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Perspectives: Aurora Guerrero and Yolanda Cruz Are Redefining Notions of Latinidad One Film at a Time

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Filmmakers Yolanda Cruz and Aurora Guerrero

By Moi Santos

The Sundance Institute Indigenous Program wishes to recognize Latinx Heritage Month and our unapologetically creative and rich Indigenous Latinx storytellers. As a curator and incubator of independent film, we take our role seriously, highlighting and expanding conceptions of Indigenous Latinidades. As we celebrate Latinx Heritage Month, we do so with the understanding that the term and concept itself is one that must continuously be interrogated and broadened to not simply include but also center, understand, and uplift all Latinx existences and experiences. 

Below, we speak with writer-directors Aurora Guerrero (Xicana) and Yolanda Cruz (Chatino), who, through their work, continue to carve paths forward for Indigenous women in film, and whose stories intentionally and beautifully seek to understand and celebrate Latinx experiences. Guerrero’s debut feature, Mosquita y Mari, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, and after being selected as a NativeLab fellow in 2013, she’s since returned as a creative advisor. Cruz — known for her work as a documentary filmmaker — is currently working on her debut feature, La Raya, a project that has gone through the Institute’s labs and Creative Producing Summit. 

Below, the two talk about what inspires them as storytellers, what the term “Latinx” means to them, the importance of representing the diversity within the concept of Latinidad, and what is next for them and their careers.

AURORA GUERRERO

Aurora Guerrero is a Xicana born and raised in the SF Bay Area, where her parents migrated from Jalisco and Veracruz, Mexico. Early in her career, she co-founded Womyn Image Makers, a queer, Xicana-identified film collective based out of Los Angeles. Guerrero wrote and directed Mosquita y Mari, her debut narrative feature, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. In 2017, Guerrero directed her first episode of television on Ava Duvernay’s critically acclaimed drama Queen Sugar. Since then, she has directed on GreenleafThe Red LineGentefiedLittle America13 Reasons WhyCherish the DayBlindspotting, and Mr. Corman

MOI SANTOS: What or who inspired you to create stories?

AURORA GUERRERO: It’s a two-fold answer for me. I was fully aware I wasn’t seeing myself or anyone around me depicted as full human beings on film or television, and how destructive that was. But I was also really leaning into storytelling because I didn’t have another outlet to explore my thoughts and feelings about life.

MS: What approach do you take with your storytelling? How did you develop that approach or style, and how do you hold on to it throughout your process?

AG: I try to get out of my way as much as possible, meaning I try not to overthink things or control things. Nothing is fixed — not even the stories we want to tell. Yes, there’s a seed that we plant to start the whole process, but what that seed turns into might be totally different from what we imagined at the start. So I try to honor that process by letting go as much as possible so that seed takes shape organically and alongside others.

MS: What does the term “Latinx” mean to you? Is it a term you identify with, or do you identify with another term(s)? 

AG: It’s a genderless term meant to be inclusive of all. I use it for those reasons, but in the end, it’s a term that still leaves many out because its root is European — latin. Where in that does it acknowledge the Indigenous and the African? I still identify as Xicana because it puts the Indigenous over the European, and in my family, we were not raised to believe we were European.

MS: What aspects of Latinidad are important for you to uplift or challenge in your work? 

AG: I love how different we all are and highlighting that. We all have different histories and cultural practices. Some intersect, but so much is unique. Just because we are neighbors — and let’s say we’re Mexican vecinos — doesn’t mean we see the world the same way or live our lives the same way. At the same time, I like to challenge any way of thinking that says that we should conform to a certain way of being. Obvious ones are challenging expectations or generalizations our communities have of Latina women or of our queer community.

MS: How is your cinematic language shaped (or not shaped) by your Indigenous and Latinx identities? Do any other identities overlap?

AG: I think that my centering a collective approach to my projects impacts the ways in which the visual language of the film takes shape. I’m very aware of the way I’m opening up space for those around me to actively participate in the process that gives birth to the product.

MS: What or who has helped you tap into claiming your identities?

AG: I was impacted by queer women of color feminist writers while I was coming into my consciousness. It was their bold approach to claiming space and the intersection of identities that really spoke to me deeply. This movement has had a lasting impact on me. But I’m also growing with the current movement led by younger people of color. It’s pushed me to think about the ways I can support my Black Latinx sisters in particular.

