Concluding Tuesday, July 22, PBS’s film showcase The Latino Experience features the stuff you’d expect in the border, calaveras, Spanglish, etc. It also has the diversity I’d hope for with a project aiming to cover Latinidad broadly: different skin types, immigration statuses, ages, sexualities, and outlooks. And of course, the showcase really excels in the unexpected, the funny, the joyous – you know, the stuff that is too often skipped over.
I spoke to one of the filmmakers featured in The Latino Experience to learn more about her journey creating media from a Latina’s perspective today. Meet Dominique Nieves, the Latina New Yorker behind the short film, Our Lady Lupe.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: What inspired you to make Our Lady Lupe?
DOMINIQUE NIEVES: Latinx culture is full of superstition, mysticism, generational storytelling, piety – there’s a lot inherent to our culture that lends itself to genre, but I didn’t see us represented very often. Our Lady Lupe started as my attempt to incorporate the magical stories I grew up hearing into my more urban reality. I wanted to share a realistic story of a Latinx family, with a matriarchal structure, that still focused on joy. Chico (Derrick Delgado) faces a very real-world problem, an unexpected expense causes a ripple effect of strain for his mother, and he goes on a magic-filled adventure to help her.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: Tell me more about your choice of protagonists. Our Lady Lupe follows a young boy and I appreciated how you portrayed magical realism as a part of both childhood and Latinx culture.
DOMINIQUE NIEVES: I liked the idea of a young boy learning from the women in his life. I grew up in a matriarchal family structure, and I still learn so much from women today.
I felt magic realism was inherent to how I experienced Latinx culture growing up in NYC. I would sit on the washing machine in the building’s basement with parakeets chirping in the background, playing dominoes with my grandmother, while she told me all kinds of stories filled with brujeria, superstitions, and cautionary tales.
I wanted to share a story through the imagination of a Latino child, bring some of the magic from those cultural stories to life, and focus on the joy of the American Latino. We face our fair share of challenges, and we should have representation in entertainment that reflects what those challenges look like while still being joyful entertainment.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: Also, I see so many artifacts of our culture – multigenerational families, the economic struggle, Catholicism blended with mysticism, even our love affair with cars – how do you approach using those elements? Specifically how we present our culture without falling back on stereotypes or catering to how a white audience wants to see us.
DOMINIQUE NIEVES: It’s funny, I didn’t really think about the love affair with cars at first. I thought about a woman doing a job people don’t usually see in a traditionally feminine way. Now that you mention it, my mother never had a soccer mom car, she had a mustang convertible! Once in high school, I mentioned I had a pit bull and a classmate busted out laughing, because it was “so Puerto Rican” of me to have a pit bull. I didn’t know these things were cultural – you don’t see yourself as “other,” you see yourself as the default. With the film, I painted a picture of what my life looked like as a child. Sometimes it was shinier in my mind than it was in real life and all that is subtly incorporated into the film.
I did want Latinx people to be able to see a little of their own experience somewhere in the film. On set, someone got really excited about the curtains I chose to dress the windows behind the abuela because her tía has the same curtains; this is exactly what I wanted. The little things can mean a lot.
It took me a while to learn that the worst thing you can do is try to make something you think someone else wants. I made something authentic to me and my experience. It was well written and I made sure to get a lot of feedback from trusted sources before going into production. But the feedback was on story structure, not the cultural aspects because only I can comment on my own experience. No one else. That’s how you avoid a fast-food version of the culture.
Something I’ve been doing since the first film I ever wrote was challenge stereotypes. It might be a stereotype that Puerto Ricans have pit bulls, but why did we have a pit bull? If you poke and prod at stereotypes, you actually give the audience a chance to see what those stereotypes are based on. We rescued our pit bull and we once rescued a junkyard dog too. We saw past the stereotypes others placed on pit bulls, probably because we were used to having stereotypes placed on us.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: That’s so powerful, looking into stereotypes and seeing the humanity they obscure. It might be what you just mentioned but I’m wondering how would you say being Latina influences your storytelling?
DOMINIQUE NIEVES: I always say ‘Latino’ is just a synonym for resilient. I was raised to be extremely hardworking and extremely kind. I was taught empathy so much as a child, I used to get frustrated by it. I would come home and really want my mom or my grandmother to take my side, but the first thing I was asked was, ‘how is so-and-so feeling now? What do you think they were dealing with that day to make them behave that way?’ When you’ve gone through a lot of hardship, you learn to look at other people more kindly. That sense of empathy was instilled in me and that resilience goes into all of my storytelling.
CRISTINA ESCOBAR: I have one last question for you – would you say you have a goal with your filmmaking? And if so, what is it?
DOMINIQUE NIEVES: The beautiful thing about film is that the story can be shared far and wide and lives on for years to come. I hope to use film to impact people in a positive way, particularly those from my community.