Nancy De Los Santos: a Latina Writer, Period.
And a seminal media pioneer
Al Carlos Hernandez, Contributing Editor
Writer/Producer, Nancy Alicia De Los Santos, a native of Chicago, is a two-time Emmy Award nominee and the first Latino to ever serve as a member of the Writers Guild of America, West Board of Directors.
Published on LatinoLA: November 22, 2009
Her body of work is impressive.
She is co-writer and co-producer of "The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood Cinema", a benchmark historical documentary about the life and times of Latinos in the cinema. She served as the associate producer on the seminal feature film "Selena". Nancy is considered to be one of the preeminent Latina screenwriters in Hollywood.
Currently, Nancy is concentrating on the written word. She has written scripts for Showtime's "Resurrection Blvd". and for the PBS series "American Family". She wrote the teleplay for "Gotta Kick It Up!" on The Disney Channel. Nancy has two teleplays currently in development: "The Texas Boys", co-written with Tomas Benitez, details the life of the first Mexican American civil rights attorneys. The film is in development with StarzEncore. "A Simple Act of Kindness", based on a true story of the Oaxaca Mexican community in upstate New York, is being developed at Showtime.
De Los Santos began her career in Chicago, at what she calls "the best job in the city!" As producer for Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's film review program "At The Movies", she oversaw the production of this groundbreaking series. She was also the executive producer for programming at the ABC affiliate in Chicago, working on a number of documentaries, entertainment, and public affairs programs.
De Los Santos was selected to direct a short film from her own script by the Universal Television Film Project. "Breaking Pan with Sol" is a character study of a Chicana on her thirtieth birthday. The film was selected as "Best Short Film" at the Chicago International Latino Film Festival. Out of 2700 submissions, Nancy was selected for HBO's New Writers' Festival. "The Answer to My Prayer" was produced on stage for the event. Her feature film script based on this work was selected to participate in the prestigious Equinoxes International Screenplay Writing Workshop held in Bordeaux, France.
De Los Santos was co-writer with Dan Guerrero on the 1998 PBS network music special, "Vikki Carr: Memories, Memorias". She is currently developing a feature script with Guerrero based on the life of Chicano rocker Chris Montez. De Los Santos received her degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Texas at Austin. She graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, with a Masters in Communications, and has written for Hispanic Magazine, Latin Girl, Latin Heat and Latina.
LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor Al Carlos had a chance to talk to Nancy about her career:
AC: Why did your parents move from Texas to Chicago? Did you experience any language difficulties or culture shock? How did this move color your opinion about race? Did poverty, discrimination or underemployment affect your early life?
NDLS: I was born and raised in the "Windy City," speaking only English, due to the mistreatment both my parents experienced while they were children in Texas. They spoke Spanish at home and English at school, and during that time, young people were punished for speaking Spanish in school or on the playground.
I do remember being called by Anglo and Black neighbors, "dirty Mexicans," and that puzzled me, since we appeared cleaner in dress and at home than they were! I recall it was difficult for my parents to rent apartments for us – six children – because we were of Mexican heritage. Chicago, at that time, was a very segregated city.
I grew up knowing I was different, but not having any shame in being Mexican or being different. As a young girl I asked my mother, "What are we, Mom?" Her answer: "We're Spanish." It was not until I was in college that I realized I was Mexican, Mexican American, and finally--as I learned about our history and became politically aware--decided on my self-label, Chicana.
AC: Are you the first in your family to go to college? Why did you decide to go?
NDLS: College was never a choice offered me as a child. No one in my immediate family or extended family had attended college. A number of my cousins hadn't graduated high school and, if any of them had a high school degree, they were working in a craft or service type job.
My family's financial support ended at my high school graduation. That was okay. I didn't want to go to college anyway. I was a great typist (still am!), and going to college was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to work. I wanted a J.O.B. in downtown Chicago. I wanted a paycheck, not another report card. And honestly, I didn't have any real knowledge about college. College was never discussed at secretarial school. I didn't know the difference between a BA, MA, or Ph.D. It didn't matter. I wanted to work and make my own way in the world.
