Vanessa Martinez in John Sayles’ Limbo.

It is indeed la vida loca, the crazy
life, right now for that loose confederation of artists who comprise
a new Latino cinema in Hollywood and beyond. Much like the emer­gence
of African-American artists in the late ’80s, Hollywood (if you
believe recent press accounts) has finally figured out what many
have known for some time-Latino moviemakers tell funny, romantic,
thrilling, sexy, scary, and tremendously potent stories. The signs
of cultural progress abound: director Gregory Nava, creator of
the archetypal Latino indie El Norte, scores big with a
studio-backed bio of Tejano singing star Selena; cross-over diva
Jennifer Lopez, whose R&B album cracked the English language
music charts and can now open movies; and international star Antonio
Banderas jumps behind the camera to direct his first feature, Crazy
In Alabama, courtesy of mega-player Sony Pictures. Yes, la vida
loca is muy buena if you’re one of the lucky few who’ve made it.
But what about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Latinos still
waiting in the wings? What’s really loco (many would say frustrating)
about the new Latin cinema is just how few homegrown moviemakers
have managed to break through, despite a rapidly growing Latino

"The Latino population in this country has skyrocketed
from eight million in 1970 to nearly 30 million today," notes
Ray Santisteban, director of the San Antonio Cine Festival, the
oldest Latino film festival in the country at 22 years strong. "So
it’s confounding, especially if you look at it on a purely financial
level, why this industry has not used more Latino talent."

Santisteban, who graduated from NYU’s film school
and was raised in the San Pedro area of LA, cites his festival’s
home, Texas, as fertile ground for emerging Latino directors. "I
think we have plenty of people here in Texas who could go out right
now and become the next Robert Rodriguez. The main thing holding
them back is this huge cultural gap at the top of the food chain.
There just aren’t many Latinos in key roles at companies who buy
and distribute films. It’s like we’re outsiders in our own country,
and that’s an unfortunate thing."

Despite the long odds Santistaben talks about, Latino
indies are still making films, of course, even if they rarely crack
the Sundance-Toronto-Cannes merry-go-round that leads to the surest
fame and glory. La Ciudad (made by an Anglo but featuring
an entirely non-pro Latino cast) copped the best fiction award
at this year’s SxSW Fest in Austin; Miguel Arteta, who burst onto
the indie scene two years ago with the controversial Star Maps,
has just wrapped his first digital video feature, Chuck & Buck,
for Blow Up Pictures in LA, and this year’s San Antonio Cine Fest
showcased films by an even more underserved film minority: Latinas.
That promising list included NY based Maria Escobedo’s Cuban-flavored Rum
and Coke
, and Luminarias, a story of four Latin women
in Los Angeles, written by and starring Evelina Fernandez (American

Diana Marquis in Maria Escobedo’s Rum and Coke.

One young homegrown director who has managed to break
out of the pack is Carlos Avila. Reared in the heavily Mexicano
Echo Park district of Los Angeles, Avila explores the father-son
dynamic in the boxing ring in his upcoming feature, The Price
Of Glory
. A product of UCLA’s graduate film department, Avila
first garnered attention with Distant Water, a striking
half-hour short which won a large cash prize at the Tokyo Film

"Distant Water helped me to make a one-hour
PBS drama called La Carpa," Avila explains. "And that,
in turn, led to my producing a PBS series called Foto-Novelas,
which is like a Latino Twilight Zone with very high production

Originally brought to Avila as a stageplay, Price
of Glory
languished at Fine Line Pictures for nearly four
years. When Fine Line’s parent company, New Line Cinema, got
involved, the project began to take shape. Avila was still a
first-time feature director when the project got green-lit, of
course. But he had a veteran producer in Moctesuma Esparza on-board,
as well as one of the most visible and outspoken Latin actors
of his generation, Jimmy Smits.

"I can’t say for sure that having Jimmy behind
this picture was what got it into production," Avila notes. "But
I can tell you that having him in the lead role was an incredible
experience. People like Jon Seda, Paul Rodriguez, and Maria del
Mar, who are already well-known in the Latino acting community,
were thrilled to be working with Jimmy."

In fact, Smits’ passionate commitment to bettering
the Latino film community is evident in the foundation he co-founded
with actors Esai Morales and Sonia Braga, called the National Hispanic
Foundation of the Arts. Felix Sanchez, head of Smits’s foundation
in Washington, and a Washington political strategist by trade,
describes the foundation as a nexus between the power suites of
Hollywood and the movers and shakers within the Beltway.

"Last year we gave out over $80,000 in scholarship
monies to graduate students from the five top film and drama schools
in the country Yale, NYU, USC, Columbia and UCLA," Sanchez
notes. "We have a specific game plan to get more Latinos into
the decision-making roles in Hollywood, both in front of and behind
the camera."

