The LFF was fortunate to receive an interview with Rubén Martínez, the Screenwriter and Host of the documentary When Worlds Collide (2010). Martínez is an award-winning journalist, author and performer, and he holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature & Writing at Loyola Marymount University. We asked Rubén about his work on the film, his thoughts on the identifier “Latino”, and more. We hope you enjoy reading.
An Interview with Rubén Martínez
LFF: Where were you born and raised? Please give us a brief introduction to you and how you came to work in the medium of film on When Worlds Collide.
RM: I’m an L.A. homeboy all the way. Grew up in the Silver Lake-Echo Park area, son and grandson of immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico. My mother, la Salvadoreña, is a poet. Everyone from El Salvador is a poet, or can at least recite some of the great Spanish-language bards by heart (García-Lorca, Neruda, Darío…). I knew I was going to be a writer from early on. Wrote short stories by middle school, was into rock ‘n’ roll by high school, and a poet in the Beat vein shortly after dropping out of UCLA my freshman year, which happened to be the year that civil war broke out in El Salvador. For the better part of the 1980s I shuttled between Los Angeles, Mexico City, and San Salvador, writing political poetry, journalism, and seeking literary models and mentors wherever I went. By the 1990s I’d had enough of a print career to broaden out into broadcast, collaborating with NPR and PBS. I hosted a show at KCET in the 1990s called “Life and Times,” a politics and culture series. I walked away from it to write a book in Mexico, and kind of walked away from broadcast journalism in general for a good long while – I worked on other books and developed my career in academe, doing penance, I suppose for having dropped out all those years ago – until PBS producer Carl Byker reached out about the project that would become When Worlds Collide.
LFF: We were fortunate to catch your interview on KPFK 90.7 with Betto Arcos and the Global Village some weeks ago regarding the documentary you co-wrote with Carl Byker. Can you tell us more about this project? Ie, How it came to be, how long it took you to photograph? What was your collaboration with Byker?
RM: Carl initially planned a film about the Spanish empire and its decline after the defeat of the Armada; he started developing it in the in the mid-2000s, at a moment when the story would have served as a very clear allegory for the United States and its geopolitical moment. But the more he did the historical research the more he wanted to tell about Spain’s presence in the New World… a story which couldn’t be told without telling the story of the people that were already here. So I suppose I was the “New World guy.” We were introduced by a mutual friend and started shaping the script together. The funding was already in place for it, most of it from the National Endowment for the Humanities, so I walked into it when it was already pretty far along.
LFF: How involved were you with the construction of the physical film? How was this experience for you?
RM: In terms of actual shooting, we were on the road six weeks, two in Mexico, two in South America and two in Spain.We worked on the script for a good six months previous to the shoot, maybe longer. The shoot was exhilarating. I hadn’t traveled much in Latin America since the late 1990s and reconnecting with the place, the people, and many friends (especially in Mexico, where I lived for several years), was truly a gift. My tongue loosened back into the vowels of Spanish. And I got a lesson in how much had changed in Latin America since I’d left – mostly because of the effects of the drug wars on the one hand and the new era of progressive politics on the other.
LFF: What excited us most about the documentary is its exploration of ethnicity and the “transnational self”. Can you extrapolate more on this and tell us how you explored this subject in the film.
RM: There’s a line somewhere in the film about the “contact” between the Old and New Worlds really being the birth of “globalization,” setting the stage for imperialism, advanced capitalism, and the profound questions of identity that we continue to confront today. There has been something of this theme in most all my work. The defintion of “mestizo”—in the Spanish classification of race in the 16th century, that meant the child of one Spanish and one indigenous parent—is deceptively simple. It may begin as a binary but of course human consciousness is much more complex than that. The film opens and closes with my own daughters, Ruby and Lucía. Their mother and my wife Angela García has roots that are Native American, Spanish and Greek. I am Mexican-Salvadoran. Ruby and Lucía are mestizas many times over.
LFF: In your interview on KPFK, you mentioned the words “Latino”, “Mestizo” and “Mixed”. What are the significance of these terms to you and why do you think they are so important today? Which is the title you use to describe yourself and why?
