Entering the presentation room to hear Jesus Salvador Treviño speak on his career, I assumed I was going to see visuals from old Chicano Movement documentaries or perhaps a Spanish film. I knew Treviño’s work was impactful, and the introduction given by Latinx film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg only confirmed this assumption. However, while I expected to see old technicolor visions of students and farm workers striking, I had no idea I would see clips from Star Trek, Law and Order, NYPD Blue, and other primetime classics that were a staple in my own home growing up. Hearing him speak about his decades-long career, I came to realize that Treviño’s success has transcended all my notions of what a Chicanx can achieve in the mainstream media.
While the presentation began highlighting his success, screening a montage made specifically for his recognition by the Directors Guild of America, Treviño did not hesitate to admit the struggles he faced in the beginning of his career. First and foremost, Treviño identified himself as a storyteller–rather than a director or writer. He told us that all of us are story tellers, and the only question remaining is what medium we will use to tell our stories. For Treviño his medium has been film, but the greatest obstacles to making his early films were not rooted in low-budget film technology or faulty set design.
In making his first documentary Yo Soy Chicano, Treviño revealed that his greatest challenge was the lack of recorded history and visual documentation of the Chicanx people. Attempting to tell stories of important Mexican-American figures, of whom we maybe had one photo, was extremely difficult. How could he tell the story of who we are and where we came from with such little we knew? How could he tell a history from scratch? His answer to this was simple–creating his own visuals. Using the scraps of photos he could manage to find, Treviño would recreate dramatic reenactments to fill in the gaps where visual documentation was just not available. As a result of his ingenuity and persistence, Yo Soy Chicano was the first ever Latino-directed documentary to broadcast nationally.
Another challenge of story-telling came in his feature length film Seguín. In this picture, Treviño re-tells the story of the Alamo from the Mexican or Mexican-American perspective, centering on the Texas Revolutionary hero Juan Seguín. In this case, Treviño’s problem was the opposite. How do you tell an entirely different story of the Alamo when its hyper-nationalist American tale has been famously told and retold for over a century? Treviño did not shy away from the challenge. Firmly centering on the memoirs of Juan Seguín, Treviño shared the untold Mexican history of the Alamo, showing his audience the heroism of the fallen Mexican soldiers. In this film, Treviño expressed how delighted he was to cast Chicano actors in roles of dignified and unsung heroes instead of their usual parts as auto-mechanics and cholos.
Following Treviño’s presentation, I was fortunate to have lunch with him and other UT graduate students. He was happy to share more about his great fortunes and great challenges, but he was most intent on sharing with us his message of hope. For Treviño, every story he tells is embedded with a hope for a better future. While many of his stories of Chicanxs emphasize their adversities and the injustices they face, Treviño never wants his audience to be left with a sense of apathy. On the contrary, Treviño sees his stories always as vehicles of hope, ready to take anyone who will go with him.