Categories: Rebecca Romani, THE BUZZ

THE BUZZ: San Diego Latino Film Festival – Celebrating Diversity and Authenticity in Cinema

by Rebecca Romani

March 12, 2024

Congratulations are in order for the San Diego Latino Film Festival- this year the festival turns 31 with an impressive slate of films and events ready to welcome fans and new viewers alike.

Festival founder, Ethan Van Thillo, not only sees there is a lot to celebrate but also a continuing bright future for the festival.  “Obviously there is a need for this festival,” Van Thillo told Vanguard Culture in a phone conversation. In a media landscape where Latinos are severely underrepresented, says Van Thillo, “a festival like the SDLFF is sorely needed.”

Despite Latinos being about 19% of the US population with rising economic power, the recently released Hollywood Diversity report makes Van Thillo’s case. The report found Latino presence behind the camera lags far behind their white counterparts and that films about Latinos without Latinos in key positions, tend to focus on negative stereotypes, such as drug runners. In contrast, films with Latino writers and producers tend to do 30% better at the box office, than films about Latinos with non-Latino major production staff. The report also observes that the amount and quality of Latino representation has had deleterious effects on young Latinos and the general population. Continuous negative portrayal or lack of portrayal often leaves young Latinos feeling cut out of the media landscape while a steady diet of negative portrayals negatively affects general public opinion of Latinos.

Van Thillo feels it is the hunger for diversity and authenticity of Latino representation that draws more and more people to the festival every year. He sees the future of the festival as increasing cross-border collaboration and continuing to seek out and present what young Latinos want and need to see.

Screenings and More:

The festival screened its kickoff film, Problemista, to an enthusiastic audience, Thursday, 2/24. The 2023 release, written, directed, and co-produced by Julio Torres who also stars in it, is a hilarious look at the hard edges of the New York art world through the eyes on an undocumented aspiring toy designer, Alejandro (Torres) from El Salvador who ends up working for an erratic art world minor player, Elisabeth (Tilda Swinton) in hopes she will sponsor his visa. It’s a fun, bittersweet romp through the convoluted world of desire, ego, and talent in big city art worlds.

If Problemista is anything to go by, this year’s SDLFF line-up holds a lot of promise from exciting guests to films you might not see anywhere else. Many of the films are San Diego or California premieres. The films are usually in English, Spanish, or Portuguese with some in Indigenous languages. Non-English films are subtitled. Van Thillo credits the festival’s considerable staff and new Artistic Director Maria Paula Lorgia and the new Exhibitions Senior Manager, Kristian Perez-Franco with the diversity and excellence of this year’s programming.

Actor, director, producer Cheech Marin

This year’s special guest is Cheech Marin, whose decades long film career includes some of the best early Chicano-centered films and unwavering support of Chicano creativity and representation in American cinema. Marin has long been someone the festival was interested in working with, says Van Thillo, in part because of his work in front of the camera, but also because of his active support for Chicano cinema and art.

Marin will be on hand for the Q/A of his two films screening at the festival (3/23, 3/24). The iconic Born in East LA turns 37 this year amidst a time when the southern Border is this year’s hotspot. Marin’s latest film, The Long Game, also screening at the SDLFF, is based on the true story of five Mexican American caddies in Texas in the late 1950’s who were barred from playing golf at the segregated country club where they worked.

The SDLFF always has a showcase country, and this year is no exception. Argentine films are placed front and center throughout the festival. Argentina is known for its vibrant film industry and difficult fascist past. This year marks Argentina’s 40 year of a clear end to the junta that waged a dirty war on the population. Maria Paulo Lorgia, the festival’s new Artistic Director, praises current Argentine film production as having high production levels and engaging storylines.

Lorgia recommends Trenque Lauquen from the Argentine showcase, saying the film about a missing biologist is an excellent example of the new cinema emerging from Argentina. While it is a dynamic film with several mysteries to solve, she cautions that at 3 hours, it’s long. “There will be an intermission,” Lorgia said.

Lorgia particularly recommends another film playing in the Spotlight Showcase, the Brazilian film, The Day I Met You, an everyman love story part of a second wave of talented filmmakers who believe in, among other things, taking advantage of Brazil’s very diverse society and casting accordingly.

Film still “Frida” 2024

The documentary, Frida, screens for the first time opening night as well. The Mexican artist’s life is beautifully told through luminous animation and voluminous letters and diaries. This is sure to be a festival favorite so go early to get a good seat.

The festival closes March 24 with a concert and awards ceremony.


Lorgia also encourages festival goers to see at least one of the various shorts programs. The SDLFF programs an amazing variety of shorts, from border filmmakers to music. Some of the highlights include new categories such as Raices Showcase, Arte Chicano, and New Authors. The music shorts, Mujeres (women) and LBGTQ, and Frontera Filmmakers showcases return with some unusual pieces.

Opening Weekend:

Opening Weekend catch rising filmmakers in the New Authors shorts. Many of the filmmakers will be there 3/15 to interact with festival goers and answer questions about the works they show.

Not surprisingly, the border region produces some extraordinary filmmakers from both sides of the border. The Frontera Filmmakers shorts program features some interesting work, all San Diego premieres, inspired by life on the border. Recent UCSD graduate Catherine Alderete weighs in with a crime thriller, La Paloma, set in Coronado, while Maria Jose Crespo explores Tijuana in a highly personal way in Govern Yourself Accordingly. Octasomnia may sound like something from Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer), but in this short, 10 young filmmakers imagine what it would be like to dream collectively and find the sleeping mind may be scarier than they imagined.

