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November 7, 2013

Host: José Cárdenas

John J. Valadez

  |   Video
  • Filmmaker John J. Valadez talks about his award winning films, "Prejudice and Pride" and “War and Peace." Both films were part of the PBS documentary series Latino Americans.
  • John J. Valadez - Filmmaker
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: filmaker,

View Transcript
José Cárdenas: Thank you for joining us. Filmmaker John J. Valadez has been writing, producing and directing award-winning nationally broadcast documentaries for PBS and CNN for the past 18 years. This weekend Valadez was in Arizona screening two of his Latino documentary films, "Prejudice and Pride" and "War and Peace," for ASU's Comparative Border Studies Initiative. Both of these films were part of the PBS documentary series "Latino Americans." We'll talk to John Valadez in a moment. First here's a short trailer of one of the films, "War and Peace."

War and Peace Clip:
In the early 1940s, while serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, Charles Wheeler heard unlikely news about a new officer.

Charles Wheeler: I heard about one of our new pilots that come aboard ship, and he was a Mexican boy. And I thought, I ain't believing that.

Wheeler, too, had Mexican ancestry but had never seen a Mexican-American pilot until he met Ensign Manuel Gonzalez they soon grew close.

Charles Wheeler: We bonded over our Mexican background and it was like having a new friend.

José Cárdenas: Joining me now is award winning filmmaker John J. Valadez. John, welcome to "Horizonte."

John J. Valadez: Hey, thank you for having me.

José Cárdenas: When we say you've been at this for a while and produced a number of award-winning films, your first was also an award winner. Tell us a little bit about that one.

John J. Valadez: Well, when I was in film school it was my student project. I started making a film about a guy in upstate New York who had been in prison for 19 years, eight of those in solitary confinement, and he was claiming he had been framed by the FBI, that the FBI during the 1960s and 70s had a secret program called the Counter Intelligence Program that was aimed at destroying political dissent in the United States. I started making a film about this guy while he was in prison. In the middle of making it, me and the other students making this film, he gets released because the prosecutorial misconduct in his case. He walks out a free man after 19 years. Essentially, the judge was saying yeah, there was monkey business in his case and he was wrongly convicted. This was the epic story of his life, how he ended up in prison, what happened to him, about the secret government program. The film went on to receive a prime time national broadcast on the PBS series, “POV,” and was nominated for an Emmy.

José Cárdenas: And he was a Black Panther.

John J. Valadez: Yeah.

José Cárdenas: Now, one way or another most of your work has had to do with political, controversial topics, including the two films we're going talk about that aired this week or were screened this week at ASU. Let's talk about the first one.

John J. Valadez: Yeah so. Which one?

José Cárdenas: "War and Peace."

John J. Valadez: "War and Peace." "War and Peace" really tells the story of Latinos in World War II, how half a million Latinos fought during that war, how they were the most decorated ethnic group of any in the entire country during World War II. How they fault in every major battle, whether it was Iwo Jima or the Bataan Death March, storming the beaches of Normandy, facing down Rommel in North Africa, liberating concentration camps. Yet when they returned back home the United States was still a segregated country. They had to go to Mexican schools; they were segregated from restaurants, public facilities. For many Mexican-Americans they could not get access because of the bigotry at the time of the GI Bill. That great program that brought millions of Americans to the working class to the middle class; got them into college, got them into homes in the suburbs and Mexican-Americans for the most part were left behind.

José Cárdenas: And the film covers both their contributions during the war and their treatment afterwards.

John J. Valadez: Yeah. And I think what it is really is that after fighting and bleeding and in some cases dying for this country, they expected to be treated like other Americans. So there was a war abroad against fascism, but then there became a second war at home against scrim nation and bigotry here our own country.

José Cárdenas: We discussed the Ken Burns series of a few years ago about World War II. You said this was not intended to a response to that but certainly highlights the oversight of the contributions Latinos made.

