Jim Mendiola was inspired by Mexican ex-votos–small paintings on tin traditionally left on altars as tokens of gratitude to saints–when he created Molly Vazquez, the DIY dream girl at the center of his first film, Pretty Vacant. Molly’s got a million pokers in the fire. She’s made a couple Super-8 films and leads an all-Chicana punk band called Aztlan-a-Go-Go. But her zine, called Ex-Voto, is clearly closest to her heart. “The medium was perfect: cheap, easy–no matter how I messed with the pictures, I found they always came out great xeroxed,” she gushes, speaking for a whole generation of copy-machine Conde Nasts. Mendiola says the ex-votos, also called retablos, “are pure and nonintellectualized artistic expressions of faith and hope and joy that I wanted to resemble Molly’s own reasons and motivation for her own simple expression in life–her zine.”

Describing an upcoming issue, Molly reels articulately between cultural signposts ranging from the 17th-century nun and poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (who “totally kicked ass”) to Patti Smith, from Mexican movie star Maria Felix to the Ramones, and from the Sex Pistols to Esteban Jordan, known as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion. Molly’s as aware of her punk-rock heritage as she is of her Chicana identity; that’s something her father, who’s insisting she join the annual family trip from their home in San Antonio to Mexico, can’t understand. For her part, Molly questions why her father is so sentimental about the old country: “I mean, he was born here on the west side and everything!”

San Antonio is where Mendiola, a self-taught filmmaker in his early 30s, grew up. Originally trained in photography at the University of Texas, he also studied theater at Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio and Teatro Esperanza in San Francisco. He considers film “a natural synthesis of both interests.” When he conceived Pretty Vacant, “it was originally going to be a ten-minute film of stills under a voice-over, kind of like the beginning of A Hard Day’s Night. For financing, I sent out this begging letter to everyone I knew, asking for contributions of $25 so I could make the movie. I included a vague synopsis and appeals to cultural responsibility.” In about a week he had received over $1,200. As the project evolved into a half-hour film, Mendiola applied for grants to expand the budget.

Though Mendiola bills Pretty Vacant as “a New Chicano film,” he pointedly steers clear of the expectations that label may create. Shot in black and white in Super-8 and 16-millimeter, with all the dialogue in voice-over, the final product evokes the punk-rock scrappiness of Sadie Benning and G.B. Jones more than the political activism of first-generation filmmakers Luis Valdez or Gregory Nava. “My influences are more REM than salsa,” says Mendiola, whose next film, tentatively titled An American Artist, will focus on photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank. One thing he plans to keep constant is the San Antonio setting, though he’s now based in San Francisco and considers himself a “self-exiled Tejano.” He aspires to have a relationship to San Antonio similar to James Joyce’s connection to Dublin. “I consider myself primarily a regional filmmaker,” he says. “I am intent on continuing to tell stories about that very specific place in the U.S. Latino onda.”

Mendiola will be present at tonight’s 7 PM screening of Pretty Vacant at Tres en Uno, 1769 W. Greenleaf. Admission is $5; call 773-764-8634. The film will be shown again at 7 on Sunday at Calles y Suenos, 1900 S. Carpenter. It’s $5; call 312-243-4243. –John Sanchez

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Mendiola photo by Alan McLaughlin.