RM: “Mestizo” has currency in the Spanish-language world and its etymology is telling – before contact, Spaniards used it to refer to the breeding of animals. “Mixed” is kind of like the American version of “mestizo,” its biggest symbol being the “mutt” who is the current president of the United States. As for “Latino,” that’s a complicated one. It’s both a marketing tool and a marker of ethnicity.At its worst, it dissolves the complexity and nuance of Latin American identity and obscures some pretty big divides along the lines of race and class—think of a working-poor Mexican immigrant and then of a middle class Cuban in Miami. A black Dominican in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, and an Argentine Jew in Los Angeles. But it is also a way for people from diverse Latin American backgrounds to claim some solidarity with one another in the United States (the term is only rarely used in Latin America), and that is a good thing, especially given the politics of ethnicity and immigration at the moment.
LFF: Why make When Worlds Collide? Were there certain events that drew you to the project?
RM: It was a good moment for the film to happen. The new census shows “Latinos” (there’s that word again!) being the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. (That last sentence in itself obscures the complexity I was just writing about—Latinos are not really an “ethnicity,” since there are several races represented among us!) But the fact is that immigration from Latin America, particularly from Mexico, has had a tremendous impact on this country in economic and cultural terms. Immigrant labor—undocumented and not—was an essential part of the great economic boom of the 2000s, low-wage workers subsidizing much of the real estate bubble. But of course the reactionary politics surrounding the “issue” of immigration, such as SB 1070 in Arizona and the copycat legislation like it across the country demonizes the immigrant, renders the caricature of “invasion” from the South, which in some ways resembles the reaction of the Spanish to contact with indigenous America. The Spaniards wanted to keep their blood “pure,” regarded mixing almost like a contagion. The film speaks of the deep historical roots of our own culture wars today.
LFF: Are there prominent themes throughout your work as a Writer? Why do these themes interest you? This may relate to When Worlds Collide and your other works, even those in development.
RM: I have written several books on these subjects, interminable poems and songs and essays. I lecture on this in the classroom. I am mindful of it as I speak to my daughters in Spanish and as they respond in English. This is not an “issue” for me so much as it is my life, my body, my relationships, the way I experience the world and my place in it.
LFF: Are there any themes in your work that you feel are specific to Latinos? Ie, Are there themes that might be considered “Latino” and why do you think they would be called such?
RM: Yes and no. The legacy of Spanish colonialism is very particular and distinct from Portuguese, French, Belgian and British colonialism.But it is still colonialism and thus in the end all the subjects of this history share that basic experience, which gives rise to a series of questions of culture and power and identity.
LFF: What does “Latino film” mean to you? Do you consider yourself “Latino”? Do you consider When Worlds Collide a “Latino Film”?
RM: As I said above, “Latino,” like “mestizo,” is a complicated term. It’s far from perfect as an identifier. But to the extent that we do share colonial history and to the extent that we share some key experiences as immigrants in the United States, I ultimately make peace with the word. As for “Latino” film, I’d argue for the widest possible definition of it—one that would encompass everything from John Sayles (Lonestar) to Guillermo del Toro to Tommy Lee Jones and Guillermo Arriaga (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) to “Ugly Betty” and yes, When Worlds Collide.
LFF: Who are your favorite filmmakers of “Latino films” and why?
RM: At this very moment I’d have to say what Tommy Lee Jones and Guillermo Arriaga did with Three Burials is the most moving film experience I’ve had in this realm… but I wouldn’t call it “Latino,” I think I’d call it a “border” film.The sensibilities of the two blended together beautifully (Arriaga writing and Tommy Lee starring and directing) and the end result is a highly original film, a veritable new language. Another experience I had in that vein was with Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (Luz silenciosa). Reygadas is a Mexican living and working in Mexico and thus wouldn’t seem to fit the “Latino” bill, but what he did in Silent Light—loosely based on Theodor Dreyer’s classic Ordet but set in the Mennonite community of northern Mexico with a mostly non-actor cast is another one of those “border” projects that transcends several barriers and takes us—culturally, politically, spiritually—to another country.