Latin Heat, published and edited by Bel Hernandez.

Just to hear some of the numbers Sanchez quotes,
vis-a-vis Latinos on television, should be enough to shame many
corporate sponsors into pulling out their checkbooks. "There’s
never been a Latina cast as the lead in an hour-long dramatic series,
there’s never been a fully realized Latino family on TV, except
for maybe I Love Lucy. There’s never been a Latino themed
mini-series, and there’s only been one Latino themed MOW Ever!"

"At a certain point,
you have to go beyond the race issue and realize the true
path to success s through hard work and a belief in yourself…"

By basing the foundation in Washington, D.C., and
hiring a beltway strategist like Sanchez as its president, Stints
and company have managed to stand apart from other Latino advocacy
groups through their Washington con­nections. "We have co-organized
a ‘brown-out: " Sanchez continues, "for the week of Sept.
12. We will encourage con­sumers to boycott watching the four major
networks due to their lack of Latino programming. This ‘brown-out’
also coincides with our annual fundraising gala on Sept. 13 at
the Mayflower Hotel, which will feature Vice-President and Mrs.
Gore and William Kennard, the chairman of the FCC. I feel their
presence is a tacit endorsement of our success. We need to motivate
people at the political level to achieve meaningful results."

While even the Vice-President may admit there is
a dearth of Latino issues/35/images on screen, should all the blame be laid
at Hollywood’s door? Many industry observers feel the problem may
also residewithin the fragmented nature of the Latino film community.
A case in point is the first-ever June summit of Independent Latino
Producers in San Francisco, of which Sanchez’s organization was
a co-sponsor. Timed to coincide with the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting’s annual meeting, the event was, by most accounts,
a raucous affair. The CPB had recently cut off funding for the
National Latino Communications Center, one of only five minority
coalitions approved by the government to distribute public money.
In its place an interim group was approved-the Latino Public Broadcasting
Project-led by actor Edward James Olmos. Yet another alliance,
the Latino Programming Coalition, split the summit as to who would
ultimately program CPB funds. This came despite the fact no CPB
funded Latino projects have been produced in the last two years.

"It’s unfortunate that the media continues to
dwell on the more negative aspects of that conference," observes
LatinHeat publisher and editor Bel Hernandez. "Despite all
the in-fighting, they did manage to come away with a strong plan
to present to the CPB. We at LatinHeat have been sponsoring a similar
Latino industry conference in Burbank for the last five years.
While the San Francisco group addressed a very narrow sector-public
television-our meetings have helped Latino indies to establish
ties with feature film and network TV executives, who turn out
in big numbers every year." (The next Latino Entertainment
Industry Conference, put on by LatinHeat, is scheduled for Sept.
29-30 at the Sheraton Universal.)

Latin heat, left to right, top to bottom:
Carlos Avilla, Silvia Cardenas, Maria Escobedo. Bel Hernandez,
Gregory Nava, Jeff Valdez and Eduardo Sanchez.

Hernandez, the unofficial den mother for Hollywood’s
Latino film community, created LatinHeat as a link for young Latino
film­makers to connect with mainstream Hollywood. Besides sponsoring
the annual Burbank­based conference, the magazine recently coordinated
a roundtable discussion for The Hollywood Reporter’s MIPCOM issue.
Plans are also in the works for LatinHeat to expand beyond its
U.S. market to include coverage of Latino films at the international

"According to a report com­missioned by SAG,
the U.S. Latino market is ranked 14th worldwide," Hernandez
trumpets, "right behind Brazil, Spain, and Mexico. Yet many
American film distributors still claim there’s no audience for
marketing Latino films. Do I think we could do better in unifying
our own com­munity? Absolutely. We should have an organization
like the NAACP to watchdog Latino stereo­types in film. We should
have more granting foundations, like the one Jimmy Smits has, to
mentor young Latino executives into positions of power. But everyone
seems to forget we’re still a young community. It takes time to
break down fences."

If those fences across Hollywood’s border patrols
have yielded gaps for some Latinos, what might it take for the
next generation to rip them down entirely? South Texas native Robert
Rodriguez found success in spite of Hollywood. "Robert just
went off in the desert and made really cheap, really fun mariachi
movies," fest director Santisteban relates "without waiting
around for some executive from New York or LA to come bless him
with mullions of dollars. I think that’s the route many young Latino
filmmakers are taking. Just go out there and do it and good things
will happen."

