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Latinas' Love Stories Are Just the Tip of 'Luminarias' Message

Movies * Independent film tries humor to confront prejudice and racism from different sides.


Navigating through the culture clashes, interracial misunderstandings and religious differences of the Los Angeles dating scene created some ripe story material for Evelina Fernandez's first screenplay, "Luminarias." Her story, a romantic comedy about four professional Latinas searching for love, opens Friday.

As the four friends explore the dating life, they find love with unlikely partners. In the process, they confront their own prejudices and those of their mates. Dating men of different backgrounds--a Jew, a Korean and an undocumented Salvadoran waiter--brings about some hilarious and somewhat painful incidents.

"I think humor is a very unique way of dealing with issues," Fernandez said. "Coming from the Mexicano culture, it's a large part of who we are. We always find a place for humor in whatever crisis we may be in."

"Luminarias," which is in English, is based on a play by Fernandez that played in Los Angeles in 1996. Fernandez, her husband and director Jose Luis Valenzuela and their producing partner Sal Lopez financed the film entirely with donations from their family, friends and neighbors--and whomever else they could find to pitch in. (The budget was less than $1 million.) It will be released in 45 Los Angeles County theaters and 11 others in California by the Northern California-based distribution company New Latin Pictures.

The film, which played the festival circuit for about a year before it found a distributor, will be released in areas of Los Angeles with large Latino populations. Fernandez's story is set entirely in Los Angeles and reflects changing attitudes in contemporary Chicano cinema. Chicano filmmakers have traditionally been recognized for their work in documentaries or dramas; Chicano film has also been the domain of males, with few roles written for female protagonists.

In that sense, "Luminarias" is breaking new ground, bringing in an upwardly mobile female perspective to the Latino experience on the big screen.

The story revolves around four women who meet on a regular basis at the Monterey Park restaurant Luminarias. With some hefty doses of tequila and lots of laughs, they confide their trials and tribulations to one another. As they find love and overcome heartache, they begin to outgrow the deep-seated anger they harbor toward Anglos. Fernandez's character, Andrea, comes to terms with her own racism as she finds love with a non-Latino played by Scott Bakula ("American Beauty"). Bakula's character, who is Jewish, receives a distinctly Mexican welcome into the family when he is invited to Andrea's mother's house in East Los Angeles.

In another scene, the women are grilling their girlfriend Sofia (Marta Du Bois) about her new waiter boyfriend. They tell her he probably has a Mexican wife and kids back home waiting for him, and she responds that "he doesn't have a Mexican wife or kids because he's Salvadoran."

"I want Chicanos to take a look at ourselves and see that we, too, have prejudices," Fernandez said. "I would also like people to understand the complexities of being a Latino born and raised in the U.S. It goes way back. We are still carrying the conquest on our back."

Andrea advises her son, "Don't ever let the rage get in the way of love," words she feels are particularly relevant in today's increasingly diverse society. Andrea, for example, must then come to terms with her son dating a non-Latina.

Years-Old Resentment Becomes a Burden

For many years, Fernandez said, she carried around resentments and prejudices that she believes many Chicanos still bear. But as time passed she found the anger sapped her energy and foreclosed opportunities.

"It becomes such a burden to carry it around with you," Fernandez said. "I now know how to deal with issues in a more productive way."

The reaction to the movie reflects the diversity within the Latino community. After screenings earlier this year, Mexican Americans in Texas wrote her letters saying, "Not all of us feel that rage." She received e-mails from Latinos in Los Angeles thanking her for verbalizing the anger. Some Chicano students have told her they lamented that she wasn't more political in her message.

"We are very diverse as a community in terms of how we feel and where our place is in this society," she said.

Picking up on the Latino community's diversity, the distributor is hoping "Luminarias" will be one of many films that provide a window into the American Latino experience.

"We are coming of age and claiming our own spot in the American tale," said Lawrence Martin, co-founder with film archivist Kit Parker, of New Latin Pictures. "This is a picture that deals with the racism the Chicano community feels heaped upon them but also the racism that they heap upon others. But it's not a heavy message picture."

New Latin Pictures films, said Martin, will reflect today's diversity within the growing Latino community--most of which don't identify as Chicanos but rather as Mexican, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Salvadoran, etc. In 1996, New Latin Pictures distributed "Nueva Yol," a Dominican American movie that made waves in New York by grossing more than $3.3 million domestically--almost 10 times more than what it cost to make. The company will begin production on its next film, "El Bus" (The Bus), a Spanish-language comedy, in the fall.

"The Chicano experience is not the experience of all Latinos throughout the United States," Martin said. "It's a part of the American Latino experience, but I think that to pigeonhole the film is a mistake."

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