John J. Valadez: I think oversight is a kind word. Ken Burns did a multipart series, 12 hours or something, right? That purported to tell the story of the Greatest Generation, the nation at war and what we went through as a country. Yet when he came out with the series there were no Latinos included in that, even though half a million of us fought. And it was not an oversight so much. That's one way of putting it. But on some level in some way we were excluded, we were cut out, we were not counted. We were not brought into the fold as part of the American narrative, and it's not just Ken Burns. American broadcast television began back in 1939, that’s before World War II. We had broadcast television for over 74 years and it isn't until PBS did this series, "Latino Americans," that the story of Latinos and their participation in this greater American drama has been told on national television. And you know, I don't know how you grew up, but when I grew up there was -- I don't think I ever heard of a Latino in the history books when I was in elementary or middle school or high school. It was as though our contributions didn't matter, as though we were somehow foreign, as though we were not part of the American experience.

José Cárdenas: Before we talk about the other film did you for this series, "Prejudice and Pride," let's talk about the series itself. Do you think it tells the story that's needed to be told?

John J. Valadez: Oh, absolutely. I think we did a great job. The series is six hours. It begins basically before the U.S.-Mexico war when a huge swath of the United States, Arizona included, was actually part of Mexico.

José Cárdenas: 1846-1848.

John J. Valadez: Right, the Mexican-American war of 1848. It starts prior to that. So when I was growing up, we were taught history as an east-west enterprise. There were a string of colonies on the East Coast and they gradually moved westward and that was the westward expansion, manifest destiny and that was the story of America. But there are other ways of envisioning the past. And to look at how Latinos lived in this land, right, Arizona, Texas, California, and then how we were incorporated into the United States, is -- is a really riveting saga of who we are. And it adds more nuance and complexity to the American experience. It's one heck of a good story.

José Cárdenas: Before we get into detail on your other film, give us a brief overview of the other four films that are part of the series.

John J. Valadez: The first is really before the U.S.-Mexico war, and then talks about the U.S.-Mexico war and its aftermath. The next film kind of goes -- we go to the eastern seaboard more or less and talk about Cubans and Puerto Ricans, and the legacy of colonialism and the relationship with the Caribbean. Then the next film, which would be our three, is -- Well, is this film about World War II. Then our four, we hop back over hour four to the East Coast and again talk about Puerto Ricans and Cubans, but pick them up in the 1950s and the 1960s. Then we hop back over and talk about the Chicano movement of the 1960s and 70s.

José Cárdenas: Which is your film.

John J. Valadez: Yes. And the final film is really about I guess what I would call them great migration during the 1980s and 1990s, this country saw the largest influx of immigrants in the nation's history, about 22 million people came into the country mostly from Latin America. It items that story and its relationship to the Cold War, becoming American, and how the demographic shift begins and the reshaping of the American soul as we move into the 21st century.

José Cárdenas: What kind of reception has the series receive from the public at large?

John J. Valadez: Well, I've done about 40 screenings across the country. Mostly in the southwest. And I'll tell you, they have been phenomenal, they have been really phenomenal. You know, the series is not something -- I mean, you know, you look at the history of Latinos in this country and at times it is painful. At times it is agonizing. At times it is ugly. But at times it's beautiful and it's something to be really proud of. And I think what it reveals is that Latinos are like everybody else that, we hold in common the bonds of what it means to be American, a belief in democracy.

José Cárdenas: And I assume everything you just said applies, if not as strongly, maybe even more strongly to your second film, "Prejudice and Pride," the story of the Chicano movement.

John J. Valadez: Absolutely, the story of the Chicano movement, at least in my telling, is really a story of the people who exist on the ragged periphery of American society. In 1960, right, the median level of education for Mexican-Americans in this country was just eight years, okay? And when we talk about -- we open with the farm workers' struggle in California. Remember, in the early 1960s the average life expectancy for a migrant field worker in California was 49 years, okay? And the vast majority of those people could neither read nor write. You're talking about people who are really marginalized in a very, very brutal way. It's the story of these folks who were on the ragged edge of society, and how they fight their way, within the system, right? -- fight their way so that they can get closer to the center of power, so they can redefine what it means to be American, and so that they can gain their civil rights in full participation in American society. It's an extraordinary and beautiful -- beautiful story.

José Cárdenas: It's also the story of the rising consciousness among college students, Chicanos and college students and the birth of the Chicano movement.

John J. Valadez: I had a revelation when I was making the film. The film was dedicated to Saul Castro who led the student walkouts in Los Angeles. When I was making the film -- I have a large library of books, I'm an avid reader. I was reading a book one day, thinking about Mexican-American history and trying to figure out how do I make this film, right? It just occurred to me, what year was this book published? I flipped to the beginning and it was 1972. I put the book down and grabbed another one and it was 1980 and I grabbed another one 1996, grabbed another one 2004. Every book with a few exceptions but very few, every book on my entire shelf about Mexican-American history was written after 1968. Before 1968 there were almost no books that chronicled the experience of Mexican-Americans in this country.

