WHITTIER — When the story begins, marital problems between his Mexican mother and Anglo father had sent 12-year-old Mike Rutledge to his grandparents' small Arizona ranch, where Spanish is spoken and salsa is spooned over food, not just scooped from a bowl with tortilla chips.
By the time the story ends, young Mike--Miguel Antonio to his loving grandparents--has lost his reluctance to speak Spanish and has brought home to suburban Los Angeles a desire to cultivate his Latino roots.
Mike is the central character in a film called "Always Roses." It was produced and written by George Figueroa, 25, of Whittier. The Princeton University graduate is one of three aspiring film makers chosen from 103 applicants nationwide to be part of the Hispanic Film/Video program, spokeswoman Esther Renteria said.
The program is sponsored by the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Universal Television, the Hispanic Academy of Media Arts and Sciences, and Columbia College in Hollywood. Its goal is to encourage and help more Latinos to enter and enrich the movie business with their ideas and stories.
Hopes for Film Career
The program provides funding and technical assistance to produce short films to showcase the talents of the young Latinos, Renteria said.
Figueroa hopes his 24-minute film will catch the eye of a movie executive and lead to a film career.
"I would like to produce my own scripts and eventually direct them as well," Figueroa said in a recent interview. "That's really the only way to control the outcome."
Figueroa graduated from Princeton in 1986 with a bachelor's degree in art history. He has worked at different jobs as a paralegal and word processor, and planned on entering law school to continue a family tradition. His father, William, his sister, Ana, and his brother, William Jr., are lawyers. George's younger brother, Rafael, attends law school at UCLA.
Encouraged to Go to Law School
But then Figueroa heard about the film program and submitted a script that was accepted for production. The finished film was first shown earlier this month in a screening room at Universal Studios. It will be shown Thursday at a film symposium at Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, Figueroa said.
"Naturally my parents encouraged me to go to law school, but I . . . wanted to explore some creative endeavors," Figueroa said. "I put on paper an idea I had banging around in my head for awhile."
Figueroa, who was raised in suburban Whittier and nearby Santa Fe Springs, did not have to look far for the themes explored in "Always Roses."
"I think that it's difficult growing up in a culture where English is a dominating language, and if you convey hints of your ethnic heritage, it can be looked down upon," Figueroa said. "You have to overcome that.
"It's only been fairly recently that I've been able to really feel a sense of pride in my culture and heritage and all that entails, with its language and traditions."
The film is not autobiographical, but there are strong parallels to Figueroa's life.
"What I tried to capture in the script, in the film, were reminiscences, bits and pieces of my recollections and experiences of my grandparents from my early childhood on," Figueroa said. "I just tried to put together the essence of what they were, their pride and their grounding, firmly planted in their roots and in their heritage."
Most of the 35-millimeter film was shot on location near Tucson, Ariz. It was a family affair, with Figueroa's sister helping to co-produce the film. Aunts, uncles and cousins provided props and meals for the film crew. The movie was produced on a $35,000 budget.
Singer Plays Grandfather
One of the stars of the film is country music star Freddy Fender, who plays Mike's grandfather. Child actor Bryant Mason plays the role of Mike. All of the actors donated their time to the project. They will be paid only if it is picked up for commercial distribution, Figueroa said.
"There wasn't any money for salaries," he said. "If I had paid myself as writer or producer, it would have (taken money) from the production."
"Always Roses" was not Figueroa's first attempt at writing a movie script. He wrote a feature-length script that dealt with the conflicts a Latina attorney encounters in an Anglo- and male-dominated profession. That script was rejected by several studios.
Figueroa has several ideas brewing for his next effort. He said he would like to write about the life of United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and his campaigns for improved working conditions for agricultural workers.
"He's an important figure politically and historically," Figueroa said. "People of my generation don't really know him that well. I'd like to increase awareness of him and his struggles."