Friday, July 06, 2007

Teen Producers’ Project’s “Voices of Change”

New Program Features Short Profiles of Four Local Latino Activists


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The emotional climax to the June 27 showing at the San Diego Public Library downtown of four short films, collectively titled Voices of Change, by the Media Arts Center’s Teen Producers’ Project came at the end, when the “star” of one of the films appeared in person. The audience had just seen veteran Latina activist and Ballet Folklórico de Aztlan founder Herminia Enrique on screen, recounting a girlhood humiliation that led her to a long, committed life “defending my culture” — as the film’s subtitle put it — and breaking down in tears on camera as she recalled her past. Then she was there in the room, big as life, slowed down and in a wheelchair but still as feisty as ever, showing the spirit that had made her one of the founders of the Chicano/Chicana movement in San Diego nearly 50 years ago.

The anecdote from Enrique’s past that gave the film its emotional center occurred when she was a girl in school in San Antonio, Texas. A teacher sneaked up behind her in class and grabbed the long braid she was wearing. The teacher began to ask her a series of questions, punctuating each one by pulling Enrique’s hair. She asked Enrique where she was. “San Antonio,” Enrique said. “Where is San Antonio?” “In Texas.” “Where is Texas?” “In the United States.” “Then why are you still wearing your hair like a Mexican?” the teacher demanded, and grabbed a pair of scissors to cut it off. The teacher went through three pairs of scissors before finding one sharp enough to cut Enrique’s braids, and Enrique, her hair sloppily shorn to an approximation of an “American” length, went home humiliated and cried on the shoulder of her mother, who did her best to even out the cut to make her look presentable for school the next day.

Enrique told this story in the film, Herminia Enrique: Defendiendo Mi Cultura, while doing an interview in front of the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. In the movie, it was punctuated by cleverly and artfully staged “historical” footage showing what a San Antonio schoolroom would have looked like almost a century ago and dramatizing the incident — with, ironically, the cousin of one of the Teen Producers’ Project’s few non-Latino members playing Enrique as a girl. Enrique herself gave an ironic punch line to the incident when she came out and said, “After they cut off my braid, I never had long hair again.”

Not having seen the film before, Enrique told the audience, “I liked it very much. I didn’t know what would happen when they videotaped me. There were buses going by when we shot in front of the Centro. I felt comfortable taping in the Centro because I’ve been involved with it so long it feels like a second home.”

The other local activists profiled in Voices of Change included Roger Cazares, who left an executive position at a local bank to work with the MAAC Project, a nonprofit based in the Latino community; Victor Ochoa, painter and muralist whose works are key parts of the decorations in Chicano Park and the Centro; and Father Richard Brown, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Barrio Logan and an activist on behalf of Mexican-American rights since he was ordained in 1946.

Cazares and Ochoa also appeared at the library showing, and Ochoa’s segment of Voices of Change had previously been shown publicly at the 2007 Film School Confidential on April 15 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Though Ochoa was a pioneering historical figure in the Latino art movement in San Diego, the film, unlike most of the movies and news stories about Ochoa, didn’t dwell on his past and instead focused on what he’s doing now.

But it was Enrique who was the “star” of the library evening, not only because hers was the one film on the program that hadn’t been shown before but because the audience seemed more enthralled by her story than those of the other people profiled. She, in turn, was especially moved that a group of teenagers had found her a worthy subject for their film. “I really feel good to see all the young people here,” she said. “It gives me a lot of hope. Maybe somebody who worked on these films will one day show something at Telluride.”

Media Arts Center Ethan VanThillo introduced the program and explained that, unlike last year’s Teen Producers’ Project productions — which focused on community organizations like the MAAC Project’s Employment Resource Center and the King-Chavez charter school run by the historically African-American Calvary Baptist Church — this year they decided to make movies about individuals. “Voices of Change started last July,” VanThillo explained, “and the Teen Producers’ Project, 20 people ages 12 to 18, worked on four amazing documentaries. In July we did Roger Cazares, then Father Brown. In spring we did Victor Ochoa. Tonight is the world premiere of [the film about] Herminia Enrique.”

Looking back on her life as an activist, Enrique said, “Every time of my life has been the best time. There are always negatives, but you have to focus on the bright side. The negatives make you strong, and you have to work through them and focus on the positives. I remember when I wrote poems and submitted them to my school yearbook; they thought they were great but they published only one because they didn’t think I’d written all of them. When I made the costumes for the Ballet Folklórico de Aztlan, I would be up all night but I’d feel like I’d had a full eight hours of sleep. I have my issues with health now, but I overcome them.”