Most of Us Don’t Need to Put Labels on It: An Interview with Aurora Guerrero

Aurora Guerrero is a warrior, both bold and also soft-spoken. Her first feature film, Mosquita y Mari, had its premiere at this year’s Sundance Festival, then opened in US theaters in August. The story of two 15-year-old Chicanas growing up in Huntington Park, Los Angeles, the highly praised film benefited from a successful Kickstarter campaign as well as the Oakland-based Guerrero’s own background as a community organizer. She met with PopMatters in Torino where Mosquita y Mari won the Queer Award at the 27th edition of the Torino GLBT Film Festival. The jury praised the film for its “sensitivity and intimacy in which the director treats first love, that delicate time in the life of adolescents.”

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What is it that drew you to make a film about teenage girls?

I think the origins of the story are very connected to my own coming of age. I wanted to stay true to that experience of exploring your identity at a very young age, because at that age you don’t have many borders. There’s a lot of pressure to make something of your life, but I feel like you are a little bit more open to the world. I believe there are all kinds of experiences that you have at that age that become real markers for later on in life. I feel like my friendships, and that friendship in particular that inspired the movie, were the beginnings of my queer identity, even though I didn’t put that label on it. When I look back, I ask when did I know? Or was that a queer experience? It was in that friendship. I think a lot of young people experience queer feelings and queer identity at a very young age.

But without being able to put a label on it.

Most of us don’t need to put labels on it. It’s just the experience of life, whether it’s queer or not. So for me it was very important to capture that and not often do you see love stories at that age between two people of the same sex.

How did you find your stars, Fenessa Pineda and Venecia Troncoso?

They came a little later in the casting process and so I had seen almost 300 girls by the time they came around. I think what really stood out about both of them originally was that they came to me separately and said that they had been waiting for me and waiting for this story. When they shared that, I was very moved and I said, “Okay, this is speaking to them in a very profound way.” That really stood out for me and I felt like these are two girls that are going to commit 100% to these characters, to this story and to the making of this movie. That’s what I needed because there’s no hero making this film. It’s low budget, I was going to put them through the ringer, it’s a very internally emotional film, I was going to be after them to look deeply into their lives. And then I saw that they took direction very well. I saw that they were very natural and that they identified with the bicultural, bilingual world that I was trying to capture.

Did they help you develop the characters?

I had written a finished script. But I leave the door open for actors to tell me if something doesn’t resonate with them, if there is a false note to the story or in the character. It was rare when they would tell me, “Aurora, I don’t think this character would do that.” But they would change the language, because I’m not in high school, obviously. They are young and so they would say, “I think that language isn’t really the kind we would use.” So they would very much own the language of the characters and they embodied the characters that I had written and that world to them was very natural.

Your cinematographer was Magela Crosignani, whose work is beautiful. Did you share a vision?

I’m a very visual person and when I start writing, I’m already incorporating visuals. Cinematographers are very drawn to me. Being very visually driven, my writing allows cinematographers to see. Before we shot, we already had ideas about the style of the film and some of the moments that we wanted to capture. But then we were limited because of time. We shot for 18 days. It was incredibly hard with non-actors and all. Not a lot of time was spent being able to play. Often after we shot, I would run out and start to play with the camera. Magella, unfortunately, wasn’t able to shoot a lot, but I also worked with an amazing photographer named James Blackman. He came with me into the community with me and I got to play. The girls came too. We didn’t even have any sound but we just did the visuals. Much of it was organic. I did have some things shot for the scene we called “dancing dust,” but none of that film got developed. So I had to go back and rethink what those images would look like. I think it was a blessing, because it forced me not to be so literal. And that’s what I was really trying to do with this film, to step away from the literal and let the forces of the girls coming together really peak and make their experience authentic.

While the film focuses on the friendship, it also considers solitude, as the girls are frequently vulnerable and alone. Even though Yolanda [Finessa Pineda] has a supportive family, they don’t really understand or communicate with her.

