Determined to challenge Hollywood's lack of diverse stories, Aurora Guerrero set out to make a film that reflected her own identity as a queer woman of color. The result is Mosquita y Mari a sensitive, bold, and thoughtful portrait of two teenage Chicanas whose budding friendship begins to slowly become something beyond just friends. For Guerrero, it's a personal story rooted in her own experience, "When looking back, long before I identified as queer, I realized my first love was one of my best friends. It was the type of friendship that was really tender and sweet and sexually charged but we never crossed that line."
In the film, set in Huntington Park, a predominantly Latino city just outside Los Angeles, Mari is a rebellious bad girl who is failing math. Straight-A student Yolanda -- who Mari nicknames Mosquita because she looks like, "a pinche mosquita" -- offers to tutor her. They hang out, ride bikes, swap music, and do homework. As they spend more and more time together their friendship subtly transforms, evoking that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling that only a first crush can. It's a beautifully told almost-love story set to the music of local ska bands, the melancholy vocals of Carla Morrison, and other genre-remixing Latino artists.
Mosquita y Mari premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and played in theaters last summer. I spoke with Guerrero just ahead of the film's digital release to talk about the challenges of making and distributing independent Latino films.
Though Latinos are making strides in other industries there is still a lack of Latino film directors. How did the idea of becoming a filmmaker come about? What do you think are the major obstacles keeping young Latinos from becoming filmmakers?
Guerrero: It's hard to grow up and not see yourself portrayed in realistic ways on film. From a young age I was really bothered by that. When I did see a film about Latinos I didn't recognize my experience at all. I actually wondered if those type of Latinos really existed because I didn't know anyone like that. For me becoming a filmmaker was about taking back my voice -- crafting stories that would move away from the problematic narratives that the studio system would put out about Latinos. I think this is why people like my films. They're refreshing. They feel more real.
As for major obstacles keeping young Latinos from becoming filmmakers, I think our communities are still coming into their identities as storytellers. It's such an important identity to reclaim -- it's how our ancestors kept our cultures alive. But a long history of silencing, invisibility, and marginalization has kept generations of Latinos from believing in themselves, from seeing themselves as agents of their own lives. I think there needs to be a focus on this aspect to help cultivate young Latinas to see themselves as cultural producers and defenders.
Raising money for a Latino film (or any film) is a challenge especially in this economy. What was your budget? If you could have raised additional money and had a bigger budget do you think your film would be much different than it is now?
Guerrero: We didn't have a big budget. We were at about 200K. Our funding was pieced together as we went along in the process. A very successful crowdfunding campaign (Kickstarter) got us into production and a series of grants we applied for during production got us through post-production. I think Mosquita y Mari could have benefited from a couple more days of shooting but it wouldn't have changed our budget or our final film significantly. Ultimately I feel like the budget we had pushed me and my collaborators to be as creative as possible. It also allowed me to keep the crew at a small size which felt manageable for me as a first-time feature filmmaker.
You've stated in a lot of interviews that the film was inspired by your own personal experience. What was the writing process like? Was it an emotional one since the story was so close to you?
Guerrero: It was definitely emotional. I was writing about feelings and experiences I had never talked about, particularly with my BFF at the time. But it wasn't a bad emotional process. It felt very liberating. I think that's what drove my process forward. What got complicated were all the other layers that I wanted to talk about. I had to figure out how to weave in other elements without taking away from the girls and their growing love for each other.
Are you still in touch with the woman whose friendship inspired this story? Did you ever worry what she might think about it?
Guerrero: Let's just say that I didn't make it for her. I made it for me.
The story is based upon the friendship of these two girls. The success of the film obviously hinged on casting the two leads. What was the selection process like?
Guerrero: Casting was intense, mainly because we had one month to find all our cast. But I was determined and hopeful that my girls were out there. I just had to somehow get the word out to them so they could find me and this movie. Between my casting director putting word out to managers and agents and organizing word-of-mouth community open casting calls we found our cast. I saw about 300 or more young Latina women for the leads and las cuatas. It was a really validating experience. I mean to be so specific in my breakdown, "Must speak both English and Spanish fluently. Must be open to story of two girls and their developing feelings for each other." It was amazing to get so many young women identifying with the breakdown and wanting to be part of this film. I think the hardest part was saying "no" to most of them. I had to be very picky. I had to find girls that not only identified with the story personally but that also had the chops to carry it on their shoulders. I was nervous going into the first day of shooting. I wondered if I had made the right choices, especially with only two days of rehearsal prior to shooting. But after our first day I remember thinking to myself, "these girls are really something special."
You grew up in the Bay (so did I) but most of your films take place in LA. What's the deal? As a San Francisco Bay Area native shouldn't you hate LA.? Why did you choose to set this specific story in Huntington Park as opposed to obvious choices like S.F. or East LA?
Guerrero: You're funny. I don't want to take away the fact that Los Angeles has been my muse ever since I moved there to attend film school, but I did originally set Mosquita y Mari in San Francisco's Mission District. After putting together an initial S.F. budget I quickly learned that I didn't have the means to shoot there. And I wasn't so married to having it be the Mission. I just really wanted it in an immigrant setting.