MS: Aurora, your films — including Mosquita y MariViernes Girl, and Pura Lengua   and your approach to filmmaking seem to be designed to elicit the truth, not just from your characters but from your audiences as well. Is that something you intentionally seek to do, and if so, why?

AG: Growing up, I was always aware that Latinx characters in film and television felt so forced. Words coming out of their mouths never felt like their own, and neither did the worlds they found themselves in. I knew part of the problem had to do with the fact that white men were writing these characters and building these worlds. And then when I did see a film written and directed by a Latinx person, I often was left feeling the same way — that the character just didn’t feel real to me. Why was that? Why was the truth so scary to put on screen? Why not let audiences feel real emotions and reflections? Why contrive it all? In exploring characters, the truth is where we get to explore the nuances that make us human and unique. And to audiences, the truth can be hard to dismiss. That’s why I lean into this notion of grounding characters and worlds in truth.

MS: Mosquita y Mari is a tender coming-of-age love story based on how you experienced your own first love as a young, working-class, queer Xicana. You have said that when you were growing up, you didn’t have words to describe that experience. And now you create visual languages that affirm and describe these experiences — what goes into creating your visual lexicon?

AG: I have always found images more powerful than words. It goes back to my upbringing. In general, we weren’t a talkative, processing-type family. Maybe lots of POC families are like this — I don’t know — but I had to make sense of situations by “reading the room” and paying attention to the way people didn’t say something. I’m not that person anymore. I’ve learned to communicate and be transparent with feelings, but this notion that most people don’t express what’s in their hearts really is a common practice. So I’m always looking for ways to capture the unspoken through visuals and atmosphere. I also think that there are certain experiences where words really can’t capture what’s brewing inside, like love for a working-class, teen Brown girl. It’s exciting for me to be the one to bring life to those feelings.

MS: How do your previous, current, or upcoming projects fit into the conversation(s) around Latinidad?

AG: The conversations are always shifting, and I hope that the work I do adds to those conversations. I think as a queer Xicana, my voice isn’t always heard, so taking part is important.

MS: There’s been an increase of onscreen Latinx representation in media in recent  years, as well as an increase in conversations around the limitations of Latinidad. What do you think we still need to see or do in terms of Latinx representation, and why? 

AG: We have only begun to scratch the surface here. Naming two or three shows with Latinx leads is FAR from enough. We need Latinx creators at the helm of these shows. The industry has to understand that the amount of stories yet to be told would fill all of their network, streaming, and cable slots. It’s ridiculous, really, if they are still thinking there isn’t an audience. A note for the industry: The best recipe for success is to get out of our damn way so we can get this party started.

MS: What do you enjoy the most about filmmaking?

AG: The people I get to connect with — the actors, the DPs, production designers, sound designers, editors, and the people from the communities I collaborate with. But I especially enjoy connecting with the audiences.

MS: What impact do you hope your projects will have

AG: I’ve always wanted audiences to feel something at the end of watching what I’ve done. I don’t want to control what that is but I hope they have an experience that shifts something inside them.

MS: What are you working on next?

AG: I’ve got a half-hour dramedy set on the border I’m creating with Ava DuVernay as my EP. I’m super excited about that — really trying to capture life on the border. I’m also writing my next feature that’s set in the world of Banda music.

YOLANDA CRUZ

Yolanda Cruz is an independent Chatino filmmaker from Mexico. She draws from the tradition of oral storytelling to create film narratives about art, immigration, and Indigenous cultures. Cruz holds an MFA from the UCLA film school and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from the Evergreen State College. Cruz is also a Sundance Institute fellow. Yolanda’s latest feature, Hope, Soledad, is part of the 19th FICM official selection. She is currently working on her second feature, La Raya, developed at the Sundance Institute’s NativeLab, Directors Lab, and Screenwriters Lab.

MOI SANTOS: What or who inspired you to create stories?

YOLANDA CRUZ: I come from a community of storytellers. My father was one of the first members of the Chatino community who started writing and publishing in a local newspaper. Growing up, I wanted to be like him — a writer. He was an environmental activist who was killed when I was 15 years old. Then, while attending the Evergreen State College, I enrolled in a media studies and political science program. I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker in order to make films about my community and counter the narrative of non-Natives making us subjects of their stories. Later on, while at UCLA, I changed focus and decided to make films for my community, especially for the youth, because only a handful of people were making films in Mixteco or Zapotec, and none in Chatino.

