By Claudia Meléndez Salinas
For Pepe Serna, there are no “extras” in life. Every role he’s had in his 75-year career as an actor has been an important one. Be it the shadow boxer who jumped in the ring when he was only 3 years old, or the cameo appearance at the homemade film of his friend’s birthday party, or his role in “Scarface,” every part he’s played is like a piece of the mosaic of his rich life on the screen.
“I love (acting) so much that, from working with the biggest actors to not-so-big actors, my mantra and my philosophy is that we’re all the same,” said Serna, 78, by phone from his home in Palm Springs. “I don’t like the star system … I like to tell the kids ‘we are all producers, directors, stars of our own movies. You’re not going to be a writer, a painter, an actor. You already are.”
In spite of his extensive Hollywood acting career, Serna is not a household name, not someone you’d recognize like Al Pacino, Steve Martin or Edward James Olmos. And yet he’s had supporting roles in movies that featured those actors — in fact, in more than 100 films and 300 TV shows, including such iconic films as “Scarface,” “Silverado,” “The Rookie” and “American Me.” His multifaceted acting career is now chronicled in “Life is Art,” a 2022 documentary that he produced and will be featured during the opening event of the Watsonville Film Festival on March 3.
“For the festival’s opening night, we will roll out the red carpet to honor the trailblazing Latino actor Pepe Serna,” festival director Consuelo Alba said in a statement. In addition to the documentary, Serna will present his film “Abuelo.”
Serna’s documentary will launch 10 days of in-person and online movies that will be free to all this year through the WFF website.
“After all we’ve been through over the past three years, we wanted to make this year’s festival accessible to everyone on a ‘pay what you can’ basis,” Alba said. “This is possible thanks to our generous sponsors and supporters who truly understand our vision.”
Screenings will be held at the Mello Center (the site of the opening night event) and Watsonville Public Library. There will also be online viewing opportunities. This year’s festival offers an array of films about ordinary people overcoming great obstacles, such as the premiere of “Strawberry Picker,” a short film documenting the life of Juan Fuentes, a renowned Chicano artist who grew up in Watsonville. The documentary is directed by Watsonville filmmaker Eugenia Renteria, another sign of the festival’s commitment to highlighting local talent.
Fuentes created the main images of the monumental mosaic murals in downtown, and the premiere of his documentary coincides with the opening of his retrospective “RESILIENCE: Works of Strength and Dignity” at the Porter Building on Sunday, March 5.
Highlighting Serna’s career is central to the festival’s commitment to showcasing Latino films and talent. Born in Corpus Christi, Serna acquired a love of film by watching movies of the “Golden Era” of Mexican Cinema. Movie stars like Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete populated his imagination growing up and inspired him to pursue a life of acting. It helped that he discovered he had a knack for making people laugh, that he loved the attention he garnered up on stage.
“My godfather had a boxing ring in the backyard. I jumped up, I was shadow boxing, and I accidentally knocked myself out, and people laughed. I tried doing it again, but people didn’t laugh the second time, so I learned that you can’t do the same joke twice,” Serna said. “But entertainment became my performance mode. If I’m out on the street, I interrupt people’s conversations, I interject whatever comes to mind. I like to play. I never stopped being a kid.”
Of all the roles he’s played over his 50-year-plus career in Hollywood, Serna said his favorite is the one-man show “El Rucho Chuco Cholo Pachuco” on stage for three days in 2008. In the show, Serna transforms himself into different characters, a parade of historical figures that echo the history of Latinos in the United States.
“I just loved doing it,” he said. “And of the big ones, Scarface — because of its popularity with the kids who have seen it. It became really important. For a child, the first thing you have to do is get their attention, and that gets their attention the minute I walk in. Then they want to see what’s going to come next.”
Serna will be teaching an acting workshop to high school students on Saturday, under the auspices of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District.
The Chicano actor loves having an audience so much that, after a bit of prompting, he starts rapping as one of his characters in “El Ruco Chuco Cholo Pachuco” over the phone: “Get me the hell out of this cage, mijo, yo soy tu abuelo, el brujo curandero. Levitating on the bones of your ancestors. They sent me to bring you messages from the past to find your way into the future. Welcome to my stage.”
Because for Serna, the main character in the movie of his life, the entire world is his stage. You can watch his next act at the Watsonville Film Festival on Friday.
Opening Night of the 2023 Watsonville Film Festival will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday at the Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing Arts, 250 E. Beach St., Watsonville. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. For more information, and the festival’s complete lineup, visit https://watsonvillefilmfest.org/
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.