Chi Latino Fest’s Vargas on cinema, culture, and the wall

Pepe Vargas

Pepe Vargas

Over the past five decades, Pepe Vargas has lived on two continents, fled a military dictatorship, earned a law degree, worked as a busboy, and founded the Chicago Latino Film Festival (CLFF) and the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago (ILCC).

Along the way, he not only learned to appreciate multiculturalism, art, and politics, but also developed a knack for overcoming “the goliath of ignorance” that lurks in the world today.

“I know what discrimination is because I have been discriminated against,” he explains. “As an immigrant and a lawyer who didn’t speak English, I worked in a restaurant… But I did not suffer it. I was armed with an education that allowed me to understand.”

The CLFF began in 1985 with 14 films selected to help counter that ignorance. Today, it is a massive cultural event that screens more than a 100 feature-length films and shorts from Latin America, Spain, Portugal, Canada, and the United States.




When Vargas was young, he moved from Colombia to Argentina with only $15, attended the National University of Buenos Aires, and became a lawyer. But after a CIA-sponsored dictatorship usurped power in the late 1970s, his situation became precarious.

The Argentine military tortured, killed, and kidnapped tens of thousands of people who did not support the coup d’état. Due to Vargas’ education and work with trade unions, it considered him to be “just too dangerous.”

One Argentinian film at the 34th CLFF, Symphony for Ana, addresses this moment in history. It screens on April 11th and April 14th.

“So I think I did the right move,” he says. “(I) got out of there before I was dead.”

With help from the Panamanian Embassy, Vargas stowed away on a cargo ship and returned to Colombia. There, he worked for a few years before relocating to Mexico and, in the early 80s, immigrated to the United States on a tourist visa. When the tourist visa expired, Vargas stayed.

Chicago — The Early Years

Although a lawyer, Vargas worked as a busboy in a restaurant and began majoring in Broadcast Journalism at Columbia College Chicago. During this time, he grew further convinced that people are prejudiced only when they “lack this understanding, knowledge, and appreciation for all of the different cultures.”

“People do not discriminate us because they are bad, (but because) they do not know who we are,” he says.

Vargas held numerous jobs to finance his education, but working in a restaurant with more than a dozen Mexican immigrants was a “transformative experience” that inspired him to “make a difference.” At the same time, he began to grasp “the power of cinema to transform and create an awareness that makes people realize they are wrong.”


Now, with his work at the CLFF and the ILCC, Vargas states that he is “absolutely convinced that he is making a difference.” His belief that knowledge and the arts have the ability to transform culture heavily motivates him in these roles.

Vargas acknowledges his unique position and “takes that responsibility very seriously… because the quest is huge – transforming this society and making it more acceptable.” He is not intimidated by the challenges facing immigrants and the Latino community today, but remains confident in art, knowledge, and culture’s capability to continue to flow and prosper.

Also Read: Latino film fest poster is an artistic breakthrough

Regarding the border wall featured in the poster for the 34th Chicago Latino Film Festival, Vargas remarks, “if it is built, it will be broken. That is what the poster shows … nothing whatsoever can stop the flow of ideas.”

“That is what happened with the Berlin Wall,” he continues. “It doesn’t exist anymore … Build it! We will break it!”

Pepe Vargas’ life and work is a grand example of the flow of ideas across cultures. His remarkable confidence in his own abilities and his commitment to the mission of accurately representing Latino culture has left a lasting legacy on Chicago, the international Latino community, and cinema.

From April 5th through April 19th, the 34th Chicago Latino Film Festival will screen hundreds of movies at AMC River East. For more information and screening times, click here.

 Contact Joey Filer at or follow him on Twitter @FilerJoey.