I began my college career. almost three years after graduating high school, at the urging of a fellow hospital employee – where I worked as a secretary. He was a nice young man from Bogotá, Columbia - a full-time university student who worked full-time at the hospital at night. He was shocked that I didn't speak Spanish well and even more shocked that I wasn't in college. His family had sacrificed to send him to school in the United States, and here I was born and raised in this country, obviously smart, and hadn't even thought of college.
He encouraged me to apply to community college. I did, and realized that I loved this new environment for learning. After a few semesters, I applied to a nearby college, but the counselor told me that at 24, I was too old to begin college. Luckily, I didn't listen to him. I enrolled in the school, met other like-minded Latino students, became politicized, and continued writing while discovering video and film production. Leaving that school after two years, I left Chicago and enrolled at a major university, The University of Texas at Austin, completing my Bachelor of Science degree in Radio, TV, and Film, and later at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, completed a Masters degree in Communications.
AC: Why Radio, TV and Film?
NDLS: I loved watching television as a young person – cartoons, situation comedies, "The Twilight Zone" – and my dad's favorite – "Gunsmoke". He would love to watch the sheriff and Miss Kitty on this popular Western. He would talk about the story, and its plausibility, and… he would point out that there were very few "Mexicans in Dodge City. Why? There had to be Mexicans around back then." That got me thinking… and it has become my life's mantra. Every production I am involved with is a Latino production. Either the story line, the characters, the writer, producer and/or director is a Latino. And when there are Latinos in decision-making positions, usually the question will be raised as to making a character Latino.
I quickly realized the power of film and television, and how people learn from what they see in the theatre or on television. Ideas are shaped. Decisions are made. People get to know each other from these images. If our image – the Latino image – is only one of negativity, i.e., gangs, drug dealers, maids, and poverty, then that is how will be known. And, just as important, young Latinos will shape their own images and dreams on what they see in the movies. If we only show negative images, our Latino youth will have very little to aspire to.
AC: What about Chicana social activism in college?
My love of reading led me to want to write. When I entered college I gravitated to the Latino students – the Mexican American and Puerto Ricans. They were very vocal with their opinions and demands to administration. I embraced them and created the Chicago student newspaper – "Contra La Pared" (Up Against the Wall) with co-editor José Gaspar. I wanted to write our story, the stories of the students. As the co-editor of the all-volunteer newspaper, we were responsible in getting the newspaper out and there were many challenges.
One day, our photographer came in and announced he was quitting school to work, but didn't want to leave us without the ability to have photos in the paper. He gave us his 35mm camera and taught me how to use it. The newspaper needed photographs and, as the co-editor, I did what I had to and learned quickly how to take and develop photos. The darkroom is an incredible world and I loved the experience of seeing images appear right before my eyes. The photo lab was located in the Radio, TV and Film Department, which was just introducing lightweight video cameras and recorders to the students. Once I got my hands on a video camera, I knew I wanted to make films that depicted our stories. I saw the power and the possibilities in documenting the students' history – every protest, every meeting, every party.
My co-editor and I developed an "independent study class" that would take us to Los Angeles to interview what was then a new phenomenon in television news – Latino reporters. We packed up a car and drove to Cal State Northridge. The school was known to have one of the best Chicano Studies Department and was headed by author and activist Rudy Acuña and well-known photographer Raul Ruiz. At Northridge, Chicano students welcomed us and invited us to live in any spare space available. These students were radical by our standards.
Every weekend was a rally for the United Farm Workers or a student meeting to demand more classes geared to our history. I grew by leaps and bounds during this time, realizing that I would never just be a writer or a filmmaker, but would always use my talents and energy to further improve our lives and the image of Latinos in all media.
AC: What specific incident made you realize that you could actually make it in the media business? What was the dream that you were following?