LFF: Do you consider yourself a Latino artist or simply an artist? Do you think this differentiation is significant?
RM: I guess the thread I’ve been developing in this conversation is that I consider myself more a “border” artist who happens to be Latino.
LFF: What are your greatest accomplishments thus far? What are you looking to do next?
RM: Uf. I don’t think I have any “great accomplishment,” though I’m proud of projects I’ve worked on. My collaborations with my dear friend the photographer Joseph Rodriguez (three books—Eastside Stories, Flesh Life, and The New Americans). I also tend to be proudest of the most recent work. At the moment I’m feeling good about a song I wrote a few months ago based on John Fante’s novel. And an essay I just wrote for the Los Angeles Times about the tension between the material and spiritual deserts. I am in the editing stage of my new book, Desert America, a series of chronicles set in the desert borderlands, and am looking to adapt that to the stage (perhaps as a radio play). And right now this second am working on a live show called “Variedades,” a kind of performance-salon that I’ll be hosting at the Echoplex in Echo Park beginning in late March, an interdisciplinary gathering of artists I’ve been dreaming of doing since forever. I’m moving around the genres, which is what I’ve been doing all along.
LFF: How did you finance When the Worlds Collide? Of course, we respect your privacy and don’t expect the name of your financier (laughs), but was it completed through private equity, grants, or other incentives? How long did it take you to develop it, raise the funds, etc.? Were you involved in the fundraising process at all?
RM: Carl Byker, the producer for When Worlds Collide, had secured funding before I came on board. The main grant was from the National Endowment for the Humanities, with other grants coming from the likes of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. Fairly typical public television financing.
LFF: During the development of When Worlds Collide, were there any ways that a film organization could have helped you and your team? Ie, Funding, production assistance, etc.?
RM: As I said I came on board as the ship was practically leaving port. But we’re in development with Carl Byker on a new project that is loosely based on my new book and we’re at square one, with only a tiny fraction of the funds necessary to make a film secured at this point. So yes, a “film organization” that could help identify sources of funding could come in really handy right about now!
LFF: We are interested in what you felt was the most interesting experience associated with the filming of When Worlds Collide. We’d love to hear an interesting vignette from production on your many adventures around the world.
RM: Back to the “border” theme. When Worlds Collide itself was a kind of “border” production. The crew was “mixed,” or mestizo if you will. Carl and I have widely divergent sensibilties, part of that being cultural and part of it aesthetic I suppose. There were tensions at times. I mean, we were doing a film about power and identity and there in our own crew was the rainbow and hierarchy, right? So we’re at Potosí, Bolivia, at 14,000 feet on the mountain that contained the richest silver strike of the 16th century. It was terribly cold, sleeting, we were sleep- and oxygen-deprived. Mitch Wilson, the amazing cinematographer, and I had gotten along really well up to that point. But suddenly we snapped at each other, somehow coming to symbolically occupy the roles of the history we were trying to film. Like Herzog and Kinski going at it in the jungle. We jumped out of the van yelling at each other. What really made the scene is that Mitch is like 6 foot 3 and I’m 5 foot 8 on a good day and he is from Oklahoma with a big drawl and I’m a California “Latino” and he’s an army veteran and I’m a bohemian with very soft hands. Anyway, it all blew over in a matter of minutes. From screaming we went to hugging each other and “I love you man.”
LFF: What is your advice for up-and-coming Meztizo storytellers aspiring to make films? How about in regards to making films that illuminate Latino heritage?
RM: Tell it from your corner of the vast universe of history and culture. The universe seen through a keyhole, as Eduardo Galeano said.
LFF: Any additional stories or details you would like to tell the LFF community about?
RM: I just would like to thank you for this opportunity to dialogue with your community. That’s what it all comes down to in the end: the conversation, the relationship to the other.
Rubén, the LFF shall be eagerly watching and listening for whatever you give the world next. Thank you for your interview.