Good things happened for a young south-Texas actress
named Vanessa Martinez, whose Mexican parents speak little English
and who were more concerned with their daughter finishing St. Mary’s
University in San Antonio than what new American movie role she
could snag. The co-star of John Sayles’ recent indie film, Limbo,
Martinez, 20, has been acting since her early teens, yet has grown
frus­trated with the river of stereotyped roles Hollywood typically

"So much of what they show you has nothing to
do with real Latinos," laughs the poised young actress. "Every
girl has this heavy Mexican accent and is named Maria. I met John
Sayles when I auditioned for Lone Star, which he shot in
Texas. Then last year I got the script for Limbo in the mail and
a letter from John saying he had written the part with me in mind
and would I consider it. I was like: Hello? What’s to consider?
This is an incredible character whose name is not even Maria!"

Antonio Banderas directing Crazy in Alabama (1998).

Martinez’s comments beg yet another prickly subject
for Latin filmmakers: should they be bound to tell Latino stories
even if their interests lay elsewhere? Banderas got his proverbial "shot
to direct" via his tight relationship with Sony Pictures.
Yet he chose to make a Civil Rights era story set in a small Southern
town. Not only does Crazy in Alabama not have any Latino
characters, it shows gutsy disregard for conven­tional Hollywood
story-telling, with a main character who is unsympathetic, and
with multiple story­lines for the audience to follow.

Banderas, like fellow high-profile directors Alfonso
Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, Luis Mandoki, and Alfonso Aran, all
made their reputations in their home countries before storming
America. The fact that Hollywood execs are more willing to let
foreign-born Latinos helm their movies, rather than filmmakers
raised in their own back­yard, is more a reflection of the movie
business than reverse racism.

"The studios want to work with directors who
are already a big deal in their own countries," says LatinHeat’s
Hernandez. "Indie film­makers in the States who don’t have
a name to market are invisible to U.S. executives and distributors.
It’s a terrible fact of life, and it’s something we’re all working
very hard to change."

Some of those "invisible" Latinos are talented
young women. In fact, many handicappers predict the next big Latin
push will come from the female ranks, as it already has in acting
with stars like Jennifer Lopez, Selma Hayek, and Penelope Cruz.
The next wave may also feature another new wrinkle: Latinas behind
the camera, as well as in front.

"It’s uncommon for a woman to direct films,
let alone an American born Latina," laughs New Yorker Maria
Escobedo, whose first feature, Rum and Coke, recently screened
at the trendy New York Urbanworld Festival, and is scheduled to
play the Cine Accion Fest in San Francisco. "This is an important
step for Latin women, so we don’t have to rely on the whole glamour
actress thing," notes Escobedo.” My film cost $500,000, and
with the small budget and level of control, I didn’t have to let
anyone tell me how to portray my own culture."

Escobedo, a graduate of New York City’s School of
Visual Arts, praises the Latino press for supporting Rum and
, even though the film has yet to secure a deal. "I
had a two-page article in Estylo, which is like the West
Coast version of Latina, and they talked a lot about me
being a filmmaker who is trying to get a positive vision of Latinos
out there on screens," Escobedo says. "I think the Hispanic
press likes my film because my main character is a career woman,
and not pushing a broom like you always see in Hollywood movies."

While Maria Escobedo has decided to let Rum and
scrap for a distributor on the test circuit, other Latinas
have opted to break down fences from deep within the Hollywood
beast. Silvia Cardenas, a 28-year-old producer/writer on UPN’s "Moesha," worked
her way up through the comedy TV trenches, serving as a receptionist,
writer’s assistant, and writer’s intern before becoming one of
the few Latina staff writers in network TV.  A graduate of Loyola-Marymount
who has made career decisions with an eye toward the long haul,
Cardenas, many industry experts predict, will be the first Latina
to run her own network show.

On the "Cafe Ole" television set
with Giselle Fernandez and Hector Elizondo.

"At a certain point," Cardenas explains, "you
have to go beyond the race issue and realize the true path to success
is through hard work and a belief in yourself. Sure, that was tough
for a Mexican-American kid like me.  When I was growing up, all
the Latino stereotypes on TV made me feel embarrassed because my
mother was a housekeeper. But once I entered college, I learned
more about my culture and was proud of how hard my mother had worked
to help me get to where I was."

Cardenas, like Escobedo and other Latinas who’ve
made it behind the camera, laments the fascination many younger
Latins have with star-power. "Whenever I speak at career days
in high schools," Cardenas says,"I notice the kids always
want to be actors or directors, never writers. I think if we want
to see more Latino stories on-screen, we need to have more mentor
and scholarship programs so Latino boys and girls can start thinking
about writing as a career path. The reality in television now is
even if you give a terrific pitch to a network for a Latino show,
their response is always going to be: OK, who’s going to write

