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Emerging Narradores

Filmmakers Turn Lens On Baltimore's Growing Latino Population

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 10/8/2008

"Baltimore's Latino leaders young and old on the big screen"--so claims the publicity materials for the Creative Alliance at the Patterson's festival of Latino short films, Viva El Cine Latino. That hardly does justice to the shorts themselves and the people who made them. The series is a long-overdue examination of Baltimore's Latino culture through language and how linguistic misunderstandings can lead, through pain and confusion, to growth and catharsis.

The 2002 documentary Opening Roads/Abriendo Caminos, billed as the first-ever movie made about Baltimore's Latino community, offers nice snapshots of happy people and children in footage from Patterson Park's annual Latinofest and various Southeast Baltimore living rooms and street scenes, but more than anything it emphasizes the community's inscrutability. None of its subjects--which include the late salsa impresario and community leader José Ruíz, pianist Ángel Macias, and Blanca Picazo, director of Adelante Familia, the community group that commissioned the documentary--are identified. So when they're interviewed on camera, they're saying interesting things void of context.

An unidentified man in what appears to be a low-lit nightclub claims that Baltimore is home to 75,000-80,000 Latinos, a figure much larger than what the U.S. Census (15,000) and the Education-Based Latino Outreach (EBLO) and Urbanite magazine (30,000-50,000) estimate. And that's all you hear from him. Another anonymous immigrant eloquently describes what it's like to work as an illegal laborer in America until you get injured, and suddenly his status is an issue--but that's all you get. From the little Peruvian girl who describes what it's like not to be understood to an unidentified Venezuelan guy in an Orioles jersey who, when asked what he does, says he's a "pitcher," it's hard to understand what Abriendo is about.

More interesting are "The Room" and "Elizabet," the first directed by Mauricio Osorio, a Colombian-born architect who lives in Baltimore, and the second a collaboration between Osorio and David Long, a former corporate executive with Laureate Education Inc. who recently quit to be a full-time filmmaker. "The Room" is a seven-minute metaphysical drama about a woman who wakes up in a small room filled with a half-dozen people speaking different languages--English, Hindi, French, Polish, Portuguese--but somehow understanding one another. None of them know why they are there or how to get out.

"The Room" won the Creative Alliance's 2007 48-hour CAmm Slamm competition. It was through the CAmm Slamm and several Creative Alliance MovieMakers filmmaking workshops that Osorio met Long, who had spent time working in Chile. When they started brainstorming, they came up with the idea for "Elizabet," another short, shot mostly in Remington, about Felipe, a Colombian cocoa farmer (played by Osorio), who comes to visit his American girlfriend in Baltimore. Her father picks him up at the airport, and the two men's inability to understand one another during the tense car ride leads to a hilarious fight and Felipe being abandoned in a strange neighborhood.

Some of the dialogue is absurd (the father says, "I don't want anything more to do with you, and I don't want my daughter to having anything to do with you or your drugs or your salsa dancing"), while other parts are very clever, such as the father's confusing Felipe's aprobacion--"approval," as in approval to marry the daughter--with "probation," which leads him to believe that Felipe's looking for a green-card marriage.

It was important to Osorio to make a short about Baltimore that comes from an outsider's perspective, the same way he felt when he came here seven years ago. "People who come from here, this is their home," he says. "And so they're sometimes in a box, maybe. We thought we could do something within Baltimore that's outside of Baltimore."

He succeeds in that respect, but some of the short's loftier goals--addressing prejudice and cultural discord--are a little too ambitious. But it's funny. The Diaries of Carrera East shorts, which were created by local nonprofit Wide Angle Youth Media and the Latino students at Mi Espacio, an East Baltimore after-school program, are more heart-wrenching. Diaries is a collection of short bilingual interviews with middle-schoolers who attend the program, many of whom talk about the difficulties of assimilation.

"What affects me in my life is that I'm in sixth grade and I have an age that's supposed to be in the eight," says Rosie, a young Latina girl chewing gum brashly. "It was not even my fault. The teacher made me fail because I didn't know how to speak English." Another boy tells a story about missing his bus stop because he didn't know to push the bus' stop-request buttons.

Luís Alberto, a fresh-faced kid who speaks slowly but optimistically, says with alarming maturity in Spanish: "Many people think that everyone from here are racists, but I don't think it's racism, but rather it's like when you are in your country, and people who are different arrive, and they don't know how to speak your language, so you are going to feel like they shouldn't be there. That's why sometimes people think that others are racist."

Diaries instills sympathy for immigrant communities that stick together when they arrive here, and how that unity is imparted to younger generations. And some of the interviews are very hopeful. "Now I feel proud of myself because I learned more than I had to learn," Rosie says. "Now I really don't care what people say. . . . They can say all that and all this, but I don't care because they don't know my life." Thanks to this documentary, people will.

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