What Does Afro-Latinidad Mean in the Film World?

La Ciguapa Siempre film poster.

What Does Afro-Latinidad Mean in the Film World?

Four Afro-Latinas in the film industry discuss Black identity in Latin America and how it’s portrayed through their work.

Each year, the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival’s LOLA awards recognize filmmakers whose work centers around a specific theme. This year, that theme was Afro-Latinidad, or Black identity in Latin America. The 11th edition of the festival included five female filmmakers, four of whom participated in a roundtable discussion of their films and the overlapping themes present in each of them, in particular an affirmation of Black diasporic identity.

Monica Moore-Suriyage is an L.A.-based Afro-Latina filmmaker of Dominican and Sri Lankan heritage. She describes her film La Ciguapa Siempre as “a horror short about a young girl finding out she is one of the mythical Dominican creatures.” Montreal-based Christine Rodriguez is a mixed race, Afro-Trinidadian playwright whose first short film Fuego is a story about an Afro-Cuban man struggling to cope with his new life in Montreal. Interdisciplinary artist Shenny De Los Angeles is a biracial Dominican-American. Her experimental short and 2022 LOLA award winner The Ritual to Beauty was inspired by a one-woman play and discusses De Los Angeles, her mother, and her grandmother’s shared relationship to relaxing their hair, with spoken word and poetry as well. Finally, Black Colombian actress Loren Escandon directs Los Patines, which recounts her “mother’s childhood as a domestic slave in Colombia.”

Below are some of their thoughts on Afro-Latinidad and their films.

Affirming blackness & representation

Loren Escandon: My mother was abandoned as a toddler and grew up under the abuse of what we call a criollo family. She was always the maid, but never got paid. So that's pretty much just slavery. Knowing that story, for me, was very normal. It was something that we would talk about, but when I moved to America, and the whole idea of slavery was washed out in so many ways. I thought, well, I have this firsthand encounter, right? I know the story, it belongs to me, to my family, to my ancestors. So I'm just going to try to tell a story about [slavery]. And that is Los Patines. I decided to tell it from the point of view of a child because it just makes it a little bit less tragic, in a way, because it's her point of view. And from her point of view, that's not who she is. At the same time, I want to give people this idea that it is a cycle that can be broken, if you are aware enough.

Growing up biracial—my father was white and my mother was black—I had an unconscious awareness of my darkness. I saw how my mom was treated very differently than my father within society. Colombia is as racist as other countries can be. We think that we are Spaniards and that we're white. I feel like the afrodescendants and Black people are just now awakening to the idea that they have to claim their space in society. Since I'm very immersed in American culture, I can see how behind we are in Colombia with our own process, which is extremely painful. That's one of the reasons I have decided not just as an actress, but as a filmmaker, to start telling the stories of black Latinas, because in a way, society has not just denied us a space, it's like we do not exist. We do not exist in storytelling, television, or film. So we need to start claiming our space and telling our own stories and forcing our way around because they're not gonna give it to us.

Monica Moore-Suriyage: Being affirmed in who you are is definitely a big theme for this film, La Ciguapa Siempre. Growing up, I was always confused about where I fit in. One culture being Asian, one culture being Dominican, Caribbean Black. Then also growing up with almost all white people. It's just like, who am I? Where do I fit? That's been a theme of a lot of my work because that's what I'm trying to figure out about myself. Even the person who is supposed to love me may not understand or is trying very hard to understand. That's something else I've experienced.

In the end, when [La Ciguapa] meets all these women who look just like her and were waiting for her. This is her family, where she belongs. Maybe in real life, it's not always so literal. But I do think you can find or create your own communities. You can seek people out who have similar life experiences and bond that way. So it was very liberating for me. We made this story where someone figures out where they're supposed to be. Maybe some people see that as a monster. But people in the community know what it's really about.

Shenny De Los Angeles: I think what was affirmed for me in the process was the power of forgiveness and the understanding that the women that came before you may pass down something that can be deemed as a generational curse. I know for me, my mother and my grandmother survived to give me the sense of liberation. There was one moment in The Ritual to Beauty where my mom said something that took me by surprise. She says, “It's too late for me, but thank God, my daughter found it early.” I think that what I can affirm or honor in that moment is that my mom is a representation of a lot of mothers who may be seeing their young children walking around with afros. Maybe they don't quite feel that they're ready or prepared or able to embody it. But the fact that we're doing it and claiming our blackness and celebrating and finding our joy in that, there is something that even if my mom can’t apply it to herself, she feels the freedom in me.

Christina Rodriguez: One of the things that drove me to focus on an immigrant story for Fuego is just the current climate towards immigration in Quebec. Manolo is a janitor and he is, in fact, judged in the film. But then all of a sudden, you see him singing and he's this amazing performer. The artist who wrote the song is from Cuba. He lives in Canada, and he's been here for many, many years: Giovanni Arteaga Valdez. It’s a song about overcoming your struggles, really a song of hope. People leave their country of origin to help their family back home. Manolo is doing this for his family back in Cuba. So there's that sense of affirmation. I feel like people come to Quebec, and they offer so much to society.

At the same time, I wanted to show that it's not all fun. There is a struggle for people who are new to this country, and finally, I wanted to have representation. So it was great to have Danny, the actor who plays Manolo. He's a great actor, lots of experience, and he's a great singer. So he's the ideal person to play the character of Manolo, although he's more Afro-Colombian. His dad was born in Cuba, so it's complicated, but he's more Afro-Colombian, than Afro-Cuban. But we got Giovanni and then he brought in these Cuban musicians to perform in the film. He had Cuban musicians who performed in the recording of the song. So it's also recognition for them to be seen in Montreal as a community that's there, that's thriving. And that people may not often think about.

On the importance of characters and subjects with natural hair

De Los Angeles: When I had done the one-woman show, [during] one of the feedback sessions I had with a mentor, he was like, “Your show isn't just about hair.” At the time, the show was about growing up with my mom relaxing my hair and only knowing that as my understanding of beauty. My relationship to self love was through that. When he saw the piece, he was like, “You need to go deeper.” And then in the process of creating the short film, I ended up cutting off all my hair. I realized that my relationship to blackness goes so much more beyond that. But I think for Afro-Latino folks, at the surface, it does start with your relationship with hair, because right there at the root is where we've been denied blackness, for a lot of us.

Rodriguez: [The Ritual to Beauty] really resonated with me because I didn't always have curly hair. When I was younger, I think it was through puberty, my hair just exploded and became afro. My mom is white and she would bring me to white hairdressers. One time this hairdresser blow dried my hair, and it was just huge, which is beautiful. But I was like 12 or 13, and surrounded by white people, they just stared at me and they might have thought it was nice. But I started crying because I was so self-conscious.. I think a lot of blackness does start with our hair. In Fuego, Manolo’s daughter is having a quinceañera and the mom asked, “Should we straighten her hair?” And I was like, "No, we're not." The whole point is about Afro-Latinx representation. So I wanted her to leave her hair curly. That was really important to me.

Moore-Suriyage: Hair is in all of our projects in a very special way. One of La Ciguapa's defining characteristics is the long beautiful, thick hair covering her body. That's the hair I always wished I had as a kid. So it was cool to put that on some people and all the actresses with the wigs. That was really fun. But when you grow up with mostly white people, like I did, they just don't understand. It is a lot when you're a kid. That’s also the background of my lead character, Milagro. She's adopted in the short, surrounded mostly by white people that just don't get what she's about.

PHLAFF 2022: Fuego