Latino Film Festivals have always lumped together international films and American films under the same Latino category. As if the Latin prefix used to classify the totally different identities of South & Central America, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Spain was not already broad enough. The few indie US narratives selected inside these programs look scrappy compared to the Spanish-language, art-house films which boast a higher production value due to their country’s government film subsidies. It’s like forcibly pressing two pieces of a puzzle together, when they clearly don’t fit. These two kind of films do not lend themselves to the same audience. Which is why I’ve always sensed the US Latino film in this platform is treated like an adopted stray. Up until now, I had not heard of any sustaining film festival devoted entirely to American Latino (I’d love to be corrected. If you know of any, give me a shout!). Enter the Reel Rasquache Art and Film Festival in East LA. Leave it to the activist Chicano studies curriculum track at Cal State to oppose such a disparity of their representation and say, oh Hell no, by way of their actions. They galvanized the community and wrestled a space for a showcase, led by the efforts of Dr. Richard T. Rodriguez and Dr. John Ramirez, who in 2004 christened the festival with the name Rasquache, derived from the Native American Nahuat people.
Sadly, I was not able to attend the entire jam-packed weekend festival that took place May 17-19, but I did manage to make it to the closing night and awards ceremony on Sunday. I arrived to see Counterpunch, a film dramatizing the real life story of an undiagnosed, bi-polar boxer – the latest film by Kenneth Castillo who was bestowed with a Trailblazer Award. Other Awardees of the evening; the Lifetime Achievement Award went to Carmen Zapata who was not able to attend but were assured by her friends accepting on her behalf she was fine and dandy in her 80 years young age. The Pioneer Award was bestowed on a colorful and lively Pepe Serna.
In the crowded, over-awarded Hollywood landscape, I’ve usually found awards, arbitrary or unwarranted, and just an excuse for a gala event driven by money and press. And within the ‘Hispanic Hollywood’ circle, the awards tend to be given to the same artists over and over, celebrated BECAUSE they have (already) been recognized by the mainstream. I’m not saying the breaking of barriers is not a triumph worth celebrating, but the days of Rita Moreno and Ricardo Montalban is long past (40 years). In this day and age, we are bigger and stronger in numbers and we should be using our ‘purchasing power’, to demand our content and taking back our history. It’s much more constructive to empower those who the mainstream forgets, dismisses and generally fails to acknowledge. Those, who despite the lack of mainstream recognition, persistently continue to craft their art and who do not shy away from identifying as Chicano, Puerto Rican, whatever their bi-cultural origin may be. Although I’m embarrassed to admit, I share as proof to my argument: Until Sunday night, I was not familiar with Kenneth Castillo – a genuinely independent working director who is about to shoot his seventh feature this summer. And worse yet if someone were to have mentioned to me Pepe Serna or Carmen Zapata –I would not have been able to place the two veteran American actors – both of whom have forged incredible careers that span over six decades within both mainstream and indie theater and film. Thanks to Reel Rasquache’s recognition of their talent I am now turned on to their work. It allows me to connect the dots of the history of American Latino entertainers, who have been and continue to be so harshly forgotten and suppressed from mainstream history and therefore our collective psyche.
It was my first time at the new location of Casa 0101, the cultural center founded by writer Josefina Lopez. A comfortable 99 capacity seat theater is located at the end of a a long hall on which walls hangs an arresting series of artwork. On Sunday it was the paintings of Juan Solis whose palette provided the signature theme of the festival this year. Kiki Melendez, a saucy comedienne and 96.3 Latino radio personality emceed the festivities. Kiki straight up asked what I had wanted to ask but was too embarrassed to; Just what the hell does Rasquache mean? (“Is it like scratching your ass?” she uncouthly asked). The academic maestro Dr. John took the podium to illuminate us on how the word references the festival – it’s made of whatever scraps you can pool together to make the most out of the least.