José Cárdenas: So you think that was the result of the Chicano movement bringing attention to this history?

John J. Valadez: Well, not just attention, because what happened was those students walked out of schools in California, in Arizona, in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, right? They walked out and demanded, number one, they get the same quality education white students were getting. They also demanded more Mexican-American teachers. But their third demand -- this is the key one -- they wanted the experience of Mexican-Americans to be incorporated into the curriculum. What they found out was there were no books. So those students graduated from high school, they went to colleges, right, and they founded over 160 Mexican-American, Chicano, ethnic programs across the country. They went into the archives, they did the research, they talked to the old people and they wrote the history. And they began to construct the story and weave the experience of Mexican-Americans into that grand story of America. And that was a gift not to Mexican-Americans; it was a gift for this country. Because Mexican-American history is American history. We are one and the same, we're bound together in a way that is inextricable and can never be unbound. They gave us a more nuanced and complex and complete understanding of who we are as a people.

José Cárdenas: And do the films that you've been screening. And will be screening this week at ASU and other places. John Valadez, thank you so much for joining us to talk bit, much appreciated.

Performance in the Borderlands

  |   Video
  • Performance in the Borderlands is a community partnership in the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. Performance in the Borderlands producing director and ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre lecturer Mary Stephens, and ASU School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies assistant professor and Entre Nosotras co-founder Michelle Tellez talk about this project.
  • Mary Stephens - Producing Director, Performance in the Borderlands
  • Michelle Tellez - Co-founder, Entre Nosotras
Category: The Arts   |   Keywords: ASU, performance,

View Transcript
José Cárdenas: "Performance in the Borderlands" is a community partnership in the ASU Herberger School of Design and the Arts and the school of Film, Dance and Theatre. Hear to talk about this project and an event coming up dedicated to music and dialogue is Mary Stephens, a producing director for "Performance in the Borderlands," and a lecturer for the ASU school of Film, Dance and Theatre. Here also is Dr. Michelle Tellez, co-founder of the "Entre Nosotros" group. She's an assistant professor in the ASU School for Humanities, Arts and Culture Studies. We just finished talking to John J. Valadez, part of a PBS series that tells the story of Mexican-Americans. It just seems so appropriate to have you guys on to talk about how that story is still going on. Michelle, give us a little bit of a sense of "Performance in the Borderlands." I'm sorry, Dr. Philips -- Stephens, rather. There’s a Mary Phillips that I have in my head, Mary Stephens. But a sense of “Performance in the Borderlands” and what you're trying to accomplish with that.

Mary Stephens: So “Performance in the Borderlands” is a tiny initiative in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. We focus on bringing performance and politics or social themes together out in communities in Phoenix, as a way to really address what's happening here, not only in Phoenix and Arizona broadly but looking at the rest of the nation and globally, what's happening around Borders. A lot of our programming has to do with curating international, national and local artists who come together to talk about and to show work addressing political themes in some way.

José Cárdenas: And when you say out in the communities that’s a key component of change, from where the program was focused before. It's been in existence since 2004 but more recently you really are going out into the community.

Mary Stephens: In the last two years we've moved the programming off of campus and brought it into different communities in Arizona and Tucson. That was really an initiative and gesture toward believing there are other cultural producers of knowledge that we need to be working with. It isn't just one way. It isn’t just come to the University to experience these great artists and knowledge producers. But what local people do we have that are already doing this work that we can work with and learn from as University professors, students and faculty in some way. Bringing national and international artists into critical proximity with local artists to talk about these issues and work together has been a major part of this kind of difference in the last two years. What we've found that is our audiences; we can't get them not to come. I can't tell you, sometimes I hope only 20 people will come, I'm a little tired, and we have 100 people coming to events Tuesday nights, to talk about these issues. I think the reason performance is important is because, you know, in general -- and I don't know how you feel, Michelle about this, but art is about destabilizing the family or making the familiar strange to us.

José Cárdenas: We will talk about some of those events where you have done exactly that, Mary. Before we do that, Dr. Tellez tells us a little about “Entre Nosotras.” It’s relatively new.

