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¡Sí Se Puede!: Diez Años de NALIP

By Chelo Alvarez-Stehle

From Almudena Carracedo's 'Made in L.A.'

Established in June 1999, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP; has become a driving force in the current US media landscape, creating a platform for independent Latino filmmakers to break into the entertainment industry fortress and gain access to public and private funding for production and distribution of documentary films. The organization's annual conference, this year entitled NALIP: A Decade of Influence, took place in April in Newport Beach, California.

A Call to Action

In the mid 1970s, Latino mediamaking was confined to public television. "ABC, NBC and CBS kicked Latinos off the networks around 1974," says Chon Noriega, professor of cinema and media studies at UCLA, director of UCLA Chicano Resource Center and a co-founder of NALIP. "The only body making sure there would be Latino content in public television was the National Latino Communications Center, known then as Latino Consortium." The NLCC was established in 1975 "to serve a community need for Latino programming." Two decades later, with the Latino population in the country growing exponentially, and right after having produced the four-part PBS documentary series Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (Series Prod.: Hector Galán)--considered an indispensable tool for scholars and students-NLCC funding came to a stop, at the sole discretion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and without announcing a replacement organization to become the Latino member of the 5-member minority consortia.

"It was the defunding of the NLCC that provoked the coming together of the Latino media community at the end of 1998," says Noriega.

The defunding became a call to action for Latino producers, and the nascent e-mail technology became an explosive tool for their media revolution. Beni Matías (The Heart of Loisada), NALIP's board chair, recalls, "A lot of people working in different parts of the moving image field started communicating. Natatcha Estebáñez started an e-mail thread on the East Coast, and Paul Espinosa (...And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him) started one on the West Coast."

"When the NLCC went under, there was a great deal of concern about what would happen to the federal CPB monies allocated for Latino productions," says Espinosa. "A vigorous, productive and widening exchange took place over e-mail." In December 1998, the e-mail thread led to a "professional rally" at Los Angeles-based PBS affiliate KCET of producers and diverse organizations such as NLCC, National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Latino Public Broadcasting (LPBP) and National Hispanic Foundation of the Arts (NHFA).

"Here you had people flying from all around the country," says Noriega. "There was a lot of concern and passion about a pretty significant issue--how Latinos have access to public television--and we realized the funding amount needed was equal to two or three hours of TV. That put things in perspective."

"At the meeting, we decided to have a conference at the same time as the PBS Annual Meeting in San Francisco," says Matías. "You know Latinos--when you don't know what to do, you go have a party! We went to the Holiday Inn in Chinatown, and people started coming out of the woodwork. It was a group effort by people from different backgrounds--Moctesuma Esparza (The Milagro Beanfield War) from Hollywood, Chon Noriega from the academic world, myself from the documentary world."

Noriega and Matías contributed their time to prepare the conference, which took place in June 1999. "We were working 20 to 30 hours a week," says Noriega. "It became two full-time jobs! Myself and Rick Tejada-Flores (The Good War) were shopping around for grant proposals to the MacArthur, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, and the day before the conference, we found out that Moctesuma Esparza had been able to get funding from the Screen Actors Guild Producers IAC Fund; that meant we were fully funded!" 

At the conference, notes Matías, "The older people realized that half of the people attending were under the age of 35. With different backgrounds--college education, film studies, community activism--they all wanted an organization to help them to get things done within their careers."

NALIP was born at a critical moment in media history. "From 1974 to 1998, the Latino community gained access to mass culture, mass media, only through public television," explains Noriega. "But by that point, you also had cable, DVDs, a massive conglomeration taking place in the entertainment industry and the Telecommunications Act of 1996--all globalizing the media. And NALIP just came at the right moment."

NALIP was initially run by volunteers, but by 2001, the need to have a staffed organization had become evident. "Throughout the last 30 years, there were many Latino media advocacy and media reform groups created, but none lasted more than two or three years, because they were relying solely on volunteer efforts," says Noriega. "We needed to institutionalize."

"I have always been drawn to the stories of the under-voiced," says Kathryn Galán, NALIP's executive director since 2001. "My father was born in Spain; he came to the US as a teenage refugee of the Spanish Civil War." Galán did her master's work at UCLA in film and television critical studies, with a focus on "third world" cinema, and spent seven years at Atlantic Releasing in acquisitions and production, attracting and discovering fantastic talent from around the world, and learning how to excite American audiences about their work. "So the opportunity to work with NALIP brought me back to working with under-heard, sometimes undiscovered talent that told exciting, essential stories necessary for a rich, vibrant democratic culture," she explains.

Advocacy in Action

Since its inception, NALIP, an organization with 54 percent of its members making documentaries, has been an advocate for diversity and media justice, as well as a tool to teach filmmakers to advocate on their own behalf. "Latinos' presence in media has been relegated mostly to positions with no executive power," Galán points out. Unlike medicine, business or banking, "media is a high risk, protected, closed group," she adds, noting the fact that two recent PBS American Experience episodes--Roberto Clemente by Bernardo Ruiz and A Class Apart by Carlos Sandoval--are among just six Latino-themed programs in the 20-year history of the series.

"Sixteen percent of the population in the US is Latino," stresses Galán. "And in the major media centers like New York and Los Angeles, it is 30 percent. Is media that diverse? Do the films chosen by major US festivals reflect that percentage of filmmakers and their concerns? Until you see Latino filmmakers in theaters, read stories about them in major magazines, see that they receive critical acclaim, see them in senior positions...we will continue to work-until we can really say that we are in a post-racial society."