MS: What approach do you take with your storytelling? How did you develop that

approach or style, and how do you hold on to it throughout your process?

YC: I’m very fortunate — I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA film school. I was on my way to return to Oaxaca, but little did I know of the vibrant Oaxacan community in Los Angeles! I was welcomed in, and there I met a group of Oaxacan community organizers and scholars from UCLA and USC. I began attending their meetings and reading the scholars’ research. I looked for films about the subject and there were none, so I thought I should make a film about this community, my community: Oaxacalifornia. As a documentary filmmaker, I saw myself as an interpreter. Later, I was privileged to be a part of the Sundance Institute labs. At the labs, I was constantly rethinking my approach to writing and directing. I was often scared I no longer had an original vision — that I had lost my voice — but I found my way back. Today I still see my role as an interpreter. I pass on information, but I also try to evoke conversations. 

MS: Who was the first character on screen you identified with, and why?

YC: I grew up watching my neighbors’ TV, mainly soap operas and charro movies of the ’80s. In college, I was blown away by the works of Frantz Fanon, Coco Fusco, and Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Then I saw Smoke Signals and then Whale Rider — wow, then I felt very identified with that family, that community. I wanted to make a film like that for my family.

MS: What does the term “Latinx” mean to you? Is it a term you identify with, or do

you identify with another term(s)?

YC: When I was in school, I belonged to M.E.Ch.A., and later I was a part of the Chicano Studies program. In the last few years, I’ve been called a Latinx. I like it because the word is more inclusive, because it is gender neutral. But mainly I like how the younger generation are identifying with it. Being called “Hispanic-Latino” was complicated. So yes, I do identify as a Latinx; I’m also Indigenous and Chatina.

MS: What are your favorite Latinx films/shows, and why?

YC: I really enjoyed Vida by Tanya Saracho. I like the freshness in the story, and the subjects were like my family or my friends. And then like everyone else, I like Gentefied, created by Marvin Lemus and Linda Yvette Chávez. I love seeing the names of Latinx directors at the end of each episode.

MS: Who are your favorite Indigenous and/or Latinx directors, and why?

YC: I like the work of Taika Waititi, Heather Rae, Sterlin Harjo, Sydney Freeland, Danis Goulet, and Blackhorse Lowe. I also like the works of Patricia Cardoso, Luis Valdez, Phillip Rodriguez, Paul Espinosa, and Lourdes Portillo. Why? I enjoy watching their films, I always learn something new, and I like the risks they take.

MS: What aspects of Latinidad are important for you to uplift or challenge in your work?

YC: I think we need to challenge the notion that Latinos are a homogenous community and that we all speak Spanish, for example, but what I take from Latinidad is the solidarity we have as a community, and in making independent films, Latinidad has been very helpful. I’m proud to be a part of a community that comes together to help each other.

MS: How is your cinematic language shaped (or not shaped) by your Indigenous Latinx identities? Do any other identities overlap?

YC: I left my community when I was 6 years old; later, I became an immigrant to the U.S., and now I’m in between Mexico and the U.S. I acknowledge all I’ve learned, and I have respect for the generations of Latinx-Chicanos who fought and defended better working conditions, access to education, etc. This overlaps with my mother and grandfather’s POVs, which are always present in my cinematic language.

MS: What or who has helped you tap into claiming your identities?

YC: I have a few complicated identities; currently I’m a Latinx. Yet being born in a village with no electricity, no cars, and no TV had a strong impact on my views of the world at a very young age. Then I had the opportunity to attend UCLA film school and then the Sundance labs. And recently my identity has been shaped by the new strong wave of Indigenous filmmakers doing TV shows and films.

MS: In your work, how do you honor or reclaim Indigenous sovereignty?

YC: In my films, I reclaim Indigenous sovereignty by honoring our ancestral history and portraying a contemporary Indigenous reality in a way that is non-idealized.

MS: Yolanda, your work like Reencuentros: 2501 migrantesEntre Sueños, and your upcoming project, Hope, Soledad, explore themes of memory and place — what memories do you try to conjure or honor in your work? What role does place play in your life and in your films?

