, and cuba libres with Venezuelan rum. It took us about three days to buy and prep all the ingredients and around 20 hours of labor to make and cook the hallacas, but it was also the first time in my 16 years living abroad that December truly felt like Christmas.

A Venezuelan abroad

Despite the fact that the United Nations Human Rights Council, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the Lima Group and countries such as the United States, have rejected the electoral process in Venezuela, tomorrow the country will have presidential elections. In order for a Venezuelan living abroad to vote, they need some sort of identification confirming their citizenship. Like a passport.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Venezuelan living abroad. I moved to this country in 2001 and now that I’m 32 years old and we are almost half way through 2018, I have officially been living in this country longer than I lived back in Venezuela.

On Friday, I went to the Venezuelan consulate in San Francisco for the fourth time in the past year. I went because I was hoping that I could finally replace the passport that I lost (to theft) back in 2014. If my timing makes it look like I’m interested in voting, don’t be fooled. Truth is I only found out about the election a day prior to going, thanks to a video that my mother sent me in a text message. In the video, a crowd of people were yelling “DON’T VOTE”. It turns out that the “assembly” that Venezuela’s president Nicholas Maduro put together after his party lost congress to general elections last year, decided to adjust the date for presidential elections, again.

My grandmother, who had armed robbers break into her farm for two suitcases full of frozen chickens, flour and rice last year, said I needed to vote. My mother, who tirelessly volunteers in her community organizing efforts to make life more livable, said “don’t dare vote”. Finally, my father, with his silence, seemed to say what everybody’s thinking: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed… That’s how it goes. Everybody knows”

My friend, a first generation American, says that she can’t see herself living in her parent’s Belgium in the future because in Europe, she would not know how to speak to a bureaucrat in order to get what she wanted. According to her, being able to navigate bureaucracy, requires a deep understanding of a country. Knowledge that goes beyond language or familiarity with the culture.

The first time I went to the consulate in San Francisco, a “traditional” Venezuelan woman with her kid waited for the clerk to expedite a travel document for her son. The woman said that despite the chaos at home, she traveled to Venezuela every year and she wanted to take her son with her. The woman was wearing fitted pants, a shirt that looked properly bleached and ironed and shoes that matched her purse and cellphone case. Her hair was dark and straightened with a flat iron and her make-up was sensibly noticeable. She also had a strong voice. She was not loud, but there was a lack of preoccupation for coming across as pushy, a disregard for niceties while having no interest in being rude. She told the clerk exactly what she wanted and that was that. I sat there, looking at her and worrying about whether I would get a parking ticket for leaving my car in the Whole Foods parking lot. Two hours later, she walked away with the document she needed and I walked away with nothing.

I went back to the consulate on Friday because my fruitless efforts to get information over the phone or online were becoming demoralizing. The woman on the other side of the door was sweet and had an accent that didn’t sound Venezuelan or American:
– “The consulate is closed. We are now a voting poll”
“What? How can I vote without a passport?”
– “You will have to come back when we are working as a consulate again”
“When will that be?”
– “I’m not sure. A week or two”

I’m unclear about what I am in terms of nationality. I like to call myself Venezuelan-American, but I’m not sure that’s correct. All I know is that I walked out of that consulate wondering if I am as Venezuelan now as I was 16 years ago. Whatever the answer is, it is unimportant compared to the questions, fears and frustration that Venezuelans will face this Sunday.

PD: Gracias Jessalin por prestarme la bella foto que tengo como imagen principal.

Adulting in Japan

Agh. Did I just say adulting? Incorporating popcorn verbs that were once clever into everyday language is a natural side effect of living in California. That being said, there were no better titles for this blog post, and if the shoe fits… well, you know.

I came back from the Pacific Ocean island nation about one week ago. I would tell you for how long we were there for but I’ve decided that the length of a trip is no longer relevant. Since time is subjective and arbitrary, I think it’s fair to talk about take-aways and highlights instead of limiting impressions with day counts.
During the trip, I got to finish Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, a great read coincidentally full of Japanese references. I did most of my reading when traveling from one prefecture to another which we did mostly by train, but we also took a couple of domestic flights.

Japanese trains are a marvel of efficiency. Bigger, better and stronger than any other train system I have seen. From the subway, which takes you everywhere in cities like Kyoto and Tokyo, to the bullet trains that feel more like modern aircrafts than the vintage, clunky peasant-friendly machines that I often picture. Traveling in Japan is a luxurious experience that welcomes all the Japanese and the foreign alike, the lawyers and the bookies, teenage girls wearing school uniforms and retired geishas. Trains, like almost everything else is Japan, are incredibly clean. If it took me 3 days to get over the jet-lag coming back, it took me no time to get used to the garbage-free sidewalks and the bright-green velvet fabric covering the seats of the local trains. Mmm… so smooth to the touch.

There were times when we played cards, CRIBBAGE to be exact. Cribbage is a great game for two people. It requires skill but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. I felt that way about Chinese poker, too, when I was traveling in Serbia, but Chinese Poker is best when played with three people. My favorite game of Cribbage was the one we played during the train ride from Kyoto to Takayama. I liked it not only because I won, but also because the game was often interrupted by striking multi-colored foliage of lusty, pine-like trees. These forests are fed by milky water descending from the snowy Alps that border many traditional farming villages in the mountainous Gifu Prefecture.

