A "Latino wave" in media and entertainment swept the nation in 1999, and in San Diego, where 27 percent of the population is Latino, it's still going strong.
Riding that cultural wave is the 13th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival, which opens March 9 at the UltraStar Mission Valley Cinemas at Hazard Center. What began as a student film festival is now the longest-running Latino festival in Southern California and, with expected attendance of about 17,000, it is also one of the largest.
The explosion in Latino entertainment got started with the attention placed on pop sensations Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Jennifer LÛpez and Enrique Iglesias. It continued to gather momentum with the films "Amores Perros," "Y Tu Mam· TambiÈn," "Cronos" and "Central Station," which received international prizes and Oscar nominations. Hollywood took notice of actors such as Salma Hayek, Benicio del Toro, Rosario Dawson and Benjamin Bratt. Directors like Walter Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries"), Guillermo del Toro ("Hellboy") and Alfonso CuarÛn ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban") were invited to work in major U.S. studios.
These artists made a mark in the mainstream entertainment business and had wide crossover appeal to English language audiences as well as Latinos. Similarly, the San Diego Latino Film Festival, said founder and Executive Director Ethan van Thillo, isn't just for Latinos.
"We screen great cinema, no matter who you are," van Thillo said. "If you just enjoy good cinema, this is the place to be for 11 days."
The festival presents more than 130 feature films, shorts and documentaries from around the world. Highlights include the American-made documentary "Favela Rising" and features "Batalla en el Cielo" (Battle In Heaven) from Mexico and "El Viento" (The Wind) from Argentina.
To be included in the festival, the films must be by Latinos or about the Latino experience. "Who Loves the Sun" is a short written, directed and produced by Asian filmmaker Chen Hsi Wong. But the film reflects the lives of Latino and African American youth in Los Angeles.
"This festival is also all about showing the diversity of the Latino community, and how we connect to various other communities," said van Thillo.
But the real common denominator among the films, he said, is in the storytelling.
"With Latino cinema, you're looking at a very intimate, very personal cinema. Latin America cinema doesn't have the high budgets of Hollywood. So immediately you get rid of those special effects and $100 million films. Usually it's handheld cameras, close-ups, the realities of what's happening in someone's neighborhood. I think that's probably the difference."
At the same time, the festival this year will screen more studio films than ever before. These include screenings of "Duck Season" from Warner Independent Films; "Take the Lead" from New Line Cinemas, starring Antonio Banderas and co-starring San Diegan Dante Bosco; "La Mujer de mi Hermano" from Lions Gate Pictures; and "Ask the Dust" from Paramount Pictures, starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell.
A common theme that's emerged among the films is immigration. Border issues, which affect everyone living in the San Diego-Tijuana region, will be the focus of a Border Visions spotlight. The series includes a short film, documentaries and narratives exploring immigration and those affected by it in the United States and Mexico.
"One of most important themes that has come out this year is the border," van Thillo said. "Filmmakers have been producing films that touch on the realities post-9/11, with heightened border and homeland security. What's happening on the border, and how is that affecting all communities."
Included in the series are the highly anticipated feature film from Mexico, "Al Otro Lado," and the American documentary "Crossing Arizona," which looks at immigrants, border security and the controversial Minutemen project.
The festival also features a Cine Gay series of films documenting gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender life around the globe. The third annual Arte Latino features the work of 13 artists through exhibitions at area galleries and local branches of sponsor Union Bank. Sonido Latino nightly performances include dancers and poets in addition to the many musicians representing a wide range of musical genres from salsa to hip hop and rock. Performances take place in the UltraStar Cinema Mission Valley theater lobby and at venues throughout San Diego.
Beyond the films and events and the opportunity to rub elbows with filmmakers and artists, the festival's greatest potential is in bridging communities -- fostering a sense of pride among Latinos and understanding among non-Latinos.
"Thirteen years ago, when I came to San Diego, there was no film festival," van Thillo said. "I imagine a young Latino growing up here in San Diego, in middle or high school, dealing with peer pressure, dealing with stereotypes he or she sees on TV, the negative portrayals of (Latinos), and then for first time ever being able to say there is a Latino film festival.
"We've changed the cultural landscape of San Diego County forever. This is an important shift for Latinos -- young kids in particular -- to be proud of culture. To know there are positive portrayals of Latinos on the big screen."
PROGRAM: 13th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival
Organization: Media Arts Center San Diego
Tickets: $6.50-$8.50 for film screenings; $10-$25 for concerts and galas; $80 film pass includes 11 films; $175 festival pass includes all films, workshops, VIP seating, entrance to awards ceremony and more
Dates: March 9-19
Location: UltraStar's Mission Valley at Hazard Center
More information: www.sdlatinofilm.com, (619) 230-1938