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Border & Immigration

Popularity Of Latino Films Growing

Theater-goers stand in line for tickets to the Latino Film Festival in San Diego, California.
Rebecca Romani
Theater-goers stand in line for tickets to the Latino Film Festival in San Diego, California.
Popularity Of Latino Films Growing
Despite tough economic times, people showed up in droves to the 18th Annual San Diego Latino Film Festival.

One of the oldest festivals to screen films from all over Latin America as well as the U.S. and Spain, the San Diego Latino Film Festival has grown from a scrappy student-run project in 1993 to a 10-day long event operating continuously on four screens.

Festival Director Ethan Van Thillo, who was one of the original organizers and has been with the festival since its inception, was very pleased with this year’s turnout.

“It’s amazing how the festival seems to grow. Two years ago we were about 17,000, last year we were about 18,000 and this year we’re hitting 20,000,” Van Thillo said.


In addition to locals, the festival attracts viewers from Los Angeles and Tijuana as well as from parts further east. Raul Mungia was from New York visiting family and came to the festival with his cousin and uncle.

“Aside from being with family and friends, it’s a great experience over all to see the Latino community coming together and doing something very beautiful here for the local and everybody in general,” said Mungia.

It was a sentiment his uncle, Sergio Preciado, agreed with.

“It just shows that we’re all sort of from the same family," said Preciado. "It doesn’t matter where you come from, what ethnicity you are, if you’re Latin, Chinese or whatever, and when it comes to films, movies or music, everybody’s the same, it’s so beautiful to see this and to see this from our culture, to see us all get together, we’re all equal… I see a lot of non-Hispanic people here, enjoying all of these movies. This goes to show that we’re all assimilating, we’re all becoming one here in this state.”

For Preciado, the festival was not only about seeing a film or two, it was also about experiencing community and supporting an event that gives Latinos and non-Latinos alike a more diverse look at a rapidly-growing population.


According to the 2010 Census, Latinos make up more than 30 percent of the population in the Southwestern United States. In the US, they are 16 percent of the total U.S. population, while in California, population figures show the Latino community at 37 percent.

And with population growth comes expectations and economic clout. Could these numbers translate into more Latinos in mainstream film?

Los Angeles actor Jose Cassias, who stars in the short film, "Beyond the Ropes," hopes so.

“It’s a little heartbreaking, I don’t believe all of us are gang-bangers or cholos," said Cassias. "It’s a shame we don’t have that many outlets…we need to make that jump into film…get a lot more Latinos at academy awards shows…promote the community."

For director Van Thillo, the need for more positive and diverse depictions of a population that traces its roots back to many diverse countries with diverse cultures is obvious.

“With the census telling us there’s such a huge population and its fast growing," said Van Thillo, "it’s important that [the] mainstream wake up and wake up quickly. We still only see two-three percent... whether its casting and behind the cameras. If it’s 30 percent of the population, then we should see 30 percent of Latinos and Latino stories on the screen.”

Economic figures from the Pew Hispanic Center suggest that the growing second and third-generation Latinos have greater education and access to greater purchasing power. Major studios seem to be betting on a growing affluent Latino viewership.

"Go For It," a film by Carmen Marron, played to packed screenings at the festival. The first-time director’s semi-autobiographical feature about a young Latina street dancer struggling to realize her dreams against great odds has caught the eye of Panteleon and its partner, Lions Gate Films, and is opening on 200 screens nationwide in May.

"Precious Knowledge" will be broadcast on PBS this fall. The documentary, which follows the ethnic studies controversy in Tucson, had its world premiere in San Diego this past weekend.

Major businesses are also looking to court Latino dollars. This year, Verizon Mobile chose to brand itself with the festival by sponsoring a screen for the full 10 days. In addition, they set up a prominent booth at the entrance with signage in English and Spanish, emphasizing calling-texting plans to family and friends both in the U.S. and Mexico.

It’s a trend festival director Van Thillo thinks will definitely continue.

“The new majority is upon us. We all need to start saying how am I going to connect to the English-language Latino community, the Spanish-language community. A festival such as this can provide a basis for a better understanding of the Latino community, the diverse Latino community. And cinema is such an entertaining and fun way to get the mainstream America to learn more about these diverse communities,” said Van Thillo.

All in all, this year’s festival screened more than 160 feature film and shorts, providing Latinos and non-Latinos alike with a diverse look at a wide spectrum of Latino culture and experiences.