Film still “Translators”

Hecho en USA shorts looks at various stories about Latino life, specifically in the US. While some are fiction, several entries are documentaries. The documentary, My Name is Anabel, takes a decidedly modern look at an aspiring Latina actress seeking to integrate disability into her work on Tiktok. The story in the documentary, Translators, should be familiar to many festival goers. It follows several minors who, like many kids in the US, are the only English-speaking link between their parents and their American life. The documentary is a compassionate look at how the kids translate for the parents who depend on them. As one says, “What if I get it wrong?”                     

The Raices (Roots) program features work that looks at the diverse roots of Latino populations from Brazil to the US. Maria Presente, la Memoria en Nuestras Voces is the story of a Black Argentine filmmaker seeking to reconstruct the story of Maria Remedios del Valle, considered the Mother of the Nation. Del Valle fought in the Argentine wars of independence, and like the filmmaker, Julia Cohen Ribeiro, was Black. What the filmmaker learns may surprise you.

A more local film in this showcase, has a direct San Diego connection. Linda and Carlos- A Chicano Love Story, traces the Chicano Movement in San Diego through the lives of the LeGerrettes whose activism helped the Farmworkers’ Movement change lives, especially in California A Guide For When Immigrants Become Ancestors hits a little closer to home. Again, many festival goers will recognize themselves in the Mexican/Filipino American who works out what it means to remember through cultural memory.

The Arte Chicano and Dance on Film shorts programs are new this year. Arte Latino puts the emphasis on the resilience of the Chicano Arts community. Be sure not to miss the new documentary, Un Trip: Raul R. Salinas and the Poetry of Liberation on renown Chicano poet, Raul Salinas, whose story weaves in and out of the Chicano and the American Indian Movements. There will be a Q&A as well as a poetic gathering at Ruby’s Diner after the screening, featuring a number of local voices including Adrian Arancibia, Antonio Bertin, Francisco Bustos, Monica Delgadillo, Darren J. De Leon, Steve Galindo, Sonia Gutiérrez, Richard P. Trujillo, Yulijtica Tzopilutl, Manuel J. Vélez, Angelica M. Yañez, and Montezuma Zepeda.

If you like dance, be sure not to miss Four Works/Cana which includes music and dance on the Sonido Stage in front of the festival.

Screenings Not To Miss:

This year is the 10th anniversary of the animated The Book of Life, from Guillermo Del Toro and Jorge Gutierrez. Featuring the voices of a number of Latino actors such as Cheech Marin, the film follows young Manolo as he faces his fears in three different animated worlds. Good for kids.

Artistic Director Lorgia recommends the Brazilian documentary feature, The Invention of the Other, which looks at the 2019 first contact with an isolated group of Indigenous people in the Amazon as a discussion of Indigenous rights and how contact can lead to unforeseen consequences.

Film still “Black Rio! Black Power!” 2023

Opening Night at the Digital Gym sees two must-see documentaries scheduled, Black Rio! Black Power! from Brazil and The Muralists’ Beautiful Pain. Black Rio! is an extraordinary documentary about Rio’s Soul music scene in the 70’s and the struggle for racial justice in Brazil in the 70’s and 80’s. Like San Diego, San Francisco has its Chicanx muralists whose work is instrumental in telling the stories of the Bay Area community. The award-winning documentary, Beautiful Pain, explores how a handful of dedicated artists navigate personal and community stories to illustrate the history of their community.

Opening weekend also brings some special guests. You can meet Adriana Barraza, the Oscar-nominated Mexican actress, in a special encuentro on Saturday. Her most recent film, El Tesoro, screens Friday with a Q&A with the director and cast.

And this is just opening weekend!

More than film

The Latino Film Festival is dedicated to celebrating many aspects of Latino culture and this year there are a number of things other than film to go to.

If you like art, curators Andy Garcia (La Onda Arte Latino) and Melody De Los Cobos have you covered. Each weekend of the festival there is an artisans’ mercado where you can see and purchase art by various local artists. The Art Latino exhibits, curated by Gonzalez, will also be on display offsite at UCSD Park and Market where the Digital Gym is located, and at MyPoint Credit Union in Rancho Bernardo, the Cafeina Café in downtown San Diego, and SoCal Tattoo on Main Street.

Reserve Sat. March 23 for the 8th Sabor Latino at the Mission Valley Mall, where you will find chefs from San Diego and Baja California serving some of the best in Latino Cuisine the region has to offer. This is a ticketed, 21+ event.

How to Festival:

With so many good films, how to choose? Check out the schedule here. Pay attention to where they are screening as one venue is the Mission Valley AMC and the other is the Digital Gym at Park and Market- one of the best screening rooms in town. You can try your luck with street parking or park in the underground parking ($5) or adjacent parking lots.


You have a number of options for tickets.

General admission is $12, Senior/Student/Military $10, Members $9. Other options include passes such The Festival Pass ($225), Film Pass ($120), VIP pass ($300), the five-ticket pass ($50) or groups rates for 10 or more people. If you prefer, you can purchase tickets and passes online- a word of caution- remember to bring your confirmation email.

For more information on film tickets, and special event tickets, look here.

More advice: many of the films will be very popular and the festival is traditionally well-attended. Try to purchase tickets early and arrive early to get a good seat.

NB: some films have more than one screening available.

Vanguard Culture

Vanguard Culture is an online media entity designed for culturally savvy, socially conscious individuals. We provide original interviews and reviews of the people, places, and events that make up San Diego’s thriving arts and culture community, as well as curated snapshots of the week’s best, most inspiring and unique cultural and culinary events. We believe in making a difference in the world, supporting San Diego’s vibrant visual and performing arts community and bringing awareness to important social and community causes.