The MSU Latinx Film Festival, initiated by the Department of Romance and Classical Studies and first held in February of 2018, returned for its second iteration in February of this year. The first festival spanned four days and seven venues with seven feature films and one short film, as well as several special events. This year’s festival was greatly expanded with five days of events spread across MSU’s campus and the Capitol area, including feature and short films from across the Americas in a variety of genres, virtual reality and 360° video installations, and several musical events.
The final film of the festival was the documentary, Singing Our Way to Freedom, directed by Dr. Paul Espinosa. The film traces the life of the musician and activist, Ramón “Chunky” Sánchez (1951-2016). Sánchez was the son of Mexican immigrants who settled in Blythe, CA. As a child, he worked alongside his parents as a farm laborer, and in a clip from the film he recalls a rancher telling his father that Sánchez would one day make a good foreman. Hearing his future planned out for him, Sánchez chose instead to go to college, majoring in Mexican American Studies at San Diego State University.
Sánchez’s political activism began during his time in college, most notably with the 1970 “Chicano Park Takeover,” in which residents of San Diego’s Barrio Logan reclaimed land under the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, a freeway construction project that divided up the largely Mexican American neighborhood of Barrio Logan in the name of “urban renewal.” When the city unexpectedly began construction of a California Highway Patrol substation on the land under the bridge, which had been promised to the community as a site for a park, members of the community—including Sánchez—marched on the land and held it until the city relented.
Sánchez immortalized the takeover in the song, “Chicano Park Samba,” on the 1979 album, Rolas de Aztlan, by Los Alacranes Mojados (The Wetback Scorpions), a group Sánchez formed with his brother, Ricardo, along with Marco Antonio Rodríguez and Mario Aguilar. Sánchez’ songs documented the struggles of Chicana/o communities that came to a head during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His involvement with the United Farm Workers union and his songs about the struggles of farmworkers made him a favorite of César Chávez. In 2013, for his artistic contributions to the Chicano Movement and to Chicana/o communities, Sánchez received the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts when he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
In the film, Espinosa tells the story of Sánchez’s life through video interviews with Sánchez recorded before his death, interviews with friends and family members, archival footage, sound recordings, photographs, and footage of Sánchez as a child taken from the Sánchez family’s home movies. The film is a moving tribute to an icon of the Chicano Movement and was well-received by the audience at the festival. Espinosa was in attendance for the screening and took questions from the audience after the film. The discussion concluded, appropriately, with Espinosa noting that Sánchez considered his music and art more generally as a way to build community, and that the MSU Latinx Film Festival likewise is a way to bring together and build solidarity within Latina/o communities in Michigan.