Having worked in Hollywood for 20 years as both an actress (Zoot Suit, American Me) and a writer, Fernandez says she became fed up with the stereotypical roles she and her peers were auditioning for. "There were the suffering mothers, the suffering undocumented workers, gang moms kneeling in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and that's about it," she says. "I was very frustrated. We weren't seeing that Latinas are as passionate and educated and sexy -- as human -- as anyone."
Her remedy was to write Luminarias. It debuted at L.A.'s Latino Theatre Company, where its success motivated her to adapt it to film.
Luminarias goes a bit against the grain, being that it's in English and a pure product of the L.A. Latino community. So pure, in fact, that Fernandez exclusively tapped into the growing riches of Latinos in Southern California and across the country to fund the film's $1 million budget. "It got so that people were tipping us off about benefits where there would be Latinos with checkbooks," Fernandez says.
At the center of the story are four professional women who frequent the restaurant of the title, where their tongues get loose in proportion to the cocktails they consume. They both dis and praise men of various cultures, especially the ones they're screwing. Fernandez's character, Andrea, for example, is hit with divorce proceedings in the opening scene but eventually hooks up with Joe Levinson (Scott Bakula), a Jewish attorney. It's all very Sex and the City. Fernandez says that is one of the comparisons she has heard often. "Earlier on, it was called the 'Latina Waiting to Exhale.'
"I wanted to portray women in control of their own destiny," she says, "as well as address our community's own prejudices -- against white people, Jewish people, black people, Asian people, gay people. We don't open our arms to other cultures easily, and I wanted people to see that." (Fernandez's next project, Dementia, expressly addresses Latinos' fractured relationship with their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.)
Fernandez says she has been waiting for something like this to happen for 20 years. "But as Jennifer Lopez said recently, 'We are not a trend.' You've got to remember that there were more Latinos on television and in movies in the 1950s than there are now -- like Cesar Romero and Desi Arnaz. It's not like the doors are wide open. Hopefully, we can get past this crap."
While the film hasn't broken any box office records, it has inspired Fernandez to assert her voice. "I've seen how the lack of positive Latino and Latina characters has affected our community's self-esteem," she says. "Now we know we can make a movie to help correct that."
Gloria Bessenbacher, the director of cultural activities and special events for Kansas City's Sociedad Hidalgo, says that in the eight years since the Latin American Cinema Festival premiered, "It has become quite popular within our community. We have people coming from Topeka, St. Joseph, and other cities nearby; we even have attendees from abroad."
This year's festival opens on September 9 with El Abuelo (The Grandfather) from Spain. Other films are Rito Terminal (Final Rite), whose director, Oscar Urrutia Lazo will be present; Por Si No Te Vuelvo a Ver (If I Never See You Again) from Mexico; and Un Lugar en El Mundo (A Place in the World), a co-production of Argentina and Paraguay. Luminarias will close the festival on October 7. Each film will be followed by discussions of "the history, culture, and heritage of the Spanish-speaking countries featured in the films," Bessenbacher says.