New York Latino Film Festival 2023 WORD Q&A with Calixto Chinchilla, Founder of the Festival & Filmmaker, Director Ramon Pesante

New York Latino Film Festival 2023 WORD Q&A with Calixto Chinchilla, Founder of the Festival

The New York Latino Film Festival (NYLFF), the nation’s premier Latino film festival kicks off Latino Heritage Month from September 15 (today) to 24, 2023 with an impressive roster of 116 films from nearly 20 countries. Held once again at Regal Union Square, 850 Broadway, in the Big Apple, NYLFF will open with the NYC premiere of Amazon Prime’s film CASSANDRO (2023, 99 minutes. USA) starring Gael Garcia Bernal. The film follows the true story of a gay wrestler from El Paso who rose to international stardom.

NYLFF 2023 Schedule

WORD (Gregg W. Morris, Editor): Okay. So what’s new about this festival this year. Because last year it was a big success and there was a lot of excitement. So how do you build on it or how do you take it to the next level?

Calixto Chinchilla: Oh man, I think that’s something that we ask ourselves every year, I think since the day one. I think this year is more because we’re deeper out of pandemic. I think last year was our first year back in theaters. We had done it as a hybrid drive in experience, the last two years prior to that in the Bronx. So that was our first time going to the Bronx.

And then this year we’re back at Union Square. So I think some of the newness of it, it’s just the films, the caliber just keeps going up. And I don’t think we really anticipated, to be honest with you, post pandemic, how the quality was going to be, what kind of content we were going to receive. Because obviously, as people of color, we’re greatly impacted by the economics of it all, right? The fallout and all of that.

NYLFF Founder Calixto Chinchilla

And so you wonder what films are going to be made, or who’s finding the money and all of that. And so we discovered the opposite, at least this season. We had a record-breaking season of submissions. The quality’s just through the roof. The content is just there. And then there’s plenty of different reasons to celebrate within the pockets of the festival.

Obviously, you have anniversary of hip hop, you have blood and blood, in that anniversary for. So there’s different moments that happen, that just keep us on our toes. So yeah, we’re excited.

WORD: So you took great risk then, it sounds like. And it really, really paid off. Is there a special theme for this festival this year?

Calixto Chinchilla: I don’t really go to themes. I think it’s –

WORD: Or spirit? Spirit, if not –

Calixto Chinchilla: Spirit, yes, is: You’ve been ready. So I think that’s what’s in our commercial, that’s kind of what we’re saying this year, is like you’ve been ready for this moment, that moment to play on screen. And so we’re all about exhibition and getting people back into theaters.

And so this festival is saying, you’ve been ready for this moment. And so to have that film in Dolby Surround, all of that moment, that ramp up, you’re ready for this moment. And so the trailer is about that. The trailer is about big dreams. If you’ve seen the trailer.

And then they’re mounting up to that moment. And whatever your career, it blossoms from here, is on you, but you’ve been ready. And so that’s what we’re going on this year. And that ready could be for anybody. That ready is the audience, the filmmakers. And so if you look at the trailers, it’s anybody who touches their footprint in the festival, you’re here for a reason.

WORD: Is there any particular genre that stands out more than others?

Calixto Chinchilla: I love documentaries, personally. I think this year’s are pretty strong. But I also like international films because you see a slice of life that you’re not used to, and then you realize even more, the commonalities. Whether you are in Argentina, or Brazil, or Cuba, you realize some of our struggles that we have here, I don’t want to say take for granted, but we here in the United States as Latinos, are kind of the same in Latin America.

And they’re not any different, it’s just a different country. And so that’s what I really like about some of the international films, is that you literally are looking at something else that is somewhat familiar, and then definitely new.

WORD: Are there any particular films that have anything to do with the craziness of Donald Trump and that right wing extremist Republican Party?

Calixto Chinchilla: No, not really. Nothing like that. I think-

WORD: I had to ask the question.

Calixto Chinchilla: No, no, I don’t think those films are percolated yet. I think those films are certainly in development. You know what I mean? And I think there’s still some narratives yet to be seen about the shutdown.

We have one film that covers the shutdown, and obviously PLAYING SAM (directed by Ramon Pesante) was actually also shot during the shutdown.

But I think that there’s that moment in pandemic, between everything that was happening in the country economically, but also socially, that I think that those narratives are still being formulated. You know what I mean?