Well, I think being young is a very lonely experience. I wanted to capture the girls’ internal emotions, the silence around issues of sex, desire, sexuality. I think silence aids in showing that alone feeling. That was part of me trying to get that mood and that feeling, that loneliness. But at the same time, even though we are feeling lonely, we are all very much connected. I wanted to get at how different parts of the family can connect to their children, so their children don’t feel so lonely in having to make these big life decisions. Mari [Venecia Troncoso] makes some very hard decisions. If she had help from her mom, maybe she would have made a different decision. In the case of Yolanda, she makes hard decisions too, but she tries to be proactive and make good decisions for herself without the parents. So yes, the loneliness was about capturing the mood and playing off the silence around desire and confusion.

What role does loyalty play in this Mexican American community?

I think it is in our roots. For Latinos, the majority of us are part of an indigenous culture and the indigenous cultures that you see are part of a community and community living, in familia. There isn’t that sense of individualism that you see in [Caucasian American] culture. I think that’s a good thing, a beautiful thing. But there is the other side of that. There is the weight that we carry when there is this expectation to live up to of your family and their ideas of what you need to do. For me, family and community were always essential and so were my friends.

Do you see this film as telling a story of hope?

What I hope is that the audience gets the sense that the families are opening their eyes to the fact that their daughters are more complicated and the world is more complicated than they think. And even if they are taught to believe that their kids are born heterosexual, their problems are not just about boys. I wanted to leave the audience with this idea that [Mari and Yolanda’s parents] are realizing that there is more to their daughters and that they love their daughters. I didn’t feel like I needed to plant these seeds of hope, in that there’s awareness and that there is love in this family.

I was also looking at the impact of immigration on our community, because it varies. These families live across the street from each other, but immigration plays a different role in their lives. When Mari puts on her father’s medallion, it is very symbolic of family. When she talks about her father, she talks about how he had dreams for them, their coming to the US, their right to succeed and dream and have all these things they didn’t have. But then he dies while working for the family and she takes on that role of providing for the family.

When she takes off that necklace and gives it to her mom and says, “I’m tired,” it is her sort of giving up that duty of having to sacrifice herself for the family. That is a big transition for her character. You think that now, when she goes on in the world, she won’t sacrifice herself so much for her family and she can do things for herself. For me, that’s hope. She goes through a hard experience, but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world or the end of the road for her friendship with Yolanda. I wanted to address income, how money really impacts their lives and ends up impacting their relationship. I hope people walk away seeing that there is change in her.

I was wondering how you came to filmmaking.

I grew up in the Bay Area and I was exposed to the arts very politically. At university, I studied with a woman named Cherríe Moraga. She’s a queer, feminist Chicana, one of the first to be very vocal about her identities and the intersections of her identities as a queer woman, as a Chicana woman, as a working-class woman, as a daughter of immigrants. That representation of a queer woman of color, a queer woman whose parents were immigrants, a queer woman who was working class, is an image that was denied to previous generations.

[Moraga] was my professor before I was even out in my life. [Working with her] was the first time I performed and began to engage in the arts and it changed me. It basically opened me up in a way that I couldn’t close myself up anymore. It felt like something very powerful that I would later explore. It was an introduction. She had planted the seed. Then I ended up working with a youth leadership program in San Francisco, very progressive, very political, and [I learned] to use the arts to help the youth tell their stories. I was inspired by the power that art has to organize, to educate, to heal, and to promote change. I said, this is going to be my contribution to our movement and that’s how I got involved.

How did that experience help in your film’s Kickstarter campaign?

I knew a lot about networking and, aside from being a filmmaker, I’ve always done a lot of political work, community organizing youths, organizing mothers around different issues, social justice issues. And so I was building and I knew a lot of people. When you say, “I haven’t got the money and I need to make a film about these things,” and you have a good reputation, then people will say, “Oh, okay, she’s the real deal.” It definitely helped me when I did my Kickstarter because [that campaign involved] a big community of people.