NDLS: When I was promoted from Associate Producer of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel's film review program on PBS, I realized that I could be a success in this business. These two incredible men were not only the best film critics in the country, they were also very critical of those who worked with them on the show – in a good way. If a bad decision was made, they would let you know. If a good decision was made, they would let you know.
They were very particular in choosing and keeping their production staff and crew. The same great eye that they used to critique film, they used to create a production team that they believed in. I was the Associate Producer for two years. When the Producer left the show, they suggested and supported me for Producer. I produced the show for three years at PBS, and when they took the show to commercial television, I was the only staff member they asked to join them. It was difficult leaving PBS, but the experience of working with Siskel and Ebert was worth taking the change. I continued to produce the show for two more years – and still consider that job to be my favorite.
AC: What do you like to do the most? Writing? Producing? Directing? Teaching?
NDLS: I am very fortunate – and probably very brave – that I have followed my heart when it comes to doing what I love. What I love is all of it: writing, producing, directing and teaching. Each has a special place in my heart. I love writing because I love creating stories and listening to the story's characters as they tell me who they are. Producing can be fun and it's always interesting to problem-solve and put out fires, but unless I truly believe in the project, I won't take a producing job just to have a job. Directing is a fabulous and each and every time I do it, I want to do more.
After teaching for one semester, I realized that there is a special place in heaven for teachers. They give so much to their students and yet, they get so much back. I love teaching. I enjoy sharing valuable information with students and letting them know that they can succeed in business. So much of our success believes in ourselves. I do my best to give my students permission to believe in themselves.
AC: Are you typecast as a Latina writer? Has that helped or hurt your career?
NDLS: A number of years ago there was much discussion in our community about if we – Latinos – were considered writers first or Latinos first. In the end, I think it's a personal decision as to what you want to call yourself. I've decided that I am a Latina writer. Period. I write Latino and Latina stories. It's what I know and what I love to write. My decision to write Latino stories has probably limited my career, but I wouldn't have changed anything about this road.
AC: If you were not Latina, do you think you would have had more opportunity?
NDLS: Difficult to say either way – this is a challenging business for everyone. But, if I had to make a statement, I would say that people – all people – tend to want to help those who look like they do, or those who they know personally, or those who know someone who they know. For Latinos and Blacks, the number of available people in the business who look like we do is limited. Blacks and Latinos who are in a position of power are in short supply.
AC: What do you consider to be your greatest work so far?
NDLS: While I do love all the work I have written or produced, I think the contribution of the feature length documentary – The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood Cinema (HBO/Cinemax) co-produced with Susan Racho and the late Alberto Dominguez, co-written with Racho – is a huge contribution to our history and the Latino legacy in Hollywood. I am very proud of that documentary.
AC: What projects do you have in development now? What are some of the things you are working on in the future? What would be your ultimate project?
NDLS: I am developing and writing two hour-long dramas with a fellow writer, Victor De Jesus. Hour long drama is a tough wall to break down.
My 'must do' project is a romantic comedy feature film, titled "The Answer to My Prayer". It's a script I wrote a few years back. The script was selected to be in the Equinox Screenplay Conference, held in Boudreaux, France. It was a great experience, and the first time a script from an American writer was chosen to the conference. I got to work with a group of incredibly remarkable and talented screenplay writers, including the wonderful Delia Ephron. I'm schedule to direct this film in my hometown, Chicago, in 2010.
AC: What would you tell young people about embarking on a career in media?
NDLS: Television and film production is a challenging career – but most rewarding. Yes, you have to be committed. Yes, you have to work hard. Yes, you need to have something to contribute. And, yes, you have to really want to do the work. You have to be prepared to do the work.
AC: What would you like your legacy to be?
That I helped to change the image of Latinos, Latinas, and people of color in television and film to a more realistic and balanced image. That I always gave 110% in any project I was involved in. That I offered good advice and a helping hand to any Latino who wanted to try this wonderfully complex and rewarding business as a career.
More info on Nancey De Los Santos at: http://www.nancydelossantos.com.
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