And so I’m curious to see what stories come out of that, social justice stories that come out of that.

WORD: Yep. One question is, so, regarding all these filmmakers, can you give me sort of a demographic description of some type? Like how many teenagers, any teenagers or youth of talent under 21, or over 75, or anything like that?

Calixto Chinchilla: No, we don’t really ask for age, so it’s really hard. But I know they’re young. You know what I mean? They’re all young burgeoning filmmakers, but no one too young.

WORD: What about gender?

Calixto Chinchilla: A lot of female directors, particularly in the international section. Not so much in the U.S. domestic features, but certainly in international. So the craziness, I think we have one female in U.S. competition, but a majority of female in international, which kind of shows you, maybe it’s a lack of opportunities, but certainly the funding, I would say, because a lot of, not every, but a lot of international films do get government funding or different level of support than US filmmakers do.

We don’t get that kind of level of support the way some international markets support their content creators. So it’s different. But we do have a lot of females, certainly in the shorts, for sure, and in documentaries.

Filmmaker, Director Ramon Peasante

Ramon Pesante: (PLAYING SAM) – It’s a film about a Latina actress that’s trying to break out of the stereotypes of what it means to be a Latina actress, or a Latina artist. So a lot of the things that she struggles with is breaking out of those, breaking out of the stereotypes.

And so it starts with her wanting the role of Anita for an off-Broadway presentation of the West Side Story. And she goes in thinking that she has to give her best Latina accent, and then the casting director, who’s also the director, pushes her to give her something a little bit more genuine than just that surface of what she thinks that it’s expected of her.

And she then delivers a monologue, which is the film, of a personal experience dealing with her turbulent love life. And so it’s just really an encouragement, overall encouragement about embracing yourself and allowing the outside world to embrace you for who you are, versus what they think you are.

WORD: So how long did it take you to do the film?

Ramon Pesante: Took me three years to make the film. The pandemic, we started pre-production during the pandemic. I was tenacious as hell about it, and probably a little too tenacious. But I believe during the setbacks I was able to refine the story.

And every time I’ve executed a film, the delays, I realized that the delays are that thing that you need to refine your creative for the finished product. So the first half of 2020, we started pre-production. 2021, we shot for five days. We planned and shot for five days, and then we spent the rest of 2022 into 2023 finishing and editing the film. And then just in time for this season of film festivals.

WORD: Excuse me. Calixto, what were some of the challenges that you had to deal with in getting this next festival going? I’m going to say off the top of my head, probably, we’ve already sort of touched upon it, getting money to be able to do it the way that you want to do it. But can you give any anecdotes, a little bit of description? Because this is a major undertaking and I’m just nosy.

Calixto Chinchilla: It’s difficult, period, right? The arts industry as a whole is being impacted by everything post pandemic, financially, and just what you’ve seen in the markets and mergers and all this other stuff. But we’re really fortunate, we have a really good committed group of partners that believe in the work that we do, that see the impact in the work that we do.

And so we’re really thankful for that. And so yeah, while it’s difficult, I’m not going to lie, every year is a challenge and has its challenges. And I’m not going to say it didn’t have any challenges.

But with that being said, I’m also, we’re in a really deep place of gratitude with the partners who have committed to the festival and continue to stand by us and elevate us.

WORD: What about sponsors?

Calixto Chinchilla: Like what exactly?

WORD: Well, because it’s big. It’s a lot of sponsors. And I just was sort of … and it’s mixed. It’s Spanish, it’s American, so it’s very diverse. And I guess I was looking for some comment talking about the diversity that you were able to generate and is helping you.

Calixto Chinchilla: Again, it is always hard to get funding for stuff like this. And again, you really have to really work hard. And also, the brand, we’ve been 23 years doing this. So I think hopefully there’s consistency, not only consistency in the quality of the work, but the quality of the execution, and the quality in the content that we present and the kind of content that we present.

And so I think that kind of helps in opening doors. And so, again, we’re really thankful for every partner. It takes work, it does take a lot of work. And to keep them there, so yeah.

WORD: How did you get into the business?

Calixto Chinchilla: Some of it was by accident, and a lot of it by desire. So the accident part is, building a festival like this was never in my plan. It was a vision, that’s for sure. As far as how it would look, how it would feel, that I was clear on, all those things.

