As the famed Cholitas Escaladoras de Bolivia, “Cholita Hikers of Bolivia,” neared the 22,837-foot summit of Mt. Aconcagua, their vibrant traditional skirts blow under heavy snow and high winds, filling the screen. At the other end of Latin America, the lush green mountains of Chiapas, Mexico surround teacher Bartolomé as he breaks with textbook pedagogies and delivers a humanistic, outdoor learning experience for his students. These stories come from “Cholitas” and “El Sembrador,” two of the 20 featured films at this spring’s Watsonville Film Festival (WFF).

Founded in 2012 as the “multicultural film festival of Monterey Bay,” the WFF presents a diverse array of independent filmmakers highlighting the Latinx community. Through film, the community has come together to celebrate diversity and engage in meaningful conversations about Latinx culture. 

Like other in-person events, the festival has undergone something of a metamorphosis since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Event organizers adopted a virtual cinema format which incorporated the Watsonville Film Festival website and Zoom sessions, expanding the Watsonville Film Festival far beyond Santa Cruz County. 

“We present powerful films that our own community can see themselves in. Films made in the community or by Latino filmmakers outside the [regional] community. We want to celebrate the filmmaker’s talent, creativity, and their story because in the film industry Latinx people are underrepresented,” said WFF Executive Director Consuelo Alba. “It’s really important for us as a community to create the space to tell these stories and to celebrate the talent of our filmmakers.”

According to a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, out of the top 100 grossing films between 2007 and 2018, less than five percent of all speaking characters were Latinx, and only three percent of producers were Latinx. There was also a wide gender disparity of four male producers to every one female producer.

Fully online, the Watsonville Film Festival was able to reach a much larger audience, with over 5,000 spectators viewing from as far away as Ireland, Japan, and Turkey.

In addition to the annual spring film festival, The Watsonville Film Festival hosts events throughout the year to provide year-long community engagement. This includes symposiums, local dance productions, and movies in the park. 

“What we’re trying to do, and I think we are successfully doing, is showing films that either help people see themselves and their struggles and challenges with more understanding, and hopefulness most of the time,” said Board of Directors member Katie Roper. “Or [showing] interesting stories about other people, that mirror people in our community and hopefully gaining a deeper level of empathy and understanding for what that experience is like.”

Among the 20 films presented at this spring’s festival was “El Sembrador,” or “The Sower,” which follows a K-6 teacher in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico who inspires the future generations of Chiapas through a humanistic, outdoor learning model. In this remote area, Bartolomé teaches students cultural and academic practices, fostering a curiosity and love for the outside world, and encouraging students to rely on and help each other. 

“El Sembrador” film poster, photo courtesy of Watsonville Film Festival.

Another favorite was “Cholitas,” a documentary highlighting the trek of five Aymara Bolivian women to the highest peak in South America, Mt. Aconcagua. Once pejorative, “cholita” has been reclaimed over the past decades by Bolivia’s indigenous Aymara and Quechua women as an affectionate term used to describe themselves. After spending many years cooking meals for tourist hikers in Bolivia, the five women – Cecilia, Elena, Lidia, Liita, and Dora – decide to climb the peaks themselves to discover why tourists go to such lengths to climb them. 

As they gained fame in Bolivia as the “Cholitas Escaladoras de Bolivia,” climbing mountain after mountain, they took upon themselves one final challenge: travel to Argentina and climb the 22,837-foot Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside of Asia. Co-Director Jaime Murciego describes the film as a mountain climbing documentary where the mountain is the least important factor, and the motivation and dreams of the cholitas take center-stage. 

“They are people doing something different than they are supposed to do, leaving their social roles to achieve their dreams,” Murciego said. “The world needs references such as these five cholitas, these brave women who break stereotypes, follow their passion, are free and powerful.”

 Still from “Cholitas,” courtesy of Arena Comunicación Audiovisual and Jaime Murciego.

With a similar determination to the cholitas, the Watsonville Film Festival aims to challenge a film industry that negatively or inaccurately portrays the Latinx community. They do so by providing a range of films from the broad diversity of Latin America, and engaging conversations, reflections, and celebrations of the different stories and cultures.

“By putting the spotlight on Latinx filmmakers who tell new or long overlooked stories, by inviting underrepresented voices to share their creativity, we are weaving a new and vibrant tapestry of what the world really looks like,” Alba said in an email. “Empowering our community to tell our own stories and disseminating those narratives is something we are truly proud of.”