Words by C. Díaz
Edited by Abigail Vela
It was a hot, humid morning in downtown Brownsville, where I was spending the day producing and directing a music video for the LA-based artist San Cha. San Cha and her band, Lu Coy (saxophone, vocals) and Jon Almaraz (guitar, vocals), had performed in McAllen at the MXLAN festival the previous day. It was San Cha and Jon’s second time in the Valley, and Lu, a San Antonio native, was familiar with the RGV through family vacations at South Padre Island. It was special to have these artists present in the RGV, and we wanted to commemorate the experience by creating something together.
I first experienced San Cha’s intoxicatingly hypnotic voice and stage presence in 2015 when she performed with the band Sister Mantos. It wasn’t until 2020 that we began to collaborate on various audio/visual projects. Our love for the drama found in telenovelas, magical realism, and immersive performance brought us together and continues to fuel our conversations to this day. As queer artists of Mexican descent consistently pushing the boundaries of conventionality in art, our collaborative process is expansive and entirely driven by our desire to create the world we envision in our imagination. San Cha approached me about shooting a music video for her song “White Magic” while she was in town for MXLAN, and although we’d have limited time and budget to work with, it was a project I felt needed to come to fruition.
I always aim to uplift local talent behind and in front of the camera, especially those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. In the Valley, there are incredibly talented and skilled creatives who are often overlooked when it comes to hiring a production crew. Commercial film production is plentiful here, yet crews are usually made up of the same individuals, many of whom are unwilling to train or mentor folks interested in pursuing a career in production. This isn’t a Valley-specific problem; it’s an issue prevalent throughout the larger film industry. The gatekeeping of knowledge, skills, and resources stifles creativity and equity, which stunts the growth of individuals, both seasoned and fresh, in the film world. As an artist working in social practice, I am dedicated to offering my experience and skills to facilitate creative expansion and upward mobility for future filmmakers, especially those living in the RGV.
By following this ethos, I worked with RGV artists of all skill levels on this production. When running a set, my goal is to make sure everyone feels comfortable and confident in their respective role and for the production day to flow with ease. This type of work, although physically taxing, is ultimately a privilege to be a part of, so it’s important to keep stress levels low, treat people with respect, and be intentional with requests and expectations from the cast and crew. Running sets this way has resulted in work that contains a quality you cannot fabricate formulaically, and the projects I’ve directed and produced in this manner have brought forth long-term friendships and collaborators who I’ve come to care deeply for. For me, that is the biggest reason I take on projects such as this–for the soul connection.
This production was a “live performance music video,” meaning that we were not only capturing pre-meditated visuals, but we were also recording the track that was to be used for the final video. Andres Sanchez, Sound Engineer for the shoot, reflects on this unorthodox approach:
“I’d never worked on a music video at this level of production before, even less so with this production process where the music video is shot out of sequence, before the song it’s for actually exists. It made for a very liberating production experience ultimately, as having to perform (and work) to a specific recording can have its own limitations.”
As with any production, some challenges had to be addressed throughout the day. Filmmaking is a very collaborative process in that we are constantly coming up with ways to problem-solve issues that may arise.
“One of the bigger obstacles for me was that dolly shot [at] the beginning of the music video. Doing things for the passion of it in a DIY spirit often means you’re limited on equipment, so in order to get that dolly shot, we used my camera cart to achieve the dolly movement. I stood on top of the dolly while Andres pulled it backward.”
–Eric Vasquez, Director of Photography
Eric is a seasoned industry professional who brought my vision to life through his knowledge of lighting and camera techniques. It was vital to work with a Director of Photography with the expertise to translate the emotion and energy from set to screen. However, I also wanted to bring on individuals whose talents I knew would lend well to the production, such as Alejandra Martinez, who I contracted as Set Designer and Make-Up Artist.
“It was my first time working on a music video, so I was nervous about doing everything under pressure and with limited time. One of my challenges was working with the Valley’s high temperatures, as I had to make sure the makeup was set in place and wouldn’t smudge or come off while they were performing. It was also my first time doing makeup for a set, but Jon and Lu were really understanding about it, and they made me feel comfortable to work with them.”
–Alejandra Martinez, Local Artist, Poet, and Performer
“As someone relatively new to film production, I really appreciated the trust, direction, and the opportunity to work with such a talented group of visionaries. Special projects like this are kind of rare, so […] I was immediately intrigued. For this production, I was a grip, production assistant and unexpectedly became an extra along the way.“
– Carmen Castillo, Local Artist, Musician, and Impact Advocat
The shoot took place in Brownsville at the historical Carlotta Petrina Cultural Center. Petrina was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1933 for her work as a painter. She spent her final years in Brownsville, where her work continues to be preserved and exhibited in Petrina’s home. The opportunity to produce the music video with Petrina’s artwork surrounding our production added a historical component to this project. When it comes to the documentation, preservation, and exhibition of histories in the arts and the socio-political context, entities with power in the Valley do not prioritize these histories. And with the current bans and censorship of Critical Race Theory alongside the transphobic and anti-reproductive justice legislation set in place by the State of Texas, it is crucial that we address and uplift voices from these marginalized areas of society. As an artist and cultural organizer in the RGV, ensuring this information is shared and acknowledged is paramount, especially for projects I have the responsibility of leading.
“‘White Magic’ reflects on the deceptive nature of our country’s politics & politicians and the theatrics of the election process that have me under a spell of delusions.”
San Cha’s writing comes from a deeply personal place, and “the personal is political,” as Carol Hanisch wrote in 1969. Discussions around race, sexuality, and gender are constantly manipulated by those in power to maintain systems that continue to oppress thousands of individuals globally. Zooming into the Rio Grande Valley, these systems of oppression include our militarized borders, silenced histories, and harmful rhetoric around marginalized groups such as the LGBTQIA+ and undocumented communities who inhabit this land. These issues cannot be disconnected from the work I create as an artist. I have a duty to my spirit, my ancestors, and the people I collaborate with to consider these aspects while conceptualizing and organizing projects.
There is a deeply charged energy enveloping these borderlands— it’s an energy that activates me to not only raise awareness around these issues but also to celebrate all the beauty and bounty that surrounds us. Beyond the negative stereotypes and fear-mongering headlines, the Rio Grande Valley is truly a magical place saturated with the dreams, desires, and imaginations of our ancestors and the generations yet to come. Our job as creatives in this region is to excavate these gems and share them with the broader world, shift the narrative of our region, and advocate for a better future for those living in the borderlands across the globe.