But it being this? No, that was not fully of the plan, but it was a dream. So it was that. It was really just ambitious. I was going to school. I was a young person, just working, going to college, and making films. And I had made a short film and didn’t have a place to play it. And there wasn’t a Tribeca Film Festival that existed at the time. And to be honest with you, even if there was, I’m not sure if I would be in it.

But that’s neither here or there. I think it’s just there wasn’t anything that spoke to POCs, particularly from a Latino experience, in New York, which is crazy, because New York has everything. We have every kind of Latino that lives here and experiences that come from that, and yet there wasn’t a festival that it existed.

So it was like, well, what if? It was always that, what if we did that? And even to this day, that what if… still exists with us. And that’s where curiosity lies, and that’s where you grow the event, and you try to create those new opportunities, and see how much we can expand.

And so it started off with the what if. And then you get the believers. And you got to knock on every door, and you got to take it brick-by-brick. And that’s what we did, with no social media, with nothing to speak for.

WORD: Right, right, right. I love it. So, when you were in college, you were … how do I want to phrase this? You were an artist in a sense, correct? Is that …

Calixto Chinchilla I don’t considered myself that. I wanted to tell story, but I never thought I was an artist, artist. I always had a business mind on the side, I think, or practical side of things.

WORD: But I really like-

Calixto Chinchilla: But, yeah, I liked writing. Of course, I was a creative person. I always was a creative person. I would write a lot. I would write …

I remember when I was in high school, my mom could tell you, I’d be writing all night. I was that person. I always had ideas, I always had stories. I always liked film. I loved Spielberg as a kid. At six years old, I lived for this man.

So I liked that. But then at the same time, as I got older, I also was really peaking an interest on the business of film. I just, how does this thing function? And so those two curiosities kind of always was in my mind. You know what I mean? So there was…

WORD: Well …

Calixto Chinchilla: But I could have considered myself an artist? No, I leave that to other people who are real artists … I’m not that. I don’t think so.

WORD: Well, one of the things, when I was into basketball (growing up in Chicago), I was recruited … had a lot of offers, college. Basketball was everything. Basketball was magical for me. And then when, on a fast break in Lisbon, Portugal, (way after I graduate from Cornell) I went up for a jump shot and when I came down, my kneecap was up in my thigh. And so it ended my career.

And since basketball was so spiritual for me, I had to come up with something else. And so writing. But the point that I’m getting at — it’s a bit long winded — is one of my perceptions when I’m talking to you is that you are an artist who was able to deal with the entrepreneurial side of the business because you recognized its significanse.

I knew a lot of artists friends (back in Chicago). I thought I was sort of artistic. I knew a lot of artists. They didn’t understand anything about the business. Our thing was: What we do is everything. And they — and me, too — didn’t think about how they’re going to pay bills and take that vision forward. And you just did it. So when I was talking about that, it was just that you had that entrepreneurial sense, that you can do more, you could do more for you, you can do more for others. So I just think you should get some kind of (medal) .. . I’m just really impressed. In awe what you did.

Calixto Chinchilla: Thank you. And you know what, all credit to God, for real. All credit to God. That doesn’t happen without a force bigger than me. You know what I mean? Or any of us. And so that’s the dream. I couldn’t even take the credit for that.

WORD: So who’s going to talk about, September 15th is when things kick off, correct?

Calixto Chinchilla: September 15th. Yeah, Friday. This Friday.

WORD: Friday. So whoa, can you describe what it’s going to be like, the opening day?

Calixto Chinchilla: I think it’ll be cool. We have two different openings. We have one, kind of like a preview, that we’re doing of this show called Cassandro, which is the true life story of, that’s his name. His name is Cassandro. But he really was an exotic, like a more feminine, flamboyant kind of wrestler.

And how this man in Mexico, at a time where the conversation of being Latino and gay wasn’t even happening, how he kind of steps forward and is like, no, I’m going to make this character. I’m going to be this. I want to show something different. And he finds himself liberating himself in the process.

So it’s not so much just performative, where that was the initial thing, was being performative and stunting. But then he finds in the process that he’s liberating his own self, playing this character.

His real name is Saul Armendáriz, but he was groundbreaking at the time.

