A funny thing happened on the way to the Chicago Latino Film Festival this year. The Latino business community of Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, defying conventional business wisdom, forgot about competition, passed on “looking out for No. 1,” and banded together to help one of their own. The result? No less than the Audience Choice film in this year’s Chicago Latino Film Festival, Urban Poet.
Just over a decade ago, the mention of Humboldt Park, a predominantly Puerto Rican area, did not conjure images of a culture mecca like Greek Town or Little Italy. Instead, most Chicago residents were more likely to think of gangs, violence and poverty. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Humboldt Park residents joined forces to revitalize their community, rekindle the neighborhood’s economic climate, and preserve the ethnic enclave where many families had set deep roots.
As if to leave no doubt of the community’s ethnic pride, in 1995 two gigantic sculptures of the Puerto Rican flag were raised about a mile away from each other on Chicago’s Division Street, the lifeline of Humboldt Park. The stretch between the 40-ton, 59-foot-tall monuments was named Paseo Boricua.
“The growth in the past 10 or 12 years has been phenomenal,” says Enrique Salgado, executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association, who reports that more than 45 new Puerto Rican-owned businesses have launched since then. Occupancy is up and pride radiates in the smells of carne and sounds of salsa swirling in the air. The storefronts are even taking on little touches of Old San Juan, thanks to a city façade fund. With such a strong sense of community, the climate was perfect for local filmmaker Antonio Franceschi to seek public support to make a dream come true. Franceschi, who is of Puerto Rican, African-American, French and Italian descent, grew up in Chicago around Eckhart Park, a close neighbor to Humboldt. During his teens, while most others were dedicated to sports, he dedicated his time to making films. His adult credits through his company, New Film Productions, include The Saint and an independent film about the Olympic journey of a boxer who grew up on the streets; Fuego Tropical, a music showcase; and Siempre Caliente and a Spanish magazine-format show. A few years ago, Franceschi tuned into a movie-worthy trend.
“I noticed that a lot of young people were getting into the poetry scene so they could be heard,” he says. “Gloricelly [his wife and lead actress in Urban Poet] and I decided to write a script—at the time we called it Slamming—for a movie about a young Puerto Rican lady trying to talk about issues such as gentrification through poetry.”
But the film business is expensive, and investors weren’t biting. “They thought a movie about a young, educated Latina from a good home wouldn’t sell. They wanted it to be more sexually explicit, more violent,” Franceschi explains.
Fortunately, the neighborhood is tightly connected. Franceschi approached Salgado and other friends and associates in Humboldt Park in search of resources and talent. Salgado says he was excited when he heard about the project. “As a Puerto Rican and as a part of the community, I felt it was something I had to do.
“Antonio needed some locations that would have taken a lot of money if he had to pay for them. We went to talk with business owners and tell them the benefits; everyone was excited and willing to open their doors.”
Not only did people offer their homes and businesses as filming locations, others provided the necessary services to pull Urban Poet together. Ygo Salon provided hair and styling for the actresses and actors, Boca Agency provided filming and recording studios, and freelance cinematographer Felix Mendez donated endless hours behind the camera, which happened to be the latest in digital technology.
“We emphasized that in return, these businesses would get exposure as well,” Franceschi says. “It would be a chance to show off Humboldt Park, which doesn’t normally get a lot of [attention]. It is notorious for drugs and gangs, as if Puerto Ricans can’t get it together. But this shows the positive side.”
The cast and crew also worked for film credit. “In the end, I knew this movie would be important because it wasn’t about Hollywood effects and drama. It was a realistic story of a Latina trying to make it, and it needed to be heard,” says local actor Carlos Rosales, who plays an adversarial character, Raymond. “It felt good to be working with so many Latinos from diverse backgrounds. We need to support each other, whether that means working on a project like this, or buying lunch from the man who sell elotes on the corner,” adds Rosales, who is of Mexican and Spanish descent.
Urban Poet, from filming to editing, came in under $5,000, debuted to sold-out audiences at the 19th Annual Chicago Latino Film Festival, and received excellent reviews from film critic Roger Ebert. “This really helped to prove a point,” Salgado says. “It shows that money doesn’t dictate the world, especially in the community. When there is social capital, you can make yourself a success, and you can do it right here in the community.”
Gloricelly Franceschi, co-author and main character (Rita), admits that she was skeptical in the beginning because it is rare to see “so many Latinos mobilized across nationalities. I think they really wanted to get it done because it would be the first time to [spotlight] Humboldt Park,” she says. “Now they see the possibilities and are ready to welcome other filmmakers.” Seeing the neighborhood on the big screen reinvigorated pride in the community and drew new customers, as well as previous residents who returned to experience the renaissance.
The business community needs to learn to look at film as the opportunity that it is, Salgado and Gloricelly Franceschi contend. “I would hope that this will also be done in other cities across the U.S.,” Gloricelly Franceschi says. “Until more of this happens, we won’t be able to view our own movies told in our own words. Anyone can pull their resources, just like this community has, to empower themselves and control their own stories.”