Michelle Tellez: Absolutely, thank you. “Entre Nosotras” is a collaboration between students –

José Cárdenas: Literally meaning between us, between women.

Michelle Tellez: Yes, absolutely. It's between students, faculty members across the campuses, sort of embodying that idea; one university in many places. And we created this; it was born out a little bit by one of my classes, Gender in the Borderlands. We decided we really wanted to speak that pertained to the Chicano-Latino transnational community. Talk about issues but bring them into conversation in different mediums. To have the lectures but to bring films, bring artists and musicians, and in that way talk about the same issues that maybe you'll read in a text, but instead create dialogue, listen to music, talk about stories through a song. So that's been the idea. Over a year I think we've been pretty successful. We're barely starting, we're autonomous in some ways, we’re part of the University and work on the campuses. But really the idea is to bridge the academy with the community.

José Cárdenas: You’ve got a really neat event coming up we’re going to talk about in that some detail. Before we do that, Mary, some of the events you've done, we've got some pictures of them. One of them is this Desierto Remix; we'll have that on the screen in a second. Tell us about this; it’s a very striking photo.

Mary Stephens: It is a beautiful photo, it was an amazing event. The Desierto Remix was a collaboration with Cassandra Hernandez and The Deer Valley Rock Art Center. It was in the North valley, about 25 miles north of Phoenix. We were working with a group of Columbian street artists, a group of 14 still the-walkers that use performance to get into this conversation around people that have died before us through things like genocide, and bringing them here and placing them on a Native American psyched site of migration. So there's rock art all over the Deer Valley. Seeing this work as they are walking through the desert following a group called Nemcatacoa on stilts. You can see from the image they are in this white, kind of ghostly costume. On the sacred site, which in some ways has a lot of resonance with people that have come before us, genocide, where do we go next? And then as we’re walking through, remembering we are in this desert place, and what does it mean to be desert dwellers in 2013. How are we sustainable now, how do we treat the past, the present, where is our future going. Showing almost 250 people came out to a fairly unknown place to see this work.

José Cárdenas: We've got a couple of other pictures to get up quickly; one is “Breaking Boundaries.”

Mary Stephens: Yeah, this is “Breaking Boundaries.” Again, coproduced with a dear friend and colleague, Cassandra Hernandez. This was a panel discussion about arts and social engagement, again 250 people at Phoenix Center for the Arts, again bringing it off of campus into communities to have an interesting and dynamic conversation. One of the things about "Performance in the Borderlands" that's very important, we really take diversity at all levels of our curation very, very serious. We look at race and sexuality and gender and class in terms of who participates.

José Cárdenas: We have another series that focuses on a very local issue in one sense; band, “Plays.”

Mary Stephens: This is the band, “Plays,” and it's at the Phoenix Hospital and Cultural Center where it's usually housed, and that’s right in downtown Phoenix, not too far from this building. We decided that we needed a response to what was happening in Tucson, and not necessarily to protest what was happening but how can we come together around bannings of some kind. And we curated a series called, “The Band Plays.” We work with local artists and leaders, nonreaders, to come together to read plays. And again we have 100 people at play readings on Tuesdays nights.

José Cárdenas: And Dr. Tellez, you're hoping to have a good crowd for something that’s coming up the weekend of the 15th or so, tell us about that. It’s three nights of program.

Michelle Tellez: Yes, we are very excited about this. It's the week of Chicana artivism, so we're going to be having a lecture Thursday evening at the West campus by Dr. Micaela Díaz-Sanchez. She’s going to be really thinking through the historiography, gender dynamics around performance. And then on Friday evening we will be bringing out the band, “Entre Mujeres.” Dr. Martha Gonzalez, she just actually finished her Ph.D. as well at the University of Washington. She created this project out of I think trance-local dialogues is what she calls it. Out of conversation and musical engagement --

José Cárdenas: We’re almost out of time. Tell us about the third day.

Michelle Tellez: On Saturday morning there will be a workshop at Tonatierra and it’s going to be a community workshop where we engage in Fandango practices in music and collective song-writing. We're very excited to bring out ideas where community members will participate in this three-day series.

José Cárdenas: These are all very exciting events; a very impressive series for "Performance in the Borderlands." We’ll have you both back to talk greater length about both of these. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mary Stephens & Michelle Tellez: Thank you.