Who indeed? With the idea of self-sufficiency riding
high in the Latino film community, the last word on shoring up
Latin-produced projects may ultimately lay on the business, rather
than the creative side. Executives like Susana Zepeda, vice-president
of development for El Norte Productions; Lourdes Diaz, senior VP
of production for Motion Picture Corporation of America; and Jeff
Valdez, Cochairman of Si TV, a bi-cultural Latino-themed cable
channel launching in early 2000, are pushing to get new Latino
product directly to a hungry audience. Si TV recently signed a
deal with Film Roman (The Simpsons, King of the Hill)
to shoot a first-ever animated series pilot with a Latino teenager
as the show’s centerpiece. Called Stuck in the Middle, it
will feature the voice talents of Cheech Marin, who also serves
on Si TV’s advisory board. Even myopic Hollywood talent agencies
are opening their eyes to Latinos. J. Michael Bloom & Assoc.,
now headed by CEO Juan Pujol, has opened Latino Departments in
their New York and L.A. offices. Diane Perez heads up the L.A.
branch, while Wendy Curiel runs the agency’s Latino Department
in New York.

But what about those outside the system? Where do
Latin indies see things going from a business standpoint?  The
co-director and co-writer of this year’s breakout indie film, The
Blair Witch Project
, is banking on the internet to equalize
the playing field for Latino filmmakers. "We really need to
consider our audience and keep marketing in mind," remarks
Eduardo Sinchez, a Cuban-American, now based in Orlando. "The
distributors will tell you the Latino audience is not upscale enough
to be targeted through the internet-and that is complete nonsense.
I am writing an art­house type film about Central American immigrants
in Maryland, and I plan to have a website online before I even
start shooting, like we did for Blair Witch. I’d even like
to do a Spanish/English release so we can reach my parents’ generation,
as well as younger, educated Latinos like myself."

Much like the "blaxploitation" run of the
early ’70s, where African American directors raised money within
their own community to make movies Hollywood wouldn’t, homegrown
Latinos have grown tired of waiting for the studios to get a clue.
(There was only one Latin themed studio film released in 1998, The
Mask of Zorro
, and that was a reworking of a pulp-fiction story
written by an Anglo and first published in 1919!) Led by a new
crop of film-school-taught directors, often fluent in Spanish and
English and marketing savvy, the next generation seems intent on
having la vida loca filter down through the ranks now, not later.

"There were no Latino role models when I came
up," notes Gregory Nava, arguably the most important Latino-American
director to break through the Hollywood ranks. "Ironically,
those role models are there now, but the apparatus which got my
first film, El Norte, off the ground is gone."

Nava, along with his wife, Anna Thomas, was the founder
of the Independent Feature Project in 1980. He and Spike Lee were
the original do-it-yourselfers, setting the tone for all indie
directors wanting to work in a multicultural context. Back then,
Nava received 50 percent financing from the American Playhouse
(now virtually defunct), to shoot El Norte. Nava insists the key
to getting current young Latinos back in the indie fold is an advocacy
group which can lobby organizations like the CPB-Nava was one of
the keynote speakers at the recent San Francisco conference-for
public funding. "It’s gotten worse, not better, since I came
up," Nava rails. "We now have U.S. taxpayer dollars going
to support BBC shows in England but nothing to help out the guy
in East LA who wants to make his first feature. It pained me to
stand up in front of all those young Latino filmmakers in San Francisco
and say you’re going to have to find the money (to make your films)
by yourself. There are no organizations (like American Playhouse)
to help you out."

Nava cites El Norte, The Ballad of Cregorio
, and Stand and Deliver as some of the highest
rated indie films ever put forth. Yet, Nava, claims, Latino breakthroughs
are never given their due. On the studio level, Nava’s own Selena was
a moneymaker, as was Taylor Hackford’s La Bamba; the Mexican-made Like
Water For Chocolate
was one of the highest grossing Spanish
language films of all time. Yet, at the end of the day "these
films don’t create more opportunities like they should," Nava

Amazing, perhaps, but not all that surprising. For
every Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesais who shatters barriers in
the music industry, the American film industry welcomes changes
at a snail’s pace. Most of those polled for this article agreed
that having a Latino Spike Lee come along to make commercial waves
would, at the very least, be a healthy start. But current Latin
success stories like Gregory Nava, Edward James Olmos, Jimmy Stints,
and Victor Nunez are outwardly angry about the status quo- and
they scream out with as much passion and conviction as their younger
counterparts, no matter how much success they’ve found within (or
without) the Hollywood system.

As feature newcomer Avila concludes: "The challenge
for this next generation is to tell stories with Latino themes
in a new way. We need audiences of all races to connect with us,
not just Latinos, even though we’re still a huge, untapped audience.
If there is a movement going on, the biggest difference is that
just making a movie is within our reach. Latinos have role models
to look to now Greg Nava, Miguel Arteta, Robert Rodriguez. Whether
you go to a film school or just grab a camera and start shooting,
the possibility seems real. It has been slow in coming, but with
all that’s going on, you can’t help but be optimistic." MM