How Juan Caceres Went from Waiter to Celebrity Intern to Film Festival Programmer

Everybody wants to find a way to get paid to do what they love. But the path to making a living off your passions is often an unscripted journey filled with unexpected twists and turns, reinventions and surprises. After all, it’s estimated that our generation will change jobs 15-20 times over the course of our lifetimes. In our Play it By Ear series, we’ll take a look at the career 180s that got some of the young creatives we’re excited about where they are today.


New York resident and Chilean native Juan Caceres remembers the moment when he knew he wanted to be a part of the entertainment industry. As an undocumented teenager living in Miami at the time, Caceres, one night, decided he didn’t want to go partying and stayed home to watch a little cable TV. What he tuned into changed his life.

“I saw Mambo Mouth,” said Caceres, referring to actor John Leguizamo’s 1991 HBO comedy special based on his off-Broadway one-man stage show of the same name. “That was the first time I had ever seen myself on screen. I had never seen a Latino on TV before.”

A few years later, Caceres, a young 20-something year old, was waiting tables in a New York City restaurant when he met Leguizamo’s mother, Luz. The two talked about movies and Luz told him her son was starting his own production company, Lower East Side Films. Before he knew it, Caceres had become the company’s first intern and moved his way up to reading screenplays and landed a spot as a development assistant.

“I really felt ingrained in the company,” Caceres said. “I felt they really valued my opinion. It just grew from there.”

After a couple of years with Lower East Side Films, Caceres said he felt he had done as much as he could with the company and ventured into a new chapter of his life. He was a founding staff member of the New York International Latino Film Festival, which ended its run in 2013 after 13 years. Currently, Caceres is a film programmer for Urbanworld Film Festival, an 18-year-old multicultural festival held in New York City. This year, Urbanworld takes place Sept. 23-27.


What was the most exciting thing about working with John Leguizamo and Lower East Side Films back in the late 90s?
I loved that I got to see a story go from the screenplay to the screen. I think the first one was Piñero. I read that script when it was a first draft because John was initially supposed to play [Miguel] Piñero. I thought it was amazing. I got to be on set for that movie and watch it come to life.

What else did you like about the industry that made you want to be a part of it?
To me it’s always been about the passion of independent films. If you don’t have passion for this, then why do it? None of us are getting rich doing this. For me, my biggest love is writing. That’s where I hope my career goes at some point.

Why did you leave Lower East Side Films?
I’ll be very honest. At some point, I got very jaded with the company. I felt I was being held down a little bit. I couldn’t progress within the company. It just felt like I had gone as far as I was going to go with them.

Juan Caceres at the 13th HBO New York International Latino Film Festival – Awards Ceremony
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What did you do then?
I went back to Chile to regroup for less than six months. Then I came back to New York and that’s when I helped launch the New York International Latino Film Festival. Ironically, our opening night film that first year was King of the Jungle starring John Leguizamo.

What do you like about your new position programming with Urbanworld Film Festival?
It’s been a dream come true. I get to explore films from around the globe. I get to find film in South Africa, the U.K., South Asia, and Latin America. The first year I was with Urbanworld, the first Latino films that I brought in all won jury awards. That never happened before at the festival.

Do you consider programming a film festival its own art form?
It is an art form. It’s my name out there, so I don’t want to program !@#$. You have to put your friendships aside and you have to prepare for people to not like you. You have to stay true to yourself and make decisions on what is best for the festival. I want people to come into the movie theater and say, “That was a damn good film.”

Caceres on the set of his short film
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Is it challenging because you’re programming Latino films and you’re Latino yourself? Some Latino filmmakers might see that as an easy way into the festival.
Yeah, it’s hard. Sometimes I have to be the bad guy. I’m not going to be like, “I’m going to take your film just because you’re Latino.” No. I want to accept it because it’s good and I want to challenge you. That’s been one of the biggest things I’ve learned so far. You just can’t baby these filmmakers. I don’t want someone coming to the festival and watch a movie and think, “What the hell is [the film programmer] thinking?”

You mentioned you had aspirations to write. Is that something you’re currently doing?
I’ve won awards as a writer, director, and producer. Right now I’m editing a short film that I wrote and directed called There Is Another Sky. It’s based on an Emily Dickinson poem. I also produced a film called Elliot Loves, which initially got picked up by HBO Latino. Now it’s currently on Hulu.

How would you define success when it comes to what you want to do in this industry?
An Oscar. That’s it! I mean, there’s really not one definition for me because I’ve done so many things. But I would have to say winning an Oscar would be pretty cool.