Mujeres Making Movies

By Almah LaVon Rice Jul 23, 2007

Two stray dogs in Vieques, Puerto Rico were responsible for the naming of Chica Luna Productions. There alone working on a documentary about the U.S. military occupation of Vieques, cofounder Elisha Miranda befriended and adopted the canine pair, which were named Chica and Luna. “Chica luna,” or “girl moon,” also sounded like a good name for the women of color artists’ collective that she was launching with friends Sonia Gonzalez and Sofía Quintero. “I thought that would be a really interesting name,” Miranda recalls. “We’re women that howl at the moon.” And how apt for “artivists” who use their voices to challenge stereotypical images of women of color.

But before Chica Luna Productions became a reality, it was a longing.  Miranda was studying screenwriting and directing at Columbia University and feeling alone in her commitment to using popular media to advance social justice. “I found myself really alienated in film school and especially politically,” remembers Miranda, a San Francisco native. “I was informed that film was a business, and I needed to make money—who cares about a queer Latina girl in the Mission?” But one evening she heard Quintero read from her screenplay,  Interstates, and Miranda knew that she had found a kindred spirit. After the reading, Miranda went up to hug Quintero, and the next day they were on the phone for four hours, setting the stage for what would become Chica Luna. Both of them had extensive activist backgrounds, and thanks to what Miranda calls a “creative recovery in our late 20s,” they sought to integrate their passion for social change with their identities as multimedia artists. They found yet another compañera in film editor, writer, and director Sonia Gonzalez, who is also the founder of Latinos for Positive Images, advocates for fair media representations of Latinos.

Chica Luna’s signature program has become the F-Word, a multimedia justice project in New York City for 16-25-year-olds across the racial, sexual, economic, and linguistic spectrum. For five months, the young women learn about screenwriting, directing, producing, cinematography, editing, and working with actors, as well as media activism, including challenging one-dimensional depictions of their communities. They also write, direct, and edit their own short films, some of which are showcased at Chica Luna’s annual short film festival.

The “f-word,” of course, is feminism. Miranda, a 38-year-old Puerto Rican, recounts being told by a student: “I ain’t a feminist—feminists are white women.” Part of the F-Word’s purpose is to re-imagine feminism by boosting media literacy skills and sisterhood among the participants. For example, instructors point out the internalized sexism dramatized when women compete for a man in a film. They also urge students to pay attention to who gets the most camera time and why, and to watch for caricatures like “the hot tamale Latina” and “the angry Black woman.”     

Another major program is Jotaria, which means “queerness” in Spanish. “We call it a hip-hop cabaret,” says Miranda, “where we flip the script on a lot of stereotypes and misinformation about queer people.” Sparked by the slaying of transgender teen Gwen Araujo in 2002, Jotaria is a multimedia theatre lab employing hip-hop, film, music, and the Internet to create interactive, community-building experiences. After opening in New York in October, the program will reach out to audiences across the country.

Visual art exhibits, artistic workshops, and an upcoming anthology are part of Chica Luna’s endeavors, as well. The anthology came about, Miranda reports, because of a young woman who said that she didn’t see a lot of writing that mirrored her experience as a Bronx-born Boricua . So a gathering of voices was convened in print to address such gaps in reflection and representation.

“It is still a bit of a challenge to complicate [some people’s] thinking about what social change work can look like, especially in the area of media,” Quintero notes. She says that such productions are extensions of her policy work. Before she became a full-time artist, Quintero, 37, was a policy analyst and advocate. Defending multicultural education and fighting police brutality were among the Dominicana- Puertoriqueña’s varied crusades, which included grassroots activism in her leisure time. “Part of my policy work gave me some of the stories that I wanted to tell,” she notes. “There had to be a way to use popular culture to get the everyday person to rethink what they take for granted.”

Gonzalez, Quintero, and Miranda have done just that.  The Puertoriqueña Gonzalez directed the comedy Debutante and has many film editing credits. Under nom de plume Black Artemis, Quintero has published Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn, a pioneering series of feminist hip-hop novels. In addition to the aforementioned Interstates, other screenplays of Quintero’s include “M.L.B.” (the “B” doesn’t stand for “baseball”), which tells the story of an unruly woman who integrates the New York Yankees. And under the name of E-Fierce, Miranda has released The Sistahood: On the Mic, a novel about an all-female, multiracial hip-hop crew.

All three women have garnered distinctions for their work, but they are clear that the vision behind Chica Luna Productions is bigger than their individual projects and accomplishments. “We [wanted to] create this space for other women of color so that we’re not the only women of color or the only queer women of color on the set,” Miranda explains.

Confronting the marginalization of women of color in mainstream and independent media is also part of the purpose of Chica Luna’s media justice curriculum.  It’s intended to help women of color in deconstructing images and implementing specific advocacy strategies within their own communities. One such workshop was a “Hustle and Flow Remix” in which the film was edited so that all of the scenes of each couple were shown consecutively. “What becomes very obvious when you see the film remixed that way is how much Hustle and Flow is basically Cinderella in blackface,” reflects Quintero. “Women don’t have dreams, and women don’t have to have dreams as long as they attach themselves to men that have dreams.”

For all of the emphasis on improving social conditions through art, how does one avoid being merely polemical?

“My first drafts of everything are always very didactic,” laughs Quintero. But she challenges the widely held belief that a creative work “can’t be about something and also be tight.” Quintero continues, “We believe that you can make a film that is aesthetically pleasing, professionally crafted, socially viable, and commercially successful.” She adds, “One way to know that you can work on your craft and not lose your message is by staying engaged in the struggle.” Establishing a community-based studio in El Barrio, New York underlines Chica Luna’s mission to stay engaged and remain relevant. “We had a choice to go to midtown for free, and we’re like, ‘no, our commitment is to being in the community,’” says Miranda. “A lot of times artists become so far removed from their community—you get a little access, you move away.” And staying in the community makes accountability more likely. “We get checked, too,” she adds.

In terms of building a community of collaboration, the founders—now board members—practice what they preach. Together, Miranda, Quintero, and Gonzalez created an award-winning short, Corporate Dawgs.  Miranda and Quintero started Sister Outsider Entertainment in the spirit of solidarity and mentorship, as well. The urban media company was established “because we realized that we created Chica Luna, but then what do these young women plug into? It’s hard to find jobs.” Quintero says that their initiatives defy conventional wisdom about “keepin’ it real and if what is ‘real’ has to be that way.” She explains, “It requires some new thinking about how to do business. They want women like us to compete with each other. So when Elisha gets her film made, I can forget about getting my film made because ‘we have our Latina project for the year.’” But as Quintero tells the F-Word participants, “You’ll have [a better] chance…to get all your films made if you have each other’s back rather than competing with each other for the little bit of resources they throw your way as women of color.”

These sister visionaries say that they are compelled to keep howling at the moon, for the sake of past and coming generations. “We don’t want to be the last ones doing it…there are people before us who did it, we’re doing it now, and we want to swell the ranks. The movement needs a serious recruitment drive, because the same 50 people are doing all of the work, and it’s not working for us,” Quintero maintains.

Miranda adds, “With the BETs out there and our folks engaging in very corporate media, perpetuating certain visions and silencing other voices, we have no choice. We have to seize the power of popular media if we’re going to start effecting social change. We definitely believe that this is democracy-building work.”

LaVon Rice is a freelance writer in New Mexico.