By Phillip Jordan
“With our film program and the greater social justice mission of the Mount, we’re trying to empower young people, especially women, to believe that they can make a difference. And here’s one of their own professors creating a film that does just that.”
There is a scene from his youth that Marcos McPeek Villatoro will never forget. He was a teenager, and he and his mother — “both insomniacs,” he says — were up late watching “Casablanca.” A cigarette dangled from his mother’s fingers. In her other hand, a glass of whiskey.
“Without even looking at me,” Villatoro recalls, “she says, ‘Hijo, I will disown you for two reasons. I will disown you if you get married before college because you can be the first in your whole family to go to college.’”
“I said, ‘OK, what’s the second reason?’ She looks at me, and says very slowly, ‘If you ever give away the family tamale recipe, I will disown you. If this whole writing thing doesn’t work out, you might be able to open up a restaurant.’”
Villatoro’s writing career has, in fact, worked out just fine. He is a novelist, poet and essayist. He has won a Best Book honor from the Los Angeles Times, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is also the director of journalism & new media at Mount St. Mary’s College and the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Creative Writing.
But that closely guarded tamale recipe still came in handy.
In 2009, Villatoro began a four-year journey that led to the memoir-style documentary “Tamale Road” (“Camino Tamalero”). In the film’s trailer, Villatoro describes himself as a pocho: “A half-breed Latino who knows nothing about his roots.”
“You see, my dad was from the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, my mom from a tiny town called Berlin, El Salvador,” Villatoro says. “Dad didn’t speak Spanish. Mom didn’t speak English. So, naturally, they got married. And it lasted for 63 years.”
Growing up in the States, Villatoro felt increasingly detached from his mother’s roots. So, in 2009, he decided to travel to El Salvador in search of his family. And he took his mother’s passed-down tamale recipe with him — a sort of culinary letter of introduction. Villatoro took with him a film crew that consisted of a director (himself), a producer (his wife, Michelle McPeek), two cinematographers (son José David and daughter Raquel), a sound mixer (son Ben) and a photographer/artist (daughter Emily).
There was only one problem. Nobody in this family film crew had made a movie before.
Enter Charles Bunce and Kelby Thwaits, instructors in the Mount’s Film, Media & Communication department. Bunce and Thwaits became collaborators, editors, sound technicians and faithful companions through many long nights spent whittling 127 hours of footage into a 97-minute documentary.
“The whole process was a huge learning curve,” Villatoro says. “I was very fortunate to have Charles and Kelby to turn to. And it wasn’t just for small tweaks, either. They truly helped me build this movie.”
Before the McPeek Villatoro clan even went to El Salvador, the family audited Thwaits’ “Digital Video Production” class at the Mount. When the filming ended, Villatoro, Bunce and Thwaits worked as the post-production team to edit the movie, add voiceovers and create a soundtrack.
“I have two great friends because of this movie,” Villatoro says. “That’s one big perk of this long process. When you’re not working on the movie, you’re also talking to each other about family, life, everything under the sun.”
“And food,” Thwaits adds. “We were paid in food for this film: tamales, enchiladas, chicken pot pie, pasta. And caffeine. Lots of caffeine.”
The trio also helped keep each other sane. While it certainly has its lighter moments, “Tamale Road” also features some emotionally draining scenes.
“There are really somber, touching parts in this film, but we were still able to talk and laugh about different things,” Bunce says. “The dichotomy between the film’s content and our friendship was incredible at times. But we needed that levity. Sometimes you need to laugh to get through the heavy stuff.”
One of those heavy scenes deals with the slaughter of more than 20,000 indigenous peasants under the direction of former President Maximiliano Martinéz, a massacre that Villatoro’s mother survived. The haunting images are accompanied by a sparse guitar piece played by Villatoro, as well as drawings of the massacre created by his daughter Emily.
“It was the most simple, beautiful guitar piece,” Thwaits says. “Just three notes played by Marcos on a classical guitar. And then the drawings that Emily did make the scene so powerful, because it morphs from the drawings to actual images from the massacre and it hits you: ‘Those drawings are of real people and a real massacre.’”
Today, Villatoro is working with an agent to get a wider release for “Tamale Road.” The film’s Facebook page already has more than 40,000 likes. And Villatoro has shown the film at a dozen colleges and festivals throughout the United States, El Salvador and Mexico.
Last November, “Tamale Road” premiered at the Mount. More than 100 students joined a large Hannon Theater audience to watch the film and to participate in a question-and-answer session with Villatoro, Bunce and Thwaits.
“This movie is really about how I’d lost touch with my roots, and many people can relate to that,” Villatoro says. “I think that’s especially true among second- and third-generation Latinos in the U.S. I’ve learned that from my students here. They are torn between their family’s history and traditions and new lives and new traditions here.”
From their seats in the audience, listening to the gasps, and laughs, of many of their own students, Bunce and Thwaits realized something else about the power of Villatoro’s film.
“With our film program and the greater social justice mission of the Mount, we're trying to empower young people, especially women, to believe that they can make a difference,” Thwaits says. “And here’s one of their own professors creating a film that does just that. It’s a chance for our students to see how they can do something like this. That they have their own power to create art that actually says something.