To many East Los High fans, Vannessa Vasquez may forever be Camila Barrios. But the Texan native has always dreamed of working behind the camera, turning stories into big screen projects that could shine a light on people who grew up in circumstances like her own. As with the groundbreaking Hulu series, she was able to see firsthand what it means to create stories by and for the Latinx community. Vasquez is intent on keeping that spirit alive in the works she writes and produces. That’s very much the ethos of her latest short film, La sangre llama (The Blood Calls), which tells the story of a young Mexican-American woman searching for her father in Monterrey. Beyond being the writer and star of the project, Vasquez is its beating heart. The story is based on her experience with connecting with a father she never knew growing up. Moreover, she recruited family members in Mexico to help get this passion project off the ground, making it truly feel like watching a family home video come to life.
Remezcla caught up with the East Los actress to learn more about what it took to turn her life into a short, how a childhood full of playacting primed her for the role of producer, and why she draws inspiration from everyone from Selena to Eva Longoria. Read our conversation below.
Did you always want to write, as well as star, in a film?
My mother came to the U.S.A when she was pregnant with me, from Mexico. For the first 10 years [of] my life, I grew up with my grandparents and all my aunts, uncles and cousins in the small town of Richmond, Texas. For a while, I was the only child running around the house until my cousins came to live with me and younger cousins started being born. I remember at a very young age gathering them and assigning them stories, names — pretending like we were all in a movie or TV series. Every room in the house was a set for me. It was my favorite thing to do. So much so that I would save the free pizza coupons that I would get at school for reading so many books just so I can give my cousins pizza for playing along. I didn’t know what I was doing at that time, but looking back now I guess I always had it in me to produce.
I started acting in Houston, and one thing that I noticed is that there weren’t a lot of people telling American Latino stories. Growing up, I didn’t have anyone to look up to other than Selena, someone who was Mexican American, who grew up raza, and who could be both Mexican and American at the same time. So that’s when the bug hit to one day aspire to do that. I first saw Eva Longoria doing it, executive producing and starring in her own projects. I remember thinking, “That! That’s what I want to do!” Not just for myself, but to create opportunities for other American Latino actors.
What inspired you to write La sangre llama?
The journey to look for my biological father was a very pivotal point in my life. I realized that every time I told people that story, they just couldn’t believe that I did that. I also realized that there were a lot of people who grew up not knowing their fathers. It has a very hard effect on a human growing up when you feel like you don’t know half of your identity. So I wanted to tell this story to let people know the effects that it has on us, and for those that experienced the same, that they aren’t alone.
What was the hardest part of making this film?
Well, one: We only had $100. It was an all of a sudden thing to do. I was already in Mexico visiting my dad, when I reached out to my cousin, director Ivan García Gzz. He is my first cousin from my dad’s side. We were a bit older in our teens when we met, but I remember we connected [over] the fact that we had a fascination for the film industry. We would always talk about doing something together. We would joke that we would be like Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz or Alfonso Cuarón and Salma Hayek at the Oscars. He started producing his own shorts and was winning awards. At the same time, I was having my own success on East Los High and other things. It just seemed like the right time. He immediately started working on gathering his crew. The $100 was just enough to cover for food for one day. Small or low budgets really make it hard to get things done but somehow we made it work. When you believe in something, it really is about gathering the right people who believe in you to see it through. We had an amazing crew that truly believed in us as well that helped us see it through. Its been surreal for us to experience this together, but more than anything, we are so grateful to have each other on this journey of filmmaking and we feel like the is just the beginning.
What was it like shooting in Monterrey and to be working alongside your family?
I’d always go to Monterrey to visit every summer and holidays with my grandparents. Sometimes I would look at random men who sort of looked like me and wonder, “Is that my dad?” The city has always been very much a part of my roots. There were times when we would do to different locations and think, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m filming here.” We were looking for someone to play my father in the film when my dad called me to check up on me. I told him what my cousin and I were doing and he said, “Oh, very cool. Do you need help?” I said, “Actually, how would you like to play my dad, Dad?” So he did. There I was years later, telling a story of me searching for him with my actual father playing my father and my own cousin directing. It honesty felt unreal, almost like I was playing pretend with my cousins again but this time we’re really doing it. It was a wonderful feeling — felt meant to be.
What’s next for you?
For the past few years, I’ve been producing and writing. I’ve also had some success in booking some roles after East Los High. However, I have a slate of projects (series) that I have written and created to help tell American-Latinx stories. I hope to one day look back and see them all developed. They are projects to create more opportunities for American-Latinx actors, writers, directors, and producers. To tell wonderful stories about how we grow up here, from people who understand and grew up in our culture. That’s my dream. And if I can play a Shakespearean character in a big Steven Spielberg film, well I guess that’s cool, too!