The Longoria Affair (El caso Longoria) premieres on Independent Lens on Tuesday, November 9 at 10 PM (check local listings). We sat down with filmmaker John J. Valadez to talk about his motivations for filming this story and why so many people have never heard of this pivotal event in American history.
What led you to make this film?
My family is from Texas. They fled the poverty and harsh social conditions that permeated the segregated milieu of the 1930s. I remember my Grandma telling me she hated Texas and she would never go back. Making this film brought me back to her world in a way. It made sense for me to try and understand the contours, grit, and aspirations. It gave me a clear sense that history is not for sissies.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
There are very few visual documents that record the Mexican American experience in this country. Because we were often poor, it was not unusual for us to have a limited ability to photograph, film, or record our lives.
Often the people who did have the resources to document history did not see us as particularly interesting or worthy of documenting. The result is that the visual record of our very existence is painfully thin. If there is no picture of something it is as though it never happened. As a consequence it is very easy for Mexican Americans appear to be invisible, strangers to America, phantoms of history. It gives the false impression that either we did not exist or we did not contribute much of value to the American enterprise. It was agonizing to tell this story in a visual medium with so few visual documents.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I think documentary filmmakers have to be pretty honest and humble. I’m ignorant about a lot of things and I have no problem recognizing it. You also need to be a straight shooter with folks. I really trusted and valued the experiences and insights folks I met with offered. They taught me a great deal about history, culture, discrimination, politics, and the value of conflicting perspectives. It is hard to sit in front of a camera, take a chance and put yourself out there. I think everyone in the film exhibited a generosity of spirit for which I am very grateful.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
I think it would have been interesting to explore the psychology of the three main characters: Tom Kennedy, Hector Garcia, and Lyndon Johnson in greater depth. All three had complex and conflicting interests tugging at their souls.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I remember when Hector Garcia’s daughter Wanda took us on a tour of his old clinic in Corpus Christi. The building is an abandoned, rotting, shell. It sits in a neighborhood still wracked with poverty and all the dysfunction and limitations that condition brings. It was so sad — that a man who saved so many lives in those very rooms, who led the first great national civil rights struggle of the twentieth century, who ushered Latinos into the modern era (one that moved us rapidly towards equality and towards the American ideals that we all cherish), who impacted social legislation that has forever changed the lives of millions, who was an uncompromising intellect and visionary par excellence, and who worked with five American presidents over a lifetime dedicated to public service — that the place which was the center of his national and community organizing sits today a neglected tomb. It is shameful beyond words.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
This is a strange question. What we do is “business” only in a marginal sense. “Business” is not the most salient feature of what we do. There is no money to be made here. Our coffers rarely overflow. Most independent documentary filmmakers do what they do because they are driven, inspired, obsessed. It is a great privilege and a joy of the highest order to tell the story of the birth of Latino civil rights. It is a reward unto itself and gratifying beyond comprehension. Having said that, if anyone has a burning desire to share in this rewarding endeavor and become a benefactor or patron of work that can help span divides of difference and foster positive change and understanding, please contact me right away! It might be the beginning of beautiful collaboration!
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
When I was growing up, I never felt I got the education I really deserved. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of the public education system and there are a lot of dedicated teachers, but I always felt I needed more … something else. I found visions of the world that transported me beyond the narrow confines of my neighborhood on PBS. When Cosmos, Eyes on the Prize, or Bill Moyers came on KCTS in Seattle during the 1980s, I hung on every word. It gave me an education that went beyond what the classroom could offer. Even as a kid I wanted to be part of the great tradition, an explorer of the mind, in that thing we call public media.
What are your three favorite films?
I grew up in Seattle. Probably because it rains a lot, we found ourselves living in a café-and-cinema culture. We would go to the revival houses (The Egyptian, The Neptune, The Grand Illusion, The Crest, The Seven Gables) where they would show classic, cult, and foreign films, and we spent much of our youth being transported across the thin veil of time. Name three films? I could name a thousand.