By Veronica Wilson
9:25 PM CDT, May 14, 2014
While most films in last month's Chicago Latino Film Festival took audiences around the world, three movies kept things very close to home.
"Albert," "Mi Princesa" and "For the Love of Mom" were the only Chicago-made films chosen for the International Latino Cultural Center's annual festival. While each was created by a native Chicagoan, they address very different aspects of the city and life as a Latino. Here are the filmmakers' stories.
"For the Love of Mom"
For most of his life, Mike Oquendo's success has been measured in laughs. While many of this class clown's Wrigleyville school days were spent in the principal's office, the 48-year-old now is the producer and host of The Mikey O Comedy Show.
With hundreds of people coming to shows each weekend, Oquendo has built strong community relationships and hosts fundraisers whenever he can. He recently raised $8,800 for a computer lab through what he dubbed the "Look [Bleep] Up" campaign.
"I've always felt that it's impossible to make money from the people that are sitting in the seats and only be there when you need them," Oquendo said.
Nevertheless, it was strange for Oquendo, who doesn't watch graphic movies, to make a documentary about the impact of violence on victims' mothers.
"When you're in this business and you are used to laughter, it's very difficult to imagine somebody never laughing again," he said. "When I ... would watch the news in the morning or come home from a show and hear, 'four shot, nine shot, two shot, three shot,' that [bleep] would always freeze me. ... Where are we, and when did this become acceptable?"
That was when he connected with two mothers, Myrna Roman and Diana Aguila, via Twitter. As the subjects of "For the Love of Mom," they tell the agonizing stories of the day their children were shot and killed. Roman lost her son, Manuel "Manny" Roman, when he was 23 years old; Aguila's daughter, Aliyah Shell, was just 6.
"I explained to these moms why I was doing this, and this is the reason I was doing it: Latino men, and I don't want to speak of any other culture, but Latino men, we are the ultimate mama's boy," Oquendo said. "We could kill 10 people and our mother would visit us in jail every single day as if we didn't kill anybody. If I could show them what happens to their mothers when they commit these crimes ... I know that I can take the toughest and most hardened criminal and shut him down."
And Oquendo has seen it happen. For the 27 minutes that audiences at local churches and schools hear Roman and Aguilar share their stories on film, the rooms are silent -- no matter the neighborhood.
Oquendo promised Roman and Aguilar that no one would profit from "For the Love of Mom" -- and that vow has been kept. Copies of the film are given away free, though Oquendo will accept $1.50 donations -- he just asks that those watching the movie show it to children as well. Any profits go toward making additional copies, or are donated to another organization.
The film was mainly created by volunteers, who also were affected by the process. Jose "Poet Iasel" Gonzalez, who recites a poem in the film's first scene, said the movie changed his life -- especially because he grew up in Humboldt Park and Logan Square.
"To me it's gratifying that I'm giving back to the neighborhood," Gonzalez said. "I'm letting the youth know that there are adults out there who really care, who actually understand the level of stress and level of frustration that they have to go through."
Though "Albert" writer and director Alonzo Alcaraz considers Oquendo a big influence in his career, their two films couldn't be more different.
The 36-year-old Bridgeport native's background lies in the Chicago Latino comedy scene; he spent several performing doing improv and sketch comedy. His sketch group, ESL, boasted the tagline: "English as a second language, comedy as a first language."
"Most of my comedy is very universal, very general," Alcaraz said. "I don't like to exclude people from the joke because I think you make a bigger impact that way."
"Albert," which originally was written as a full-length feature, is a reflection of that mindset. The romantic comedy follows a young man who attempts to move past a breakup with the support of his womanizing buddies. It's the universal tale of trying to find love -- either forever, or just for the night.
Due to creative differences with producers, it was decided that the feature wasn't going in the right direction and the project was abandoned. But Alcaraz couldn't leave behind the script that had garnered so much interest. He made the decision to rewrite his script as a short, and it has evolved into a trilogy of short films, each focusing on a different character. The next installment, "Lex," premieres May 18.
"There's also a bigger intention in terms of my work. I don't like to bear this cross about my color or my background or my nationality," Alcaraz said. "In a sense I also wanted to represent something different. I think as a minority, we're marginalized a little bit because traditionally, especially as actors, we're not offered the same types of roles that non-minorities are."