And so it’ll be good. We’re going to have some wrestlers, we’re going to have some Latino wrestlers that talk about their experience. Wrestlers who are here in New York, that do Lucha Libre. Cassandro himself will be there as well. So it’s really going to be good. I think it’s his first time fully seeing the film on the screen. And so it’s really going to be a sweet moment.

So we have that, and then we open with a festival on the 19th, with Story Avenue, directed by Aristotle Torres. It stars Luis Guzman. And again, that film is kind of like an ode to the Bronx, about this young boy who, as part of an initiation, tries to stick up Luis Guzman. And that moment changes both of their lives forever, what comes of that moment.

Calixto Chinchilla: Some exciting stuff. And then we have our digital conference, which is the next day on the 16th. And again, it’s how do we expand that what if? Really, it was a matter of that. We started seeing trends. Obviously, people were taking their digital and social content a little bit more seriously and elevated. And yet, like filmmakers, how do we advocate for that? How do we advocate for that content, whether it’s in knowledge, in how the system works in payment, and how do we get fair pay as creatives, and then just creating spaces where those creators can learn best practices and learn from each other?

And so for us, it’s become more of a mission for me, to hit content creators wherever they live. Whether you live on TV and film, whether it’s on social, whether it’s in script, whether it’s in comedy. We have a comedy program. And now we’re launching photography. So we’re going to be announcing a whole photography track soon. And that’s what you want to do, is try to create pockets of impact where you can, in incremental moments. You know what I mean? So that’s, yeah.

WORD: Okay, I might have missed the point. What do you mean by this photography focus?

Calixto Chinchilla: We’re going to be … we’ll announce it soon, but we are launching a program for Latino photographers, those who document the experience, the Latino experience. And really trying to provide an opportunity that’s equitable and hopefully gets them into more doors, where they can get their content sold.

You know what I mean? Whether it’s through a Getty or whatever, and really get photographers to understand the business of that world.

And so for us, our photography gang, everything that we do, we hire all these photographers. And we pick them. We change these people every year. And again, it’s like if we’re going to spend our money, if we have a festival and you have this organization, how do you create those buckets of opportunity?

Well, then some of that is, I’m going to spend on my people. Okay. Well then, I want to spend on different people. And so it’s not like hiring the same people every year. Sure, there’s consistency in that. But then there’s also pockets where you can create new opportunities.

And so photography has been one of those things. And we had an ex… I can’t really get into it now, but we had some people that really saw the work that we were doing, and it’s like, okay, let’s take this to another level. So you’ll hear about that soon. We’re going to be announcing something pretty soon.

WORD: Okay. Ramon, what advice would you give to the filmmakers? What advice would you be able to give to the students that I know of, filmmakers at Hunter College, and several of the other colleges of the CUNY system? If there was some advice that you may be able, or seeds that you could plant for them, that this interview will help them to get started?

Ramon Pesante: Filmmaking is not a job that you apply for, you have to be an entrepreneur when it comes to filmmaking. And you have to green light yourself. And you have to move forward. And if you have an idea, and you see something you want to do, and you see all these things working against you, that is part of the process. Filmmaking is problem solving. And just to be as tenacious as possible, and know that even in your first film, where you’re not going to get a lot of support. Like I did in my first short film, I didn’t get a lot of support, but I got support from my friends. So start with your friends.

And as you build momentum making content, and you have this flow where you start a new project, people are going to start jumping on board to want to help because they see that the train is moving. But the beginning is very hard. The beginning … but it could be very rewarding. So when the train’s moving, people want to jump on. So just know that you just have to green light yourself and not ask for permission when it comes to starting off as a filmmaker.



Calixto Chinchilla: There’s a bunch of free events that are happening, different free screenings and retrospectives. And so I encourage people to check out

There’s a lot of, again, we want to make the event accessible for people of various incomes. And so there’s different opportunities to attend the festival, to get knowledge, to meet people, to network. And then there’s elevated experiences that you can have at the festival as well.

So we offer a little bit of both for everybody. And so there’s that. And then we have a block party that we’re ending the entire event, on the 24th. That’s going to be in Washington Heights, on Dyckman. It’s going to be an all day event. It’s going to be really fun. And just check out our site. And then follow our socials on Instagram @nylatinofilmfestival. It’s an active community. Anyone who checks our social media knows, it’s a pretty fun gang over there.


Gregg W. Morris can be reached at,