A film about Central America by Lourdes Portillo and Nina Serrano
It was sometime around 1977 or `78 when Lourdes Portillo and I saw a short documentary film about Central America showing a Mary Knoll house building project in Nicaragua filmed by Father Miguel Descoto. We were moved by the poverty and problems of Nicaragua, as we sat among a handful of viewers in San Francisco’s Mission district barrio.
As one thing always leads to another, Lourdes and I decided then and there that we needed to make a film about Central America. Ours would be about our own reality, set in the Mission District with its Central American exiles and immigrants coming to San Francisco daily. We decided to make it a fictional film and as feminists we didn’t even have to discuss the role that women would play in our film. We knew the protagonist would be a young woman immigrant working as a maid, and the film could be used as a consciousness raiser.
At the time, Latin America was in upheaval with a revolutionary civil war taking place in Nicaragua, and horrendous repression in El Salvador and Guatemala. Argentina was run by murderous generals as was Chile. Our neighborhood reflected this with the ground swell of new Latin American immigrants, especially Central Americans. We ourselves and all our friends were supporting the Sandinista led revolutionary movement in Nicaragua. It felt very natural for us to write our fictional story. To universalize the story, we created a pan-Central American identity to the characters and their lives, inventing towns, and volcanoes that could not be pinpointed to a specific Central American country. We agreed on about 14 main points we wanted to cover and met a few hours each day to develop a dramatic script and then write a proposal for grant funding for the film production.
When the proposal and script were finally ready, I picked the pages up from the typist, since this was before computers and neither of us knew how to type. I got on the BART train, which is our Bay Area Rapid Transit System, and fell asleep. I woke up quickly at my stop. As the train pulled away I realized I’d left the only copy of the script and proposal on it!
There was hell to pay. Lourdes hit the roof. Luckily, I was able to retrieve it from the BART Lost and Found Department the next day, turned in by a train cleaner. To this day I am grateful to this person. We were awarded the grant and produced the film in 1979. It was shown at many film festivals, won an international film festival award in Poland and was broadcast on countless U.S. public television stations nationally. Lourdes and I traveled by plane and train across Europe to receive that award in Krakow, Poland.
One day, decades later, we were invited to a Stanford University class studying this film. The bright young students were filled with questions. One girl raised her hand to ask, “Where did you get the idea for the TV salesman to kiss the protagonist’s hand?” I laughed, “We didn’t. It was not our idea.” We used improvisation as well as our scripted dialog. The actor was my friend, Don Norton, a notorious ladies hand-kisser, who came up with it himself. I had to smile thinking how pleased Don would have been if he had thought that one day people would take note of his hand kissing. Here is a clip of those pivotal scenes in which the protagonist, Irene, buys a TV set which triggers the rest of the film’s events. To obtain the 27 minute film go lourdesportillo.com or watch it below on the Nina Serrano YouTube channel.