Ole! Pepe Vargas’ Latino Film Fest scores 30 years

The 30th Chicago Latino Film Festival, April 3-17 will showcase 74 features and 42 shorts, including three from Chicago directors, plus 11 Latino films that are Foreign Language Oscar winners or nominees.

CLFF is considered to be the biggest, most comprehensive and best Latino film festival in the US.  Films come from Central and South America, Spain, Portugal, the US and the Caribbean and play to a diverse audience of 60% Latino and 40% non-Latino.

Pepe Vargas, founder and executive director of nonprofit International Cultural Center of Chicago, the film festival produc er, has reigned over the Chicago Latino Film Festival since 1985.  He staged two festivals that year, so this year’s is the 30th annual one.

Fest founder Pepe VargasHe has watched it grow from a $10,000 event with movies shown on a brick wall at St. Augustine College to the $1.5 million event expected to draw 40,000 people this year, April 3-17 at the AMC River East Theatre.  

In its first three years, festival at tendance soared from 500 to 5,000. Last year, Vargas said 35,000 people attended the movies. “Film has the power to enlighten and educate,” said Vargas. “Once we know who we are, we can look at each other at eye level, not up and down.”

By touching people’s hearts and souls, he said, the 30 festivals would have changed discriminate perceptions and fostered a better community.

As a teenager, he left his family in the impoverished Columbia countryside and eventually landed in Argentina, where he received a law degree.  In 1980, he arrived in the United States via Mexico on a six-month visa.

He overstayed his visa, working as an illegal immigrant in low level jobs where, he said, “I was treated like a slave, just a piece of junk.” His demeaning positions propelled him to enroll in Columbia College, where his love of film blossomed. Under a 1986 Congressional amnesty act, Vargas was granted amnesty in 1987 and citizenship in 1992.

With help, while in the US illegally, he inaugurated the first Chicago Latino Film Festival in 1985. Two festivals were celebrated in one year, making this year’s festival the 30th.

Three Chicago-made films to screen

The Opening Night Gala: Night of Argentina is the premiere of Hernan Findling and Oliver Kolker’s film “Tango Glories (Fermin).”  The reception follows at the Embassy Suites Hotel next door to the theatre.

Three Chicago-made films are among the presentation:

“My Princess”, a 118-minute drama, directed by Carlos Jimenez Flores, was shot in Chicago and Puerto Rico in English and Spanish; an idyllic story about fatherhood, responsibility and tradition.

“Albert,” described as a raunchy 20-minute comedy, was directed in English by Chicago comedian and actor Alonzo Alcaraz. 

“For Love of Mom,” a 27-minute documentary in English, was co-directed by Yamit Fuentes and Mike Flores, produced by stand-up comedian and music promoter Mike Oquendo.  It’s about how two mothers coped with the news that their children were a victim of Chicago gun violence.

The Oscar films will screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The Latino festival is supported by corporate sponsors, foundations, governments and nonprofits: the Illinois Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Dept. of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Illinois Tourism.

Pulitzer Prize writer Margo Huston lives in Chicago. Email huston.margo@ymail.com