YC: Although I consider myself a filmmaker who works in between the U.S. and Mexico, I often return to, or start a film in, Oaxaca, because it’s the place I have the most memories from. These dreams and memories were embedded by my mom, aunts, and grandpa. So it’s true that most of my work addresses themes of memory and nostalgia in some form… I use my own lived experience to engage in conversations with my documentary subjects and the fictional characters I create. In most of my films, I try hard to give the audience some insight into my own thought process/state of mind. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

MS: Speaking of Hope, Soledad — these are the names of your protagonists, they are also themes, and one could argue, necessary parts of life — hope, solitude. What are you trying to communicate through these characters?

YC: In Hope, Soledad, I’m trying to communicate my own struggles with living in two worlds — the U.S. and Mexico. I returned to Oaxaca because I was ending a relationship, and I hoped that being home I would find my center. Instead, I was surrounded with stories about women who were alone, waiting for a phone call from the husband who left for the U.S. 20 years ago. Maybe I was too sensitive to these stories, but I felt their, and my own, immense solitude. But in Oaxaca, life is not about moping around, so together we joke, cook, walk, dance, and forget about our problems. So there is hope after all, and now we have a movie that articulates this experience. 

MS: You’ve said before that you don’t think you find the stories, but that the stories find you — when did a story first “find” you? And what have you “found” about yourself as a filmmaker?

YC: Just how Hope, Soledad found me, I’m open. I’ve learned not to pressure myself to find a perfect story. I listen, play with ideas; sometimes I write them, sometimes I don’t. If the story, character, or work keeps coming up in my dreams and thoughts, I sit down and write about it. A few years ago, after the Sundance labs, I was worried that I had lost my gift of being found by a story; I searched anxiously, I read, I listened to friends and families for stories. When I was a kid, I used to sit down in the kitchen, and within minutes, I would have heard a good story that I could reenact with my friends. Tired of searching, I decided to stop. I just listened and read good stories without thinking they would be my next film. Finally, in 2021, after a year of forced isolation, I have four or five stories talking at once in my head. So I’m happy and trying to write as fast as I can. 

MS: How do your previous, current, or upcoming projects fit into the conversation(s) around Latinidad?

YC: As an immigrant, I have worked hard to present the diverse voice of the Latinx community and to include the experience of indigenous people. In Hope, Soledad, I speak about the experience of a U.S. college student who returns to Mexico. She is afraid, angry, and confused. She meets Soledad, whose husband is in the U.S. and has kept her waiting for 20 years, promising he will soon come back. These are issues that everyone knows about but very few are talking about in films. And my next film, La Raya, is about a young girl who was born in the U.S. but was sent back to Mexico to be raised by her grandparents. After 11 years, her parents want her back, but she is confused… She now feels Mexico is home. I like exploring complicated questions around identity and belonging.

MS: There’s been an increase of onscreen Latinx representation in media in the last few years, as well as an increase in conversations around the limitations of Latinidad. What do you think we still need to see or do in terms of Latinx representation, and why?

YC: Latinx representation has been increasing lately, but some of it is still filled with stereotypes about our community. Hopefully having more Latinx in decision-making roles such as directors, writers, and producers, we are able to have conversations about the issues and address them. This is why it is dangerous to place Latinidad into a single box; we are a very diverse community.

MS: What do you enjoy the most about filmmaking?

YC: I enjoy the magic it brings —  how one can transform a story, an experience, to share it with hundreds of people. How one can share a communal experience. I like the storytelling power that films have. Especially for Indigenous communities, film is a lifeline that allows our stories to be kept alive and shared with others.

MS: What impact do you hope your projects will have?

YC: Firstly, I hope that they contribute to the discourse that Indigenous people should be able to tell their own stories. But more importantly, I hope young and old Indigenous people can laugh, cry, and raise questions when they see my films.

MS: What are you working on next?

YC: A have a few projects in development, but I’m very excited to start preproducton at the end of the year for my next feature, La Raya, which is a script I developed first at the Sundance NativeLab, and then at the Screenwriters Lab and the Directors Lab. It’s a film about a young girl who was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but now is back in La Raya, a small Chatino village in Oaxaca. I plan to film La Raya in my home village, so it will be the first time grandpa gets to see me at work, directing a narrative film.

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