Given that the only blacklisted film in US history was Salt of the Earth, Herbert Biberman's 1954 film about Mexican-Americans who went on strike to protest unsafe conditions and unfair treatment at New Mexico's Empire Zinc Mine, we may be able to understand the controversy in 2007 around the seven-part PBS series The War by Ken Burns. The fact that the 500,000 Latinos who had fought for this country were ignored in the initial cut of the series "illustrates the way in which Latino media justice concerns are routinely dismissed," says Galán. "Although PBS does engage in content discussions with individual filmmakers on a routine basis. PBS and others have portrayed the Latino desire for inclusion as an infringement on the creative control of Ken Burns, rather than a request to be included as part of the United States, and to be recognized for the community's sacrifices in times of war." NALIP, as part of the National Latino Media Council, advocated alongside the Defend the Honor coalition and others to bring this issue to PBS' attention, and to propose both short- and long-term solutions. After a long period of negotiations, Burns agreed to add 30 minutes of additional footage of Latino and Native American veterans.

Professional Fast Track

While NALIP vows to continue the transformation of the media landscape to ensure that Latinos are included at every level of the industry, its advocacy efforts are paired with the professional opportunities it offers to Latino independent producers.

NALIP's annual conference has become an indispensable, open conclave for producers to "cross-pollinate," as Matías puts it, and to cross the boundaries of documentary filmmaking into new media ventures; the organization has a commitment to spearhead a new media platform that would allow for greater distribution of Latino stories.

At the Latino Media Market, which takes place concurrently with the conference, selected emerging and established filmmakers have the opportunity to hold private meetings with a wide range of funders and buyers, from seed funders such as Maya Entertainment and Chicken & Egg Pictures, to PBS and ITVS, to Sundance and HBO.

NALIP's professional development programs draw from and maintain a strong pan-Latino membership: Mexican and South American, Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean, Dominican, Cuban and Central American, along with Spaniards. Many members are first- or second-generation immigrants. "We created a professional fast track for an entire generation of filmmakers," says Galán. NALIP is planning to institutionalize its professional development program, "be it creating a physical place or establishing a Latino Sundance," she adds. For the past seven years, NALIP has offered its signature programs, such as the Latino Writers' Lab; the Doing Your Doc: Diverse Voices, taught by "Documentary Doctor" Fernanda Rossi; and the 11-day Latino Producers Academy (LPA). The LPA has both fiction and documentary tracks, in which a selected group of filmmakers have the opportunity to reshape their projects in an intensive, hands-on workshop with a group of devoted mentors.

"Once you get to the LPA, your life is never the same," says Matías. "You meet all these people who want to make sure you finish your film. They might not be able to give you the money, but they're looking out for you."

Made in L.A., the Emmy Award documentary that Almudena Carracedo directed and produced with Robert Bahar, "came as an embryonic project to the LPA in 2004, and not only did it get a push forward, it also attracted critical alliances with mentors, including her composer," says Galán. The film has become a great example of using media as a tool for organizing, and the kind of social impact filmmaking that NALIP is interested in supporting.

"There are other communities of filmmakers in the US, but in my journey as a filmmaker, the place where I found most support was NALIP," says Carracedo, who received NALIP's Estela Award in 2008. "It really felt like an extended family of filmmakers, an atmosphere of deep learning and growing, of complete trust and not competitive--something difficult to find." Carracedo received NALIP's Estela Award, which honors filmmakers "whose achievements reveal leadership, creativity, and tenacity, as well as vision and passion for their craft."

Another NALIP's Estela Award recipient, Natalia Almada, developed Al Otro Lado, her first feature documentary at the first LPA. "It went on to national broadcast at P.O.V ," says Galán, "and helped her win a prestigious Rockefeller Foundation grant" for El General-which had its world premiere at Sundance 2009; Almada earned Best Documentary Directing honors there.

Almada had taken El General, about her great-grandfather, Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles, to the Latino Media Market three years ago. "There is no money in Mexico, so I had to raise it in the U.S.," she says. "But it was so difficult to convince American funders that my great-grandfather was a very well-known figure in Mexico. Imagine the great-granddaughter of FDR making a film with his tapes! They just assume it is not important because they have never heard of him. Our challenge is that we are dealing with images that most Americans don't understand. You sacrifice complexity and artistic integrity for the sake of simplifying it for this audience."

Filmmakers Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Dawn Valadez attended the LPA as first-time feature documentary makers with their film Going on 13. Their project premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival after securing funding from the California Council for the Humanities and ITVS, among others. Going on 13 continues to screen at festivals around the world, and at community screenings in the US The film will air on PBS in 2009 or 2010.

Anayansi Prado developed her film Maid in America, about a Latina cleaning woman in Los Angeles, at the LPA, where Women Make Movies executive director Deborah Zimmerman mentored it and acquired it for distribution. It became one of the top-grossing films in the educational distributor's 35-year history.

"Filmmakers now believe that it is possible," says Galán. "It is not easy, but 10 years ago, it felt like it was not even an option."


Chelo Alvarez-Stehle is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. A contributor to Spain's El Mundo daily, she has also published in Japan and the US. As a member of NALIP, she participated in the 2008 Latino Producers Academy with her current documentary project Sands of Silence: A Personal Journey into the Trafficking of Women.