A Latino’s Adventure from Attorney to Film Festival Founder [Video]

Pete Vargas Chicago Film Festival

Pepe Vargas Takes us on a “No Passport Needed Adventure”.

Pepe Vargas, Founder and Executive Director of the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago shares his background and the origins of the Chicago Latin Film Festival (CLFF).

Pepe Vargas was born in the countryside of Colombia, eventually becoming a lawyer practicing in Buenos Aires, Argentina. His sense of adventure kept him traveling through South America, experiencing different Latino cultures and learning who we are as a Latino culture.

The next chapter of his life took him through Central America, landing in Mexico for a year and continuing to travel to Belize, Guatemala and Los Angeles multiple times. He also went back to university and continued exploring more of Mexico.

Pepe says that it was a highly charged political time in Mexico. This exciting and exuberant time in his life, talking and meeting  interesting people and exploring new ideas was impactful. While attending many conferences and important meetings dealing with immigration that were conducted in English, he realized he needed to learn the English language and decided to move to Los Angeles. After spending a year in LA and enrolling in an intensive English language school, he learned the basics, but Pepe felt he would not fully learn the language unless he enrolled in something more academic that would force him to truly immerse himself.

Taking on this challenge, he decided to leave law behind, moving to Chicago and enrolling in a Broadcast/Communications program. It was here that he developed his love for film and filmmaking, and founded the Chicago Latino Film Festival in 1985. The festival has evolved into one of the largest of its kind in the United States.

He is also the Executive Directory of the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, which branches out from film to other Latino artistic expressions.

“This wandering around has given me a lot of information, knowledge, experience and at some point I asked myself what do I do with all of it?”. The film festival has been the perfect tool to arm myself with. Pepe says that the festival is a powerful tool in transforming  the way Latinos are perceived. He says that “we have something within that we can express and share – literature, dance, music, film, there is no limit. The festival is a tool to create awareness that Latinos can do more than just the stereotyped perceptions of Latinos only performing menial jobs. These movies show the possibilities and creates role models that Latinos can aspire to be – becoming great filmmakers, architects, scientists, lawyers, engineers, creatives, – successful professional people.”

Pepe also says that the message that the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago wants to share is that everything boils down to respect. No Latino is any lesser than another – from the indigenous peoples. Afro-Latino, Chinese-Latino, Italian-Latino, and all of the various blends of Latinos, we are all part of this unique community. “That is what makes us unique, exciting, interesting – equal to none. We have this mixture that makes us not necessarily better than anybody else, but makes us different. That is what we have to respect and celebrate – the differences. No one is better than another. What is important is the whole package. We are the sum of all of us”.

Traveling to so many Latin countries has given Pepe the sense that we are not alone as Latinos. We have the power of community. When we put it all together, it’s a big number and this gives us power. We need to capture that and be active  participants in it. We need to encourage the new generation to also become a part of it. Give them a sense of belonging. Yes, they may have been born in this country, but not only are they Americans, they are part of a bigger family of many nations and many languages. We want to instill this in  them. They belong to something very big and and very powerful”.

Leaving a legacy of the uniqueness and importance of a vibrant & talented Latino presence in Chicago aside from being just a cheap labor force is at the forefront of Pepe’s mind. He says – “we are talented, a community of many countries. Our population is growing. We want to give them something to relate to, something people are inspired by. Creating a mecca of Latino culture here is important, where you can visit the museum, have dinner, listen to music or poetry reading, watch a comedy show, visit the cultural center. We want to make it a destination for both Latinos and non Latinos”.

The Chicago Latino Film Festival is the longest running Iberoamerican film festival in the United States. Since its beginning, CLFF has showcased films from Latin America, Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean and made by U.S. Latinos, and as Pepe likes to say “no passport needed”.

It continues to celebrate Latino filmmakers who tell their stories in many thought-provoking ways, helping to  launch the career of new filmmakers.

See more of our full interview here.

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