In his acceptance speech, Kenneth Castillo commented on the urban crime drama genre of his filmography (including such titles like Chronicles of a Drive by). His earnest thoughts challenged me to re-think my resistance to American Latino writer/directors pouring out the same cholo gang hood films. Clearly, there is a population heavily influenced by the gang crime genre (I’m no exception, I’m the biggest Goodfellas fan). It makes sense that the young filmmakers who are fans of the genre, evoke it in their work. If they are conscious about flipping the script and attacking the stereotype by developing deeper dimensions to the characters, then that IS a game changer. Because what I’ve heard frequently is that these filmmakers KNOW these people. They grew up around them. Kenneth reminds me, they are real people. That the stories and characters continue to be stuck in the barrio is evidence of the lower socioeconomic class that still plagues black and brown communities.
I kept noticing an older man with rascal eyes wearing a loud green jacket and white pants in another row. Turns out this was The Pepe Serna. Serna has over 100 movie and television credits including Scarface, American Me, Caddyshack. For years he has been performing his one-man show, Ruco Chuco, Cholo, Pachuco in which he punctuates Mother Goose a la barrio rhymes like, “In order to beat the gringo. At bingo. You gotta learn the lingo.” Like a wise and sprightly elder (he’s a Cancer survivor) his vaudeville comedy sense of show and his Texas hospitality twanged voice utterly endeared me to him. He charmed the audience some more when he treated us to an impromptu performance right then and there. With exaggerated cholo swagger he first transforms into a young gangbanger who thinks he’s all that, only to then transform and be schooled by the Cholo’s older self, now called Ruco who espouses words of wisdom about the path he’s going down. Serna also paints; his wild kaleidoscope Mona Risa series will be showing in Untitled Projects gallery on Beverly Blvd June 15th . His next role is in the upcoming high comedy, A-GuroPhobia co-written and starring the gifted and pretty comic multi-hypenate, Jade Puga ( Kristen Wig watch out!). It looks like an enjoyably, hilarious campy riot given the trailer they showed at the festival.
Continuing its winning streak of racking up Best Film Awards, Mission Park written and directed by Bryan Ramirez won, once again proving its connection with filmgoers. It will next screen at the Las Vegas Film Festival. A theatrical release September 6 is scheduled (self-financed by producer, Flip This House star and Real Estate magnate Armando Montelongo), and Lionsgate will put it out on VOD. Producer Douglas Spain was on hand to accept the award and later we both marveled at the gorgeous copy of the Juan Solis print on the Best Film certificate. He confided it was one most beautiful awards ever to be bestowed to the film.
Afterwards I got a chance to hang with the filmmaker of Delusions of Grandeur, my new homegirl Iris Almaraz and I did a sort of follow up to the interview I did with her a couple weeks ago. Check it here. Not only is she working the latest draft of her next film, La Puta, but she is already swirling around a concept for the next one which although unplanned might form a a novel trilogy about the contemporary female odyssey going through womanhood, motherhood, and a post motherhood sexual discovery.
At Reel Rasquache I discovered such a refreshing confidence and tuned-in conscious of identity, unfettered by what the mainstream is NOT doing for them. Instead, the spiritually resilient and tireless efforts are focused on making art for ourselves. I noticed in Dr. John’s Closing remarks he included the term ‘self-identifying Latinos’ when talking about who Rasquache is geared towards. It was in stark contrast to what I usually run into; a desperate want to assimilate into the mainstream, or the commendable, yet generic and trite aim of telling ‘universal’ stories that transcend ethnicity, or the irksome thought that we should not ‘limit’ ourselves by identifying as Mexican American or Chicano (thanks Robert Rodriguez). But don’t we all perform and write what we know? In that sense sharing it with the people who will relate to it the most feels the most unifying and mutually satisfying. We crave an audience to share our art with, that’s what keeps us going. Who better to show it to than someone who gets it.
Within the kingdom of Americans who have a widely mixed variance of Latino descent, there exists a fierce genus called La Raza. Unapologetic, raw, fiercely conscious of their people’s history, embracing of multi-cultural solidarity, they ain’t waiting around for opportunities but seizing them for themselves. I admire this incredible sense of identity and believe that is what is worth celebrating and awarding. This confidence is the missing key to taking charge and writing our own narratives. Not to mention, confidence is just más sexy.