Three UNT alumni bonded over Tejano roots. Now, they’re using that bond to make movies
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When Brandon Rivera, David Velez, and Emily Sánchez produced their first film they thought it would be just for fun.
Their first collaboration was in 2019 during their undergrad at the University of North Texas where they worked on their first narrative short film, “Ladybug,” the story of an 11-year-old getting back at his brother for killing his pet ladybug. “It was a massive, little labor of love,” Sánchez said.
That labor of love turned into a professional partnership. The three knew they wanted to keep working together. They bonded over their Tejano roots and the ways in which they navigated multiple worlds.
“When I was growing up I was very disconnected from my roots and my culture. I grew up not speaking Spanish. Everybody else in my family was entirely fluent. In middle school and high school I was [wanting] to blend in. As I got older it really upset me,” Sánchez said.
That experience of feeling in-between inspired them to create Watchale, a production company that creates narrative and documentary films. The group experiments with fact and fiction, and the space in between, leaving it up to the audience to interpret their films. “We want to make Texas our playground … and show the version of Texas you haven’t seen on screen before,” Velez said.
Inspired by their distinct Latino backgrounds, the group wanted to portray their identities by embedding nods to the cities they grew up in and the people they grew up with in their films.
“It’s part of the reason we get along so well,” Rivera said. “We share that culture. We share that community and history and jokes. There’s so much that comes along with it and we each know that it’s going to be prevalent in our work in one way or another. We know it’s part of our voice no matter what. We seek out what makes us happy and a lot of times it’s stories from our own community.”
Each of the three come from different parts of Texas. Velez, originally from the border city of Juárez, spent most of his life in El Paso. “Each of the stories that [have been] made so far have a connection to [El Paso],” he said.
Rivera was born in Dallas and grew up in Arlington. Rivera’s family has been in Texas for years, which explains his family’s Spanglish and Texas hybridization – as he calls it. “I’m a very strange Texas-twang mix.”
Sánchez grew up on the northside of San Antonio. She described feeling disconnected to her roots and her culture as a teenager growing up in the city that birthed her. It wasn’t until after graduating from UNT and moving back to San Antonio that a newfound appreciation for her city emerged. “I had a massive reappreciation for the city I grew up in,” she said.
Those Tejano roots drove them to choose the Rincón sisters as protagonists for their first documentary film, “Rincón”. The documentary is a portrait that follows Latino twins, Daisy and Martha, in the heart of Oak Cliff. The eight-minute doc follows the sisters, one a fashion entrepreneur and the other a visual artist, as each takes on their individual projects that draw on their Tejano roots. Daisy curates outfits out of her thrifted, vintage finds and sells them on her online shop, Épocas, while Martha, who works under the name, “Shot by Thrive”, creates art and jewelry with Chicana essence.
“It was an easy choice because these are our friends. We all inherently knew that their voices and their stories and their personality in general was going to give us everything,” Velez said.
Their next film, “Heatwave," was a quick one-and-a-half-minute documentary film that included sound bites from people complaining about the heat in Texas. “We wanted to show how miserable and hot it is in Texas,” Rivera said. “It’s still part of that portrait that we want to paint of our culture and community. We [wanted] people to cuss about [the heat] and really show it in its full colorful language and its full colorful imagery.”
Their latest film, “The Sidewalk Artist," follows Manuel Portillo, a Mexican cement contractor in Cedar Hill who leaves a special mark after finishing each of his projects. Portillo creates simple art, like a dog print or a family, in freshly poured concrete around different construction sites across the DFW metroplex.
“The Sidewalk Artist” was awarded the Narrative Shorts Grand Jury prize at the Slamdance Film Fest in Utah in late January. While the trio’s work is garnering attention outside of Texas, they ultimately hope to continue to offer a different perspective to the industry, speaking to those who know the struggle of finding that sense of belonging between two different cultures.
“We’re all three so different. We each bring so many different things to the table and we’re constantly shape shifting and making something new,” Rivera said. “But the focus that does stay the same is … the heart of those stories.”
“The Sidewalk Artist” will be screened at Film Soup, a free community event in Dallas, on April 22. Find more information about the film at watchaletx.com.
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