Categories: Rebecca Romani, THE BUZZ

THE BUZZ: The San Diego Latino Film Festival Celebrates Its 30th Anniversary

By Rebecca Romani

March 1, 2023

Congratulations are due the San Diego Latino Film Festival (SDLFF) which celebrates its 30th festival this year. Despite the restrictions of some of the worst parts of the COVID pandemic, the SDLFF has soldiered on, adjusting during each festival.

This year, the SDLFF has thrown itself wholeheartedly into its 30th festival, holding most events in person and adding special touches such as art and special guests, sure to wow the most loyal festival goer and charm new viewers.

The festival bursts into the Mission Valley AMC, starting March 9 and running through March 19, screening 100’s of films across several screens. Some of the films are by local filmmakers while others are award-winners in their country of origin.

Screenings will also be held at the new Media Arts Center location at 10th and Market, in its new state of the art screening room that boasts one of the best screening room sound systems in San Diego. Parking is available on the street or under the building (paid).

According to executive director and festival founder Ethan Van Thillo, the SDLFF started as a student run film festival (Cine Estudiantil) at UC Santa Cruz, with the intent of changing the prevalent stereotypes of Latinos in US television and film and providing Latino filmmakers and filmmakers along the border with an outlet for their work.

As the festival grew, it became one of the oldest and most important Latino film festivals in the US, attracting work from all over the world and often screening regional premiers and hosting well-known filmmakers.

“We are immensely grateful for the ongoing support that has kept this event alive,” said Van Thillo.

At a recent kick off celebration, programmer Moises Esparza noted that one of the advantages of coming back to in person screenings is the ability to watch films in community, especially those touching on the Latino experience in the US. With the Latino population in the San Diego/Tijuana region at over 30% with increasing economic power, there is a large audience hungry for real images and stories of their communities. Screenings at the SDLFF often sell out, especially those with popular Mexican or US Latino actors.

As in previous years, the festival highlights the work of one individual. This year it is Joaquín Cosío, a Mexican actor born in Nayarit, and known for his work in both television and film (Mexico/US). He can be seen in Matando Cabos, Bless Me, Ultima, The Lone Ranger, and Cantinflas.

Image: Joaquín Cosío Narcos: Mexico

This year, for the first time, ticket holders can access live music and local food while browsing offerings from local Latino artists and vendors in a “mercado” setting, curated by rising Latina curator, Melody de los Cabos.

For younger viewers, the popular “¡Tu Cine!”  selections are geared towards introducing youth to the magic and legacy of filmmaking and the creation of stories across borders and languages.

How to festival:

  • The SDLFF is wildly popular. The best idea is to either take the trolley or park in the Mission Valley Mall parking structure. There is paid parking available at the 10th and Market site.
  • One of the best deals is the festival pass. There are several tiers from an all-access pass to a five-ticket packet. Specifics on the passes can be found here:
  • You can pick up a hard copy of the SDLFF schedule or you can access it online at

Be sure to note where the screenings are being held. This year there are two locations- the Mission Valley AMC and the Digital Gym 10th and Market screening room.

Also, please be aware that many screenings may sell out.

My recommendations:

If it is variety you’re interested in, the shorts programs are your best bet. Arranged by category, the shorts typically come in from all over the world and across the Latino community in the US. Example categories include: documentary shorts, Latino Shorts, Mexico Today, Frontera Filmmakers, Ritmo Latino, ¡Somos! Cinema LBGTQ, Narrative shorts, and Youth Visions.

Some shorts to keep an eye on:

La Causa. Mexican director Arturo Ripstein sat down with Cesar Chavez in 1974, to talk about the United Farm Workers Movement. What comes of this, as Ripstein, one of Mexico’s most original directors, is a revealing and heartfelt portrait of the beloved Chicano leader.

  • Illegally Brown– Director Gabriela Revilla Lugo does a comedic take on undocumented youth a la A Day Without A Mexican– will two sisters help capture a terrorist group and save the country that just deported them?
  • The documentary, Inocente, returns to celebrate its 10th anniversary of winning an Oscar for Best Documentary short in 2013. Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, the film follows a young undocumented immigrant from San Diego, Inocente, as she tries to follow her dream of becoming a successful artist.

Several feature length films stand out as much for their subject matter as for their timeliness. Argentina ’85, Argentina’s submission for the Oscars, returns with a true story of assassination, Argentina’s Dirty War, and defiance. Bernardo Ruiz, whose documentary Reportero is a must see on Mexico’s war against journalists, returns with the searing documentary, El Equipo, a story of an American forensic scientist and Argentine students whose work changed the story of the victims of Argentina’s Guerra Sucia forever.

Chile had its own Guerra Sucia under Pinochet. Chilean Director Manuela Martelli looks at the early days of Pinochet in Chile ’76. In this political thriller, even the non-political are caught in the dictator’s web.

Lest you think attacks against civilians happen only in South America, Belgian journalist Teodora Mihal creates a compelling thriller, La Civil, about a kidnapping in Northern Mexico and a mother who will not be silent.

On a lighter note, music documentaries, shorts and features are extremely popular at the SDLFF and seats go fast. Love the Buena Vista Social Club? Try not to miss Omara, an intimate, joyous look at the life of the amazing Cuban singer, Omara Portuondo, who frequently sings with the group.

Like your music closer to the border? You’re in luck, Texan Nicholas Valdez’s new one man play, Conjunto Blues about his family’s relationship to Conjunto and how he learned about culture and values while learning to play the accordion, takes to the screen. Valdez will be in attendance for the Q/A, and you can catch Valdez himself playing at Border X, a brewery in Barrio Logan, during the festival.

Also, don’t forget to make time for the various parties such as the closing night party with live music and the awards ceremony as well as Sabor Latino– the food, beer, and wine festival with selections from breweries, wineries, and restaurants from San Diego and Baja California.

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.