Needless to say, Takayama was a highlight and not only because of the scenery but also because of the 17 course dinner that we had while we were there. It is true what they say about Japanese hospitality! And it was worth it to spend some money to wear a traditional yukata, soak in a communal bath and have a good night’s rest in a Ryokan after eating a spread that was a feast of textures, colors and delicacy.

Speaking of highlights, how ’bout Okinawa? My favorite prefecture in Japan, for now. We got to know Naha’s labyrinth-like covered market and we had the best pork belly that anybody can dream of. We also went to Aka, a very small island in the Kerama Islands with a population of about 300 people.

Aka had one corner-store, two very simple restaurants and some of the most beautiful beaches that I have ever seen. Beaches with warm water from the Pacific Ocean that is turquoise when you look at it from the white sand but perfectly clear when you snorkel in it. We got to see a moray eel that was HUGE and gets bigger every time that I tell the story, but seriously guys, it was at least 8 feet long to begin with. Kawai, the fisherwoman who co-owns the guesthouse where we stayed, said that we were very lucky.

And luck brings me back to the title of this post. What a fortune it is to be an adult. I like it a lot, actually! I like knowing that I’m being silly, I like appreciating the meal that comes from the grocery store and also the meal that is served at a fancy spot. I like being an adult that buys souvenirs for friends and family because sometimes it’s more fun to give, especially when you know that you are incredibly lucky.

Because of all the research and planning that was involved in planning this trip, something not typical for most of my travels, I had a chance to enjoy the journey even before it began. What a surprise it was to see the benefits of being organized and still be flexible and open to spontaneous opportunities. It was refreshing to do less and see more… and it was so fun to travel with someone willing to look for ice-cream in Kabukichō, Tokyo’s red light district.

So, take-aways? There are many, but I would say that none of them are as unique to me as the feeling of being an adult while traveling overseas. I’ve gone to some places before and with every journey, I’ve discovered something new about myself. In Japan, my best days ended with me being curled up in a traditional Japanese futon, falling asleep well before midnight and waking up to the rising sun, happy and with mild back pain… because maybe that’s part of it and you know? It’s fine, back pain can be easily managed with yoga.

PS: Thank you Nicholas Lacampagne for the edit and for the beautiful photos.

Tiles in Spain

Tiles are popular in Venezuela. This is at least partially due to our Spanish influences, but possibly it is also because tiles are cool to the touch and keeping cool is a priority in countries with warm weather.

One of my first encounters with Spanish tiles was in La Casa de la Señora Lucy. La Señora Lucy was Catalana an she was not only my mother’s closest friend but she was also my brother’s godmother. Back in the day and still today, being a godmother is a title of great importance in Venezuela. In the year 1952, Lucy moved from Barcelona to the same apartment building where my mother, grandmother and uncle lived. She lived with her husband and two children in an apartment that was heavily tiled.

A couple of months ago, we scored direct flights from Oakland to Barcelona for less than $400 (thank you Scott!). It was one of those deals that you can’t overthink, so we scheduled a 10 day trip to visit our Spanish friends.

First, we went to Bilboa. I didn’t know that Basque country had such a different cultural identity than the rest of Spain! So much so, that our basque friend corrected me when I referred to the Spanish language as “Español” instead of calling it “Castellano“. There were no Spanish tiles in Basque Country, but there were sturdy farm houses traditionally built with rocks and clay. We spent a couple of days admiring the cohesiveness of the architecture, off-roading in the mountains and eating croissants & coffee for 2 euros instead of the 12 dollars that we would have paid for them at home.

We arrived in Córdoba at six in the morning and it was already almost 80 degrees. Despite the heat, the Andalusia region was incredibly beautiful. Visiting La Mezquita was one of the highlights of the trip. This amazing tourist attraction was definitely worth the 10 euros that we tried to avoid paying when we followed our friend’s advice and pretended to be locals with free admission tickets. Besides the architecture, the cool thing about La Mezquita is its eclectic combination of Muslim and Catholic styles.

In the year 784 Muslin Rulers ordered the construction of a Great Mosque in the place of a Christian basilica, then a few things happened and about 500 years later, Córdoba returned to Christian ruling and the building was converted into a Roman church (thanks to wikipedia for validating my memory). I loved walking around the aesthetically pleasing results of this cultural stew, drinking beers in order to survive the heat.

Spanish culture is very different from one region to another. Córdoba, for example is heavily influenced by the Arab world. You can see the arabic impact even in the metallic tones and glazed finish of their tiles. The tiles that we saw in restaurants and homes in Barcelona (Catalunya region), usually didn’t have the oxidized metals that give tiles that luster touch in Córdoba.

Aziz Ansari might think that there is nothing more boring than tiles. I was too, surprised by my fascination by them specially after watching Pino’s boring tile-talk (#tiletalk) in Episode 9 of Master of None. But what makes Spanish tiles interesting is not the quality of their finish or the vibrancy of their colors, but the diversity of their origin.

From the dry basque cider that only certified servers are allowed to pour at a bar, to the marvelous tiles in park Güell in Barcelona, in Spain you can experience exciting results of cultural multiplicity.

Disclaimer! The first photo is from Portugal, not Spain 🙂 All other photos were taken by either Nicholas Lacampagne, a passerby or by me.