Local Documentaries Get Spotlight At San Diego Latino Film Festival
This weekend, San Diego Latino Film Festival-goers have the chance to see two locally produced documentaries by veteran directors Paul Espinosa and Isaac Artenstein, with strong connections to San Diego. It’s a rare opportunity to see local production with a national reach.
Espinosa has a long history of making documentaries, often for PBS. His work spans from a look at what happened in Lemon Grove (“The Lemon Grove Incident”) to life in contemporary Tijuana (“The New Tijuana). His newest documentary, “Singing Our Way To Freedom” focuses on the late Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez,” a beloved musician, composer, and local icon of Chicano activism.
Espinosa met Sanchez in the late 1970s when he first came to San Diego, encountering him at countless demonstrations and rallies during that period. Sanchez’ music and cultural work was an integral part of the soundtrack of the Chicano Civil Rights movement in San Diego.
According to Espinosa, “Chunky’s journey is a remarkable lens on a time when young Mexican Americans became Chicanos. As we note in the film, Chunky was Cesar Chavez’s favorite musician. He and the student group that he was a part of, La Rondalla Amerindia de Aztlan, and played at many demonstrations and rallies for farmworkers in the early 1970s. “
He understood the importance of our unique position in San Diego, a community on the U.S.-Mexico border. “
As Sanchez said in the film, “I realized that you could take from both sides of the border and combine them and come up with a new style of music — bilingualism, biculturalism.”
Sanchez’ band, Los Alacranes Mojados (The Wetback Scorpions) was a staple at fundraisers, community events, and festivals. According to Espinosa, Sanchez’ music was instrumental in building a strong sense of group identity in the local Chicano community and his music and activism inspired generations of Chicano artists, activists, and community leaders.
Sanchez, who passed away in 2016, received a number of awards for his work, among them recognition from the Library of Congress.
For Espinosa, “Singing Our Way” was both an act of love and homage to an influential musician whose life parallels the struggles and triumphs of the local Chicano community.
Said Espinosa, “we did two Kickstarter campaigns over the course of six years along with other fundraising events. We received support from hundreds of individual supporters as well as a handful of smaller foundations. “
Although Espinosa had hoped the complete the project during Sanchez’ lifetime, nonetheless, the project serves as a unique perspective on both the struggles of the local Chicano community and a musician whose music became the voice of a movement.
Artenstein is also set to screen an unusual documentary about a border Latino community few if any know anything about. Artenstein, who was born in San Diego and grew up between San Diego and Tijuana, has made a number of films about life along the border, including “ A Day Without A Mexican” and “El Grito”.
His new documentary, “Challah Rising In The Desert,” explores the five strands the make up the unusually diverse Jewish communities in New Mexico.
The groups are like the five braids of dough that go into the special braided bred Jews make for important holidays and Shabbat.
“The first is the Conversos, or Crypto Jews, the second is the Ashkenazi Jews (Eastern European) who came from the East Coast via the Santa Fe Trail, the third is those, like Oppenheimer, who came to work at Los Alamos, the fourth is the Beatnik generation and the fifth (braid) is the contemporary community.”
The theme, says Artenstein, jokingly is “identity, identity, identity.”
But Artenstein has a point. Few people are aware that the Jewish community has had roots in New Mexico for more than 400 years.
The Converso or Crypto Jews may be one of the most surprising threads in a documentary that takes a deep look at the “wonderful mix that is New Mexico,” as Artenstein says.
According to Artenstein, the Conversos were Spanish Jews who had converted to Christianity under pain of death or expulsion during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who drove the Jewish (Sephardic Jews) and Muslim communities into exile or conversion as they retook Spain from the Moors.
Many of the Conversos, fearing the subsequent Spanish Inquisition, fled to the far reaches of the Spanish Empire, bringing with them practices and secrets that hinted at another identity.
“It’s amazing, “ said Artenstein, “ how without synagogues, without Rabbis, they remembered and had these traditions — not eating pork, covering the mirrors when someone dies — in the community.”
Artenstein also looks at how subsequent waves of other Jewish pioneers- merchants from New York, scientists from around the country, and beatniks imbued with visions of peace and brotherhood shaped what Artenstein calls the “beautiful cultural and natural landscape” of New Mexico.
For Artenstein, working through over 50 hours of interviews was both a challenge and a chance to explore an area he describes as visually and culturally arresting.
In addition, for Artenstein, “Challah Rising” taps into some personal history.
The documentary, which is part of a series of works documenting Jewish life along the border as part of a larger exploration of both personal and community identity.
Artenstein originally started the series as a way of explaining to people how a Mexican with a name like Artenstein could come to be in a Mexico he sees as “multicultural.”
Artenstein, whose background includes both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, remembers the traditional Sephardic Passover songs his mother taught him as a child.
So, for him, the documentary is both an exploration of his own roots and a portrait of a rich and varied border community.
It’s a documentary he said, that touches many people, Jewish or not.
“It’s an extraordinary journey, Artenstein said, through a search for identity that many can relate to.
Both directors will be on hand for discussion after the screenings. Both films are expected to play to full houses, so festival goers might want to consider buying tickets in advance, For time and screening information, see the San Diego Latino Film Festival site.