The 24th Annual Chicago Latino Film Festival included the Chicago premiere of Tal Como Somos ( Just As We Are ) , an eye-opening documentary that follows the lives of six Latino gay and bisexual men across the country ( including a Chicago couple ) and a transgender woman.
Jesus Ramirez-Valles, the executive producer of the film, and Judith McCray, the movie's director-producer, are both Chicago residents. Ramirez-Valles, an associate professor of public health at the Univesity of Illinois at Chicago, conducted research on the impact of HIV/AIDS and the stigmatization of Latino GLBT persons within their own community that forms the basis of Tal Como Somos. Windy City Times spoke with Ramirez-Valles about the project.
Windy City Times: What started you on this long journey from research to a movie?
Jesus Ramirez-Valles: I grew up in Mexico and I started working on HIV/AIDS pretty much as soon as I came out of college, which was when I was coming out myself. I started working as a community organizer coordinating mass media for public campaigns and then I came here to the States and started working on HVI/AIDS and GLBT issues. I became a researcher; I'm a professor and my work has been on things like substance abuse, high-risk behavior—among gay Latino men in particular—and this latest study became a book. I collected life stories from Latino gay men in San Francisco and in Chicago, and I was planning the manuscript for academic uses but I had a bit of a crisis and thought, 'Who cares about this stuff? Who's going to read this stuff?' I was in the midst of that, and then during a flight to a conference with a colleague of mine that changed. She was asking me about the book and then suggested I try to adapt it into a play and then we both said, 'No, it should be a film.'
I have the film background from working in mass communication in Mexico so it seemed a natural. So the idea clicked—that was in 2004. Then I started looking into ways to pull the idea together. I knew I could sell it as a tool for educators and for a larger audience and I applied to the NIH for funding and looked for a production company and chose Judy McCray's production company and we got the grant, and here we are.
WCT: I'm assuming you've experienced the prejudice that some of the individuals in the film have experienced, is that correct?
JRV: Yes. I can see many pieces of my life in the film. I hope the larger audience can also find a little bit of themselves in the individuals like I do.
WCT: That resonates with all gay people, that prejudice—I don't care what your ethnicity is or beliefs.
JRV: Yes, that is true. I'm also an immigrant like many of the people in the film and I have this connection with them. It was like seeing parts of my life over.
WCT: Does being an immigrant add another level about your anxiety? Being in an adopted country, part of a minority and being gay?
JRV: I think it can play different ways—it depends on your status. Many Latino gay men have come to this country because they want to get away from the stigma they experience in their home country. They're not running away from their country; they're running away from their families and their homes. So here they find comfort in the anonymity. You can be pretty much who you want to be here. People are looking not only for a safe place in gender terms but in financial terms. Transgendered people, especially, have a lower status and are tremendously marginalized and have few options for jobs, which leads to sex work and substance abuse and it just gets pretty tough. The farther you get from the gender norms the higher the price you pay. But, yes, it's probably another issue for undocumented immigrants.
WCT: Why is prejudice for LGBT people so prevalent in the Latino community? Is it because of the stereotypical 'macho' culture? Have some of those stereotypes become outmoded?
JRV: I think it's pervasive in all societies. I have lived as a gay man here in the States pretty much, but I've visited Mexico many times and you go to Vallarta and you think you are in Key West—it's very open there, and in Mexico City you can register as a gay couple. As a society at large, there have been changes but the stigma is certainly still there. I think [ that is ] because Latino culture is so collectively oriented—we are oriented to peers, to our family, to our extended families, we are very close to them—and the United States seems to have more of a culture of individualism. I think that, for us, it's part of the struggle because, I mean, how do you run away? It's very difficult to run away from your family and your friends because they are the closest part of your life but often that's where the stigma is coming from. Also, we are culturally Catholics—more than by denomination—we don't have to go to church to be Catholics in Mexico. You're pretty much born and raised that way so these become cultural issues with our families and our friends. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Beyond the screening at the festival, what happens next for the film?
JRV: We are looking into some other festivals around the country and some television screenings but I can't be more specific about them right now. There will also be this educational version with a discussion guide for schools.
WCT: This all sounds great. Does it feel wonderful to see the project over the finish line?
JRV: It does, but I'm not looking forward to the future because I'm going to be depressed now that this wonderful experience is over. [ Laughs ] It's been very rewarding and hopefully another project will come out of this.
WCT: Well, it sounds like if it doesn't, you're going to create one.
JRV: [ Laughs ] No doubt!
Visit www.LatinoCulturalCenter.org or phone 312-409-1757 for more information about the film festival.