La Leyenda Negra—available on HBO Max and HBO Latino—is a rare gift, offering glimpses into the contradictory forces at work in the coming of age of Latinx teenagers in contemporary America.
The Feminist Lens series offers an inside look into the world of film-making and media production through conversations between women in the film, television and digital media industry and Aviva Dove-Viebahn, a Ms. scholar and professor who writes about gender and race in popular culture.
Filmmaker Patricia Vidal Delgado’s first feature La Leyenda Negra (available on HBO Max and HBO Latino) is a rare gift, offering glimpses into the contradictory forces at work in the coming of age of Latinx teenagers in contemporary America: moments of tenderness and frivolity intercut with flashes of anxiety and righteous rage.
It’s a story Delgado drew out of her conversations with actual teenagers in Compton, California. Though fictional, the film is all the more remarkable for its cast: mostly non-professional actors, many of whom where high school students themselves. Shot in black and white, La Leyenda Negra feels both grounded in history and freshly wrought, an impression that carries over into its narrative.
Focusing on a politically savvy seventeen-year-old, Aleteia, after she transfers to a new school, La Leyenda Negra deftly explores Aleteia’s underground activism, sexuality, and new friendships (in particular with popular girl Rosarito) alongside the precarity of her immigration status, which has the potential to derail her bright future.
After seeing the film as part of Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT programming in January, I recently had a chance to chat with Delgado, whose feature debut will premiere on HBO Latino on December 4, 2020. It will also be available to stream on HBO Max.
Aviva Dove-Viebahn: What inspired you to make La Leyenda Negra. Why this story and why now?
Patricia Vidal Delgado: I had previously shot in Compton before [for the 2019 short The Hood], and I had worked with a good friend, Juan Reynoso, who apart from being a professional actor is also the head of TV and media production at Compton High.
I had really enjoyed shooting in Compton, and he suggested that I come and meet his students one day because I told him that I wanted to make a feature. So, I met with some of his current and former students, and a lot of them are Latino and they go through what every other American teenager goes through. But also, a lot of them have immigration statuses that were currently being revoked by the administration, so that’s where the seed for the idea was first germinated.
Dove-Viebahn: Most of the actors you cast in the film where high school students at the time and hadn’t really acted before. And your main character Aleteia (Monica Betancourt) is grappling with coming of age, being a teenager, and then also having to negotiate these complicated things that I think many teenagers do not have to think about, such as her Temporary Protected Status and maybe losing out on opportunities she’d hoped to have. Her new friend, Rosarito (Kailei Lopez), has parallel-yet-separate struggles.
Could you speak a bit more about bringing out those dynamics?
Vidal Delgado: I would say the script started with the character of Aleteia, with the construction of this teenager who has an inner strength that belies her years. She’s a complex character because she’s outspoken yet humble; she’s independent yet lonely; she’s tough yet heartbroken. I wrote the script and I had the silhouette for Aleteia and then when I found Monica Betancourt, who plays her in the film, she really helped me like flesh out the details of who this teenage girl was.
In terms of Rosarito, I think she’s like that girl that is popular and grew up within a clique. She’s been friends with these girls since they were little. I think a lot of women can relate to that sensation [being] friends with a certain group of people because you’ve always been friends with them, but then, as you get older, you look at them through a different lens. You realize you’re not very nice, you’re kind of cruel and you’re a little bit selfish. When Aleteia comes into Rosarito’s life, she’s able to look at things from a different perspective.
Dove-Viebahn: I was struck by how Aleteia’s character is many things, as you say. She’s wise beyond her years and able to push back, but she’s also a typical teenager, impetuous and rebellious. She’s pushing back against the status quo, but maybe doesn’t quite know what she’s doing at the same time. The film is a drama and it’s a coming of age story and we have a kind of teenage romance, on top of all the political and social issues the characters are dealing with.
Can you talk a bit more about the intersection of those things and why you decided to incorporate them?
Vidal Delgado: Aleteia is a teenager, but she knows herself, which is very rare, I think, amongst teenagers—to be that young, but have a very good idea of who you are as a person. Aleteia knows she is different. She’s not really like anyone else in her year in her school, in her age group. Her sexuality is also a part of that. It’s consistent with the person that she knows herself to be.
Dove-Viebahn: You went to art school in London and then became interested in film and video production before moving to the States. What is it about film as a medium that you’re invested in? What do you bring to the films you make?
Vidal Delgado: Films that excite me and that I am passionate about are exercises in empathy. For an hour and a half, you can sense what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The films that I’ve sought to make and the films that I want to watch are the ones that give me a window into someone else’s lived experience, into someone else’s truth. That’s what I sought to do with La Leyenda Negra.
For example, in one of my favorite films, Fish Tank [directed by Andrea Arnold, 2009], you really get into that perspective of what it is to be Mia and to be Mia at that point in her life, how she changes and [how] she goes from being a girl to becoming a woman.
Dove-Viebahn: Early in La Leyenda Negra, there’s a scene that really struck me, when Aleteia pushes back against a documentary they’re watching at school; it’s celebrating the Spanish conquistadors and Aleteia talks about colonialism and imperialism in a very astute way even as the teacher tries to justify the film by insisting it’s an award-winning documentary.
Talk to me about that push-pull tension in the ways we think about history and how it emerges in our contemporary lives.
Vidal Delgado: It’s about historical bias, but a revisionism. It’s looking at history in a very non-objective way, which is dangerous—from either side of the spectrum. The reason that that documentary is mentioned in the film is because we were shown that documentary at UCLA in a graduate critical media studies class; they showed us The Buried Mirror by Carlos Fuentes.
I mean, I’m European, but this documentary is an incredibly pro-European view of the “conquests” of Mexico. I remember turning around to my Mexican friends [in the class] and being like, “My God. Are you okay watching this? Is this upsetting you? Are you angry?” And their response to me was, “Oh. We’re used to it.”
I thought: What if this was being taught in a class with a girl who maybe is also used to it, but my God, she’s going to say something about it, not sit here quietly through this lesson and think it was just this lovely cultural exchange, and we can forget the murder and the rape and the death and destruction. It’s important to take a take a step back and be able to look at everything in its entirety.
Dove-Viebahn: How does the title La Leyenda Negra relate to your film?
Vidal Delgado: “La leyenda negra” refers to the demonization of Spanish conquistadors by Protestant settlers, but it reflects a historical bias, and the character of Aleteia, she challenges all biases in her fight for truth. That’s reflected in her involvement with the underground political organization, the Compton Black Block, and because the film refers to themes of imperialism, both old and new, “la leyenda negra” also refers to that. But if you consider the English translation of “the leyenda negra” is “the black legend,” it’s a nod to her involvement in anarchist circles.
Dove-Viebahn: I love all the different intersections that you make in the film, as well as all the ways you tie everything together. What are you working on for the future? Where do you want your filmmaking to take you next?
Vidal Delgado: I’m in a Sundance Lab, which essentially helps directors who have already gotten a first feature under their belt on their path to their second feature. I’m on the second draft of a feature script and in an ideal world, that would be my film. That will be something shot in Portugal and in Costa Rica, a horror film.
Dove-Viebahn: Oh! That’s so interesting. We’ll all look forward to seeing your next film in the coming years.
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