Though Eddie Martinez, who played the lead role of Albert, has had roles in big Hollywood films like "The Dilemma" and "The Break-up," Alcaraz's project gave him a unique experience.
"I think there's a lot of work to do [in Hollywood] though. There's still stories we need to tell from our own perspective," Martinez said. "I would have never gotten the opportunity to be in a lead in a film like this if it wasn't for Alonzo."
Miguel Nunez, who plays Lex, said he was attracted to the project because of Alcaraz's desire to make a relatable film.
"It's a universal story about guys, just being guys, doing guy things," Nunez said. "He did not just write a movie about Latino guys being thugs and living in the ghetto. That's been done too much."
That approach resonated with Chicago Latino Film Festival audiences; the hometown pic took home one of only two prizes awarded at the April festival: audience choice for best short.
"The people that were there responded well to it, and that probably meant more than having a panel of judges tell you that your movie was good," Alcaraz said of the win. "Obviously films are meant to be shared with other people, and if other people enjoy it, well, I think you're doing a good job."
The festival's only Second City-made, feature-length film represented both sides of writer, director and producer Carlos JimËnez Flores: the city of Chicago and the island nation of Puerto Rico.
JimËnez Flores, 45, wasn't always aware of his Chicago roots; the family moved to Puerto Rico when he was just a toddler, returning when JimËnez Flores was 8 years old. . He still holds a lot of pride for both homes, a responsibility he took on in "Mi Princesa."
"I love Chicago. Chicago is home. I'm tired of Chiraq. It's a big city but we're more than that. ... Why do we always have to highlight the negative?" JimËnez Flores said. "Puerto Rico has a bad reputation similar to Chicago's reputation. That doesn't represent Puerto Rico completely."
The film opens by highlighting Chicago's beauty, and as the story follows its main character, Ricky, to Puerto Rico to spend time with his absentee father, audiences witness the island's splendor as well.
While exploring the natural beauty of both locations, JimËnez Flores also wanted to give the characters and story an organic feel, which is why he chose to work without a script.
"The talent from Chicago, they are all non-actors," JimËnez Flores said. "And because I was using actors with limited experience or zero experience, I chose to do the story without a script."
JimËnez Flores believes that had he handed a script to first-time actors like Roberto PÈrez PÈrez, who played the lead character, Ricky, it would have been overwhelming. It was a process PÈrez PÈrez appreciated.
"There was no way I was going to memorize a script," PÈrez PÈrez said. "[Flores] gave me the guide but he also believed in me, which is really something that I needed because he believed in me even when I didn't believe in me."
"He's amazing because he gives us actors the freedom to just play with the role and he listens," said Darlene Vazquetelles, a Puerto Rican actor who played the female lead, Mayra. "He trusted us a lot, and that means a lot as an actor to have the freedom to do what you want and feel as long as it's still in character."
This trust between JimËnez Flores and his actors changed the course of the film when Vazquetelles, who had worked with JimËnez Flores previously, proposed a new ending.
"If my actor has totally invested themselves into the character 100 percent and it feels natural for them to go a different route than I had mapped, then I have to make a decision," JimËnez Flores said. "It turned out to be great."
Along with providing his actors a sense of freedom, JimËnez Flores had a similar mission to Alcaraz in attempting to break the Hollywood mold for Latinos.
"I have a responsibility as a storyteller to tell the most accurate stories," he said. "Why is it every time I see a Puerto Rican, why do they have to be a gangbanger or drug addict? Why can't he be a doctor or a lawyer? Why do Puerto Ricans have to be a negative? For me, as a storyteller, it's about doing what's not normal, because enough companies in Hollywood are already making what they believe is normal."
How to see the films
"For the Love of Mom"
Email Mike at email@example.com for information about getting a copy
Lights, Comedy, Action! A celebration of film, music & comedy
5-8 p.m. May 18, Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center (4046 W. Armitage Ave.)
$15 donation, ONSfundraiser.eventbrite.com
This fundraiser for Alcaraz's feature-length film "One Night Stand" also will feature the exclusive premiere of "Lex."
6 p.m. Sunday, June 22 at Instituto Cervantes (31 W Ohio St. 312-335-1996
$25. A band from the film and food also will be included in the event.
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