Andrea Meller on Making Latino Movies: “I was Tired of Telling Stories About Poverty and Violence”

In 2005, filmmaker Andrea Meller read an article about five Latina women who had very interesting acting jobs in Hollywood. These women – Ivette Gonzalez, Marcela Bordes, Natasha Perez, Marabina Jaimes, and Gabriela del Carmen Lopetegui – were hired by the ABC network to dub their popular TV series Desperate Housewives into the Spanish language for American audiences. It was a story Meller just knew she had to tell in cinematic form.

In the documentary Now En Español, Meller shadows these actresses and gives audiences an inside look into their lives and how they make a living with their voices. She also explores the idea of the American Dream and the challenges each woman faces trying to make it in an industry that isn’t necessarily welcoming them with open arms.

During an interview with Meller, who is of Chilean descent, we talked about the three reasons she wanted to make Now en Español, how she identifies with her Latina background, and where she thinks the quality of Latino films is today.

Why did you decide you wanted to make a film about these specific women living and working in Hollywood?

Although I am Latina, I never really understood what it meant to be Latina. These women would go into auditions where they were told they were too dark or too light to be Latina. They were told they had too much or too little of an accent to be Latina. They were constantly having “Latina” defined for them by others. I thought this would be a fun way to explore those issues of Latino identity.

“I was tired of telling stories about poverty and violence amongst Latinos. I wanted to tell a story that was more celebratory.”

I also wanted to make this film because I was amazed that ABC was taking this huge step in acknowledging this growing Latino community and the big market that is out there, but only doing it to a point. It’s like they were saying, “We’re going to cater to Latino audiences, but we’re not going to put more Latinos on screen.” Eva Longoria was on Desperate Housewives, but it’s not like they were making new programming or changing the way things were. It was almost like [these actresses] were invisible. The idea of the invisible laborer was very interesting to me.

Lastly, I had just come off co-directing a film about men and women coming out of prison and was having a conversation with the producer about the way we tell stories about Latinos and African Americans. I’m very proud of that last film, but I realized I was tired of telling stories about poverty and violence amongst Latinos. I wanted to tell a story that was more celebratory.

Do you personally identify as a Latina?

Well, if you saw me you’d never guess I was Latina. I think growing up I had this sense that I had something “additional” – something “plus.” I mean, my parents are Chilean and spoke Spanish and spoke English with heavy accents. For me, it felt like I grew up with something more – with a greater view of the world. I grew up with an additional culture and not just the white American culture. Language was definitely a part of that.

As a filmmaker, do you think it’s been an easier road for you because you don’t have a Latino-sounding last name and you have a light complexion?

I think I’ve had a pretty privileged existence and that probably has something to do with my name and the way I look and my socioeconomic status growing up. I’m sure it’s made a difference. But I think [Now en Español] is being seen as a “Latino project.” That is interesting to me because I just want to tell a good story. I want to humanize all the stories we tell about Latinos and not just the ones about the inner city.

So, going back to one of the reasons you said you made this film, I’m wondering if you think Hollywood is really trying to reach Latino audiences in a meaningful way or if you think they’re just placating to us with things like dubbed TV shows?

“It feels like there are a lot more Latinos on screen. But I’m partially cynical and wonder how long it will last.”

I do feel like we’re going through a really exciting time right now on TV with shows like Jane the Virgin and Cristela. It feels like there are a lot more Latinos on screen. But I’m partially cynical and wonder how long it will last. I think we had this same period where Ugly Betty and The George Lopez Show were on TV. I do think filmmakers and artists are being more vocal about the need for more diversity in front of and behind the camera. I have high hopes. I think it’s smart for Hollywood to open up its eyes to what the world actually looks like. I mean, the numbers are still not great for Latinos or African Americans or women. There’s still so much that needs to be done.

From a filmmaker’s perspective, do you think the quality is there for the Latino films being released or is that something studios still need to work on?

I think fundamentally it all comes down to story and character. I think as Latinos we can sometimes be too critical of what we do have because we want it to be the absolute best. There’s going to be a range of stories and the way these stories are told. I think if we can just increase the opportunities and the numbers of Latinos behind and in front of the camera, I feel then we won’t have to keep the pressure on every single Latino film that comes out. I don’t want to put all that weight on the two Latino movies that come out every year. Maybe one day we won’t see them as Latino movies anymore, but just good movies.

Now en Español is playing on February 22 at CineFestival in San Antonio, Texas. The doc will also premiere on PBS on April 24 as part of the Voces series.