East LA has been played out so much on films. It's gotten to the point where people across the nation, and even the world, think East LA to be the only Latino community in California. Nothing against East LA, but I wanted to capture a community just west of East LA that had its own unique history and vibe. I want to bring Huntington Park out of the shadows.
Music is a big part of the story. In a lot of the scenes the characters play songs for each other and hang out listening to music. How did you choose the music?
Guerrero: I connect to specific music early on in my process of writing. I'm constantly on SoundCloud or Remezcla looking to see what new music is being produced by Latino artists. I'm not interested in producing soundtracks or scores that have been recycled in U.S. Latino films throughout the years. I'm looking for music that's cutting-edge and contemporary. That's how I see the worlds and characters that I put on screen so the music has got to somehow add to the texture of that world. Outside of the tracks I chose for the film I worked with a wonderful composer named Ryan Beveridge. When we started working together I remember emphasizing to him, "Please, no strumming guitars." I didn't want people to recognize the score. I wanted it to be specific to Mosquita y Mari. He was wonderful. I sent him bits of music I was hearing and I was sending him pictures of the neighborhood and he just ran with it. He created something really unique.
There is this beautiful moment in the film where Mosquita is riding on the back of Mari's bike and "Esta Soledad" by Carla Morrison is playing. There are close-ups of her face, of her hand gliding through the air; she looks so happy and free. The song is so sad and kinda dreamy. What made you choose it?
Guerrero: I believe love is bittersweet, especially young love. Carla Morrison, the score and the opening song are all meant to subtly bring that tone to the film. When I think of Carla Morrison's voice it feels haunting. Her music always stirs melancholic feelings of loss in me that end up lingering for days. For that specific scene I thought she was the perfect choice to juxtapose Mosquita's youthful excitement of feeling alive and in the world.
The word gay is never spoken in the film. The characters and setting are Latino but no one directly comments on being Latino, they just are. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
Guerrero: I think staying away from labels is what makes this film refreshing. Audiences are placed in Mosquita y Mari's world -- their world is Latino, Xicana, it is immigrant. They don't have to stop to remind themselves of it. They have grown up bi-cultural. It's their norm to go in and out of Spanish and English without having to point it out. It's how I was raised and I thought it was important to depict young people comfortable in their own skin and world. Mosquita y Mari's story is meant to capture the moments that maybe down the line, maybe in college, they will come to discover were their first moments of queerness.
Mosquita y Mari had its theatrical release last year. What lessons did you learn? What advice would you give to other Latino filmmakers about the distribution of Latino films?
Guerrero: My producer and I released the film ourselves. We didn't have a big budget at all to do this so our theatrical release was very very limited. I think I learned that to open in a city like Los Angeles and New York theater houses expect you to have a big marketing budget or they will pass on your film. We didn't budget accordingly because we were focusing our efforts on reaching our audiences via social media which wasn't going to cost us much. But I feel like social media is something that has yet to be considered a viable platform for marketing in the industry. I think my biggest advice to filmmakers is to look into the many digital platforms that exist for you and your team to distribute your film. A theatrical on a tight budget really only becomes about generating critical reviews for you and your film, not revenue.
Historically, Latino films have had a hard time at the box office. Why do you think Latino films haven't vibed with Latino film-goers in the past?
Guerrero: It's interesting. I believe in Mexico there's a big culture of moviegoing, both studio and indie. I think here in the U.S. that's not the case because Latino communities don't have access to indie films. If you go into communities of color you will only find the big theater chains which only play the blockbuster genre films. So how else does our community find out about independent film? Is it talked about in their schools? Is it written about in their local Spanish speaking papers? Are the art house theaters hard to get to? I think social media is starting to close this gap when it comes to learning about films like Mosquita y Mari and Netflix is making them more attainable, but even then I think there is a "deprogramming" that needs to happen so Latino audiences not used to watching indie films can appreciate more nontraditional narrative films.
What's next for you? Any new projects?
Guerrero: Right now I'm developing my second feature film, Los Valientes. It's about a gay, undocumented immigrant who finds himself caught in a web of deceit when the small, working-class town he and his family live in purposes its own anti-immigration law. Since I'm not personally undocumented I approached two groups, DreamActivists PA in Pennsylvania and Dreamers Adrift/Culture Strike in the Bay Area, about becoming Los Valientes community partners. They've all agreed, thankfully! Together we're creating a path to ensure a mutual exchange of knowledge happens between the film and the undocumented communities the film will be set in, which in this case are San Francisco and certain parts of Pennsylvania. We'll be launching a website for the new project soon and we're hoping the fan base we've built around Mosquita y Mari will be excited to follow this new project. In the meantime, we ask people to Like our Mosquita y Mari Facebook page where we've been posting all our recent good news, like the screenwriting and development grants that KRF/SFFS and Tribeca recently awarded Los Valientes.
Mosquita y Mari will be available May 7 on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and Vudu and June 8 on DVD.