Pepe Vargas grew up in a small town outside Bogota, Colombia, studied law in Argentina, and worked as a university professor of economics and international law in Mexico before immigrating to the United States in 1979, ready for something new and eager to learn English. What he found was a country that differed greatly from what he’d expected. “I saw poverty, misery, starvation, violence. Not the image I had had from films and magazines.”

Despite his impressive credentials, Vargas discovered he had limited opportunities. Arriving in Chicago in 1980, he took a job as a busboy. “Being Latino, being poor, being an employee in one of the lowest ranking positions in the restaurant, I got treated like I was less than human,” he says.

Vargas was already 30 years old, yet he knew he was starting from scratch. Once he learned to speak English, he began taking classes in video, film, and television production at Columbia College. After graduating in 1986, he made a documentary about poverty in the United States called The Other Side of the Coin. He traveled to Boston, Los Angeles, and several other cities, interviewing the homeless, the unemployed, and those who were otherwise down-and-out. “The public schools in the inner cities were worse than jails,” he says. “And I could not believe the type of social services, like public health in Cook County, that were provided to the poor in the richest land.” He says he wanted to shatter the myth that everyone was equal in the United States. The documentary was intended, in part, as a warning to would-be immigrants–“It said, this is what awaits you.”

Realizing that film could “change people’s views about Latinos,” Vargas got involved in the Chicago Latino Film Festival in 1986. The festival had started the previous year at the Uptown campus of Saint Augustine College, where administrators screened a number of Spanish-language films to aid recruitment of Latino students. “They invested about $10,000,” says Vargas. “There were 14 films. The films were projected on a concrete wall. The payoff was zero. Nobody came to the festival. But thankfully they decided to give it another shot.”

The following year, the festival was better organized and made money. “We had a screen and we projected 19 films. The attendance grew from 500 people to about 3,500. I was able to turn in about $4,000 in revenues.”

The college decided to drop the festival, but Vargas was determined to keep it going. In 1987 the Mayor’s Office of Special Events awarded him a $10,000 grant, one third of his budget that year. He then formed an umbrella organization for the festival called Chicago Latino Cinema. From 1987 to 1989 he ran the organization out of his house, while administrators at Columbia College, where he had taken a job teaching, provided vital support with staff, offices, and overhead, not to mention publicity and marketing.

The festival has grown substantially since then. This year’s event showcases about 60 features and documentaries from 17 countries as well as a series of more than 40 shorts. Vargas has also invited prominent Latino critics and journalists to take part in various public symposiums. Because there are no awards, Vargas says, “it’s not really a festival. It’s a cultural event in which we use film to highlight Latino culture and to create an awareness that we’re a community in Chicago that now has more than one million people and six hundred million worldwide.” He also believes the festival unites Latin Americans. “This is not for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans–it’s for everybody. This is a new phenomenon, seeing a Peruvian going to an Argentinean film, an Argentinean going to see a Venezuelan film. They don’t have that opportunity in their own countries, except for festivals. The festival keeps a sense of unity among ourselves.”

There’s a paucity of Spanish-language cinema in the United States, despite, as the festival’s success makes clear, a potentially wide audience. Even the most recent films of such world-class directors as Spain’s Victor Erice or Mexico’s Arturo Ripstein have never been commercially released in this country. “The only foreign films that get regularly distributed here are French,” says Vargas. “Where can you go to see a Japanese film? That’s not serving the need.”

Chicago Latino Cinema is attempting to address the problem through a partnership with Facets Multimedia, which has released 14 Spanish-language features on its video label. Vargas also says he’s been talking with a Spanish production company and distributor that finances international coproductions, hoping to organize a traveling series of recent Spanish-language films.

The 13th Chicago Latino Film Festival runs April 4 through 14, with screenings at Chestnut Station, 830 N. Clark, and Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton. Tickets for individual screenings cost $7.50, $6.50 for students and seniors; festival passes are available for $70. Juan Carlos Desanzo’s Eva Peron: The True Story opens the festival this Friday night at 8 PM in the Art Institute’s Rubloff Auditorium; a buffet and cocktail reception begins at 5:30. Opening night tickets cost $60, $20 for the film only. For more information on the festival, check out the Section Two movie listings or call 312-431-1330.

–Patrick Z. McGavin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pepe Vargos photo by J.B. Spector.