With Kickstarter, you had to convince a number of people with whom you never had face-to-face contact that this movie needed to be made. How did you manage that process?

The teaser was a big help. People saw the vision. They were very drawn to the images and the story because, like I said before, it’s not often that you see young people, Chicanas, at the core of the central story. Within that story, I am looking at different issues, from sexuality to immigration to community and familia. These stories are so absent in our community so that when someone says, “I want to tell a story and this is the story I want to tell,” then people get excited because it hasn’t been done. And it’s 2012! Latinos are the majority people of color group in the United States and it’s growing and growing, and yet our cinema is absent. It’s almost unbelievable. So when I put this [idea for my project] out, many people responded. People were hungry.

Were these people from specific communities that you knew?

Well, no, because with the internet, you can’t really know. I went to my friends to begin to spread the word to their networks, but then the internet takes a life of its own. Other people spread the word, more people see the video. They don’t know me. They see it and think, “Oh wow, this is the type of movie that I would want to see because I haven’t seen it yet.” And the word spreads.

I understand that Mosquita y Mari was the first feature narrative by a Chicana director at Sundance. Does it feel like this is “progress”?

It’s bittersweet. To be at Sundance and to be the only Chicana there is hard. To be among so many white males, straight white males who get awarded and who get the press and the attention, is frustrating. But I am also excited about the fact that my presence at the Festival is inspiring a lot of people. It is an opening of a door. It is, “Yes, you can!” It makes me happy that it is an inspiration for a lot of young people and for a lot of my peers. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Part of my mission as a filmmaker is to share my journey so people can learn from it and grow with it and tell their own stories. Whatever I can do to change the fact that I am the only one of them here, I will do. I don’t think our communities lack stories, but I think we lack training, we lack technical abilities, the knowledge of filmmaking, film history. That is something we need to change.

Can you tell me about the internship program for this film?

There were heads of departments and each had to mentor young interns on this film. Three years before, I had reached out to a nonprofit that had done a lot of work in the neighborhood and were well known. They helped to keep me grounded in the community and to make sure the film was truthful in its depiction of the community. I also wanted to open the doors to the process of making a film, because I didn’t have that and it’s very rare to have access to that kind of thing. I told all the heads of the departments that if they wanted to be a part of the film, they would have to mentor. I worked with artists that are all similar in their politics and way of thinking, so it wasn’t a problem.

There were young people in every department and their energy is very present in the movie. They were very invested and offered input, and weren’t just workers learning from us. We were learning from them, every step of the way. Some of those young people are going onto film school or going on to become actors. I was very happy about that and I think that’s something I’ll always do when I make films. I wanted to show them, this is how you make an independent film: it is not romantic, it’s not glorious. It’s a lot of hard work, but as a community, we can make art and build relationships.

What about Jim McKay’s involvement?

He was the first one to be on board. Jim McKay came to me through Maude Adler, the head of HBO Independent Films. I assisted the director of Real Women Have Curves, Patricia Cordoso, and that’s where I met Maude. I showed her the very first draft, which is very different from the film we made, in a good way, and she loved it. She said, “There’s something very beautiful here, but you need mentoring in the writing and I think I know the perfect guy for you.”

And he‘s a white guy.

Yes. So she comes to me and says, “Jim McKay is this white guy.” And I thought, hmm.

Had you seen Girlstown?

No, I hadn’t seen any of his films. Then I started doing research on him and I was really moved by an interview he did where someone said, “So here is this white guy going into these communities of women of color. Tell us more about that.” And McKay said, “Yes, I am privileged to be able to do this and I understand that the work I am doing is important. But what’s more important is that people in these communities tell their stories. While I can, I want to support artists of color. That’s what I would do because really it shouldn’t be me telling these stories, it should be them.” When I read that, I thought, I can work with this guy. There is a consciousness there. He’s incredibly supportive, a champion, a great teacher. I feel very honored that he saw something in this and, well, he’s a busy man. But after all these years, he stayed along with me and no money, no nothing. He gave his time and his thinking and I can’t thank him enough for that.