Of lowriders and exiled poets The Watsonville Film Festival is intent on changing the Latino narrative


By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

First it was Sacramento and San Jose. Soon, other cities followed, including Salinas in 2023. But the biggest prize came Jan. 1, when a statewide ban on lowriders finally was repealed in California.

Lowriders are a quintessential icon of Latino culture in the United States, and the tribute that the 12th annual Watsonville Film Festival is paying to the low-to-the-ground, souped-up vehicles is fitting. 

“As Latine filmmakers, we are reclaiming our stories and our culture, shedding light on the everyday experiences of Latinos in the U.S., portraying ourselves in more authentic ways than the mainstream media has historically depicted us,” said Consuelo Alba, director of the Watsonville Film Festival. “This year’s festival will honor the resilience and creativity of lowrider culture.” 

But “La Mission,” the 2009 classic film starring Benjamin Bratt about a San Francisco lowrider struggling to raise his son with the love and support of his community, is only one of the more than 40 films being presented during this weeklong moviefest.

This year’s lineup features several short films by local filmmakers along with submissions by highly acclaimed filmmakers. Topics range from indigenous- and immigration-related themes, to subjects of family, community, racial and sexual identities told through humor, drama and documentary-style narratives. There is also an art show featuring lowriders, live music and a celebration of Latin American film and music.

The festival will include an art show, “More Than Cars: Celebrating Lowrider Culture,” at Pajaro Valley Arts in Watsonville. The exhibit opens to the public Sunday, followed by a cruising event in downtown Watsonville. “More than 50 artists and members of lowrider car clubs have contributed to the exhibit. We are very excited to showcase this amazing art and history,” said Judy Stabile of Pajaro Valley Arts. 

Another highlight: a concert with Carlos Mejia Godoy, a singer and poet of the Sandinista revolution now living in exile in California. The life of Mejia Godoy is the subject of a short documentary, “Living in Exile,” which will be presented Friday, March 15, at the Oldemeyer Center in Seaside in a co-production with Palenke Arts. 

The films will be presented March 7-9 at CineLux Green Valley Cinema in Watsonville, followed by an after-party where the filmmakers and viewers can mix and mingle. There will be free live music and a no-host bar at Slough Brewing Collective, 9-11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. For more information, see https://2024wff.eventive.org/schedule


Film festival highlights

Thursday, March 7, Opening Night
6 p.m.  — Homegrown Shorts: “13 years, 9 kilometers” by Eugenia Renteria and “Cypress Park” by Gabriel Medina. Both directors formed part of the Watsonville Film Festival’s “Cine Se Puede” Fellowship Program.

Friday, March 8
5 p.m. International Women’s Day. Viva La Mujer: “Yo Soy La Reyna/I Am the Queen” by Roberto Salvador and “Apaga La Luz” featuring local singer/song-writer Gabi Bravo, who will perform live at the festival’s after-party.
7 p.m. — International Women’s Day. Powerful Women: “Echoes of the Rio” by Jackie Barragan and “The Latina Book Club” by Yelyna De Leon, with screenplay by Josefina Lopez.

Saturday, March 9
11:30 a.m. — Local students’ short films. Free to all 
1 p.m.   Our stories: “The Unbroken Sky” by Normandie Ramirez based on the award-winning book; “Breaking Through” by Francisco Jimenez Jr; “Por el Pueblo: Malaquias Montoya” by Claudia Escobar; and Rita Carmona’s “Watsonville Drag Story Time“.
3:30 p.m. — Reality Tour Shorts: “Shura: The Trail is Never Paved” by David Damian Figueroa and produced by Pepe Serna; and “Bicycle Island / A Donde Nos Lleva” by Mitra Elena Ghaffari.
5:30 p.m. — Red carpet with award-winning director Peter Bratt presenting “La Mission” about a San Francisco lowrider struggling to raise his son with the love and support of his community amid the backdrop of gun violence and toxic masculinity. Q&A with the director to follow.

Sunday, March 10
1-4 p.m. — Art Fest at Pajaro Valley Arts. “More Than Cars: Celebrating Lowrider Culture” exhibit opens to the public followed by a cruising event in downtown Watsonville. At 2 p.m., the city of Watsonville will present a proclamation to the five local lowrider clubs in recognition of their contributions to the community.  
4-6 p.m. — Cruising. Porter Building, 280 Main St. Watsonville. Cruising, 

Friday, March 15
6:30-9 p.m. — Cantos de Latinoamérica, an evening Latin American film and music. Oldemeyer Center, 986 Hilby Ave., Seaside.
Palenke Arts co-presents with the Watsonville Film Festival an evening of film and music centered around the Latine experience. Three short documentaries followed by a concert with Carlos Mejía Godoy, a legendary musician and poet of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution forced to live in exile.

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About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.