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Universal themes of resistance, identity centered in Chicago Latino Film Fest

"Black Mexicans" screens at 5:45 p.m. April 4 and 3:45 p.m. April 6 at the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

"Black Mexicans" screens at 5:45 p.m. April 4 and 3:45 p.m. April 6 at the Chicago Latino Film Festival. | ArtMattan Productions

When the Chicago Latino Film Festival began, there was the Cuban revolution.

Then came the wars in Central America and dictatorships in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil.

In its 35th year, cinema fans travel through Latin America’s stories of immigration, resistance, gender and race identity in the film festival’s tradition of taking a lead in inclusiveness and pushing forward the conversation on social issues.

“There’s been a lot of activism, a lot of bad things and some great things,” founder Pepe Vargas said. “And what does cinema do? Reflects that.”

This year, the festival’s curated dramas, comedies, documentaries and animations from all over South America, Central America and Mexico continue to push forward themes of social justice.

Chicago Latino Film Festival 
When: Through April 11
Where: AMC River East 21, 322. E Illinois
Info: chicagolatinofilmfestival.org

“Black Mexicans” addresses the global reality of discrimination and anti-blackness that exist in Mexico and throughout Latin America. In the film’s preview, one black woman is confronted with the question “No eres Mexicana verdad?” (“You’re not Mexican, right?”), an indication that the movie will illuminate the ways Afro-Latino’s identities are often questioned. The film is shot entirely in the beaches of Corralera in Oaxaca, featuring non-professional actors from nearby communities.

The popular, Oscar-winning film “Roma,” by Mexico’s Alfonso Cuarón, was a similar story of elevating the narratives of marginalized Mexican communities and highlighting the talent available — indigenous schoolteacher Yalitza Aparicio, from the Oaxacan town Tlaxiaco, rose to stardom for her performance.

“There are 27 million native people living in Mexico that are having a hard time,” Vargas said. “The powers that be, they can disregard them as not human. Same thing with black people — it’s a lot of oppression.”

Since Vargas founded the festival 35 years ago, he’s prioritized giving opportunities to new filmmakers and especially women. When curating the selections for the festival with a committee, he said he’s always considering elevating the voices of marginalized communities. 

“That is the difference with Hollywood: We have a lot of women making films. Women are in charge of the whole thing — not just an actress, but the creator,” Vargas said.

In one Colombian and Venezuelan film that screened earlier this week, “Being impossible/Yo, Imposible,” a young dressmaker discovers her family’s secret that she was born intersex and went through surgeries to make her into a woman. She’s confronted with this as an adult and must navigate her family’s expectations to marry and have a family, as well as society’s expectations that she conform to identify by gender as a woman.

And the stories of violent political regimes continue to be present at this year’s festival.

The documentary “Without Fear/Sin Miedo” uses drawings, interviews and photographs to tell the stories of victims disappeared during a brutal repression by Guatemala’s military dictatorship. It begins with a 1999 discovery of a diary with 200 names lost in the massacre that claimed thousands of indigenous peoples’ lives.

“We keep using cinema as a tool to raise awareness, to call attention, to let people know who we are,” Vargas said. “All of this is really the end result of having the mission to share our culture, because when people see who Latinos are, discrimination changes.”