Mexicans Take Over Fashion Island

Well, almost. Had the OC prima donnas at Fashion Island in Newport Beach known what was going on under the big tent across the street at the Island Hotel this past weekend, they would have run for cover under their Beemers and Benzes. Mexicans. Puerto Ricans. Colombians. Guatemalans. Dominicans, Argentinos, most American, some not, descended on the hotel by the hundreds. And they didn't come to make the beds.

On Friday, Luis Valdez, the legendary filmmaker (Zoot Suit, La Bamba) and founder of the famed Teatro Campesino, stood under the big tent of the Island Hotel's Palm Room and told stories -- of arrests, pachucos, stormy days and heydays. He reminded the crowd that once upon a time when he was a kid, sitting in a movie theater if you were brown was punishable by law. Boisterous and in-your-face truthful, Valdez implored the crowd - a mix of filmmakers, novela actors, television writers, documentary film producers and actors who had gathered for the National Association of Latino Independent Producers conference -- to keep it real and keep at it. He told them to do like his mentor and collaborator "CC" (as his mom affectionately called Cesar Chavez) had done, and "make something out of nothing."

The new "something", by the looks of some of the films being screened and discussed at the conference, is marked by unpredictable pan-Latino narratives that span everything from the trials of a Puerto Rican Muslim rapper in Philadelphia (New Muslim Cool); to the sexual awakening of an intersex teen in Argentina (XXY) and the story of a young man who works in Mexico as a day-laborer by having his nervous system plugged into remote robots in the U.S. (Sleep Dealer).

The swarm of Latino filmmakers, producers, editors, screenwriters, aspiring actors and executives crowding the hotel surpassed Disneyland, at least for the weekend, as the happiest place on earth. They came from around the country, (and some from Latin America), for the big, bad conference which this year was also celebrating the ten years of palpable influence NALIP's programs, conferences, and mentoring and networking resources have had on an industry which, historically, hasn't exactly held its doors wide open for Latino filmmakers. (We forget that just ten years ago there were no Latino production companies, no bilingual programming, no children's shows that featured Latinos and no television show which focused on Latinos that lasted more than two or three episodes, says NALIP executive director, Kathryn Galan).

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First hatched by a group of frustrated Latino producers, educators, actors and execs from both coasts in 1999, NALIP today is a hefty, savvy force -- part Sundance Institute (for its success as an incubator of young filmmakers, writers and producers) and part National Association of Hispanic Journalists (networking, job hunting, connecting with funders and networks -- with djs and tequila on the side -- are all part of the game). It's the only organization of its kind for Latino filmmakers, producers, actors, and the like.

"I'm not really suprised that it's lasted," says Ligiah Villalobos, a film producer (Under The Same Moon) and television writer who sits on the NALIP board, "I'm surprised at the enormous improvement from the first day. A lot of times you're dealing with people that just have complaints about their situation in the industry, so it doesn't become that productive to be with people who are just complaining. What has been great for the last five years is that that is almost not even allowed...It's really about encouraging people, being a support to members, rewarding people that are doing well."

Mexicans Take Over Fashion Island

"We needed to stay in touch with every community where Latinos were working," says Galan, of the effort to keep regional programs and chapters alive and active over the years. "You do better work when you're not alone." Efforts in the past to do such a thing, she says, had fallen appart because they were always volunteer-run whereas NALIP maintains a paid, active staff to run the organization. The other side of the organization's work, one not immediately visible at the conference, is the advocacy role it plays in Washington. "We put together a coalition of major Latino civil rights organizations...each one has something to say and wants to have an impact in the media," Galan says, "Media affects all of the work that we do."

As industry execs traded cards with would-be and fledgling filmmakers in hallways and after workshops (and after the parties were over), the sentiment Valdez expressed on Friday seemed surprisingly palpable throughout the weekend in an industry that isn't usually associated with kind, earthy pragmatism: "Stay independent people. Keep your heart...You've got to maintain your soul and your relationship to reality."

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