The Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) did something special when they partnered with Netflix for its 2022 fellowship. They recruited five Black and five Indigenous filmmakers for the program, oversampling women and LGBTQ folks. They then gave each filmmaker $20,000 and a few months to complete their projects, premiering the 10 shorts at the festival during the first week of June.
The result is a mix of films that not only reflect the racial diversity of their makers but are also smarter on gender, sexuality, race, class, and ethnicity than you normally see. Think cheerleaders inverting the horror-in-the-woods trope or a bi Latino’s inner monologue sounding the alarm “WARNING: Spanish, WARNING: Spanish” upon hearing his date switch languages.
Jokes aside —and there are plenty of them— the films also touch on serious subjects affecting our communities, including those typically overlooked.
“I was inspired by exposing this really sad and honestly racist system in the Dominican Republic and how they treat Haitians,” she told Latino Rebels.
Her short film reveals the human cost of the D.R. ending birthright citizenship, making it so “basically if you were Haitian, and you were born there, you could get your citizenship taken away, because of a parent not being born there.”
Somos de Aquí follows the budding romance between Miguel, “the most Dominican guy ever,” and Mar who’s “from New York, and she is [Dominican] but she couldn’t care less. She wants to get out.” Of this approach, Aquino says, “I love love stories. So I thought seeing two people fall in love can help you process really difficult issues.” And the issues at the heart of Somos de Aquí are difficult—racism, identity, and immigration outside of the typical coming-to-the-U.S. story we’ve all been fed.
Sebastián Rea, part of the Indigenous Latino cohort, based his short film Heritage on his coming out story, which includes rejection from his parents to the point of needing a restraining order against his dad.
“Executives told me, ‘Oh, like the coming out story has already been done. We don’t want to see more of that. Plus, we don’t want to see trauma anymore,'” Rea told Latino Rebels.
But Rea deemphasizes the violence, cutting away from it, and is sure to end on a happy note with his protagonist, Rumiñahui, a.k.a. Rumi, dancing.
“He’s happy, you know, like, no matter what,” Rea explained. “He’s excited—now he can finally be himself.”
Rea had to run away, going to college on a scholarship for “at-risk” youth and not speaking to his family for years.
“Our parents don’t have the tools to even understand queer identity,” said Rea— despite queer folks being celebrated in Indigenous societies pre-conquest.
He also credits recent films like Turning Red and Encanto with giving models to older generations on how to own their mistakes. He wants to turn his short film into a series in the future, so it can start giving more Indigenous Latino elders the tools they need to apologize and love their gay children from the get-go.
Gabriella A. Moses, part of the Black Latino cohort, also deals with family and coming of age in her film Sin Raíces. It tells the story of “a kind of a Cardi B. [who] adopts a young girl… and in doing so, the young girl is being uprooted and tossed into the spotlight.” Moses notes that there are lots of portrayals of working-class Latinos —and “that’s lots of our experiences,” including Moses’ abuela— but Latinx people “also have so many celebrities and these figures of success and achievement and what the American Dream looks like. Let’s put that in the spotlight and center of a narrative as well because we’re out here we’re doing it.”
Sin Raíces is told from the girl’s perspective as she tries to understand her new status from a child’s vantage point. Eight-year-old Alma is enamored with her new mother’s packed closet and access to fame, but she is unclear where she stands. She is a mirror image of the house cleaner’s daughter, who Alma wants to play with but can’t, as the two are separated by chance and circumstance.
After breaking the rules, she cries, “No me devuelvas, no me devuelvas!” (Don’t return me, don’t return me!). The wording here is important. Alma sees herself as a commodity to be returned, not as a person who should have the agency to go or be sent back (“devolver”). The famous mother quickly reassures her that she’s her mother “para siempre,” but the underlining class conflict remains.
Each of these filmmakers has big things coming up, directing TV episodes, completing features, taking films to festivals. And they’re thankful for the leg-up that LALIFF has given them, the funds and the programming, but more than that, the connection to each other.
Like Latinx people everywhere, Moses shared, “We all found a space to connect was through WhatsApp” —can you imagine the voice memos? According to Rea, “We were constantly sharing experiences… So we all felt like we were a big family and making our films together.”
For Aquino, that group chat was where “it felt like we belonged… which oftentimes, you don’t really feel like that in other communities or just in the industry” at large.
And that’s the goal: more Latinx filmmakers in community, making personal, specific art that challenges how we see ourselves and how others see us. It’s a special project indeed.
A writer and activist, Cristina Escobar is the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade