Pamela Chavez Translates Her Own Immigration Story into a Magical Animation

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Editor's Note: Behind the Lens is a digital video series featuring bold California indie filmmakers pushing the boundaries of their craft. Each episode captures the personal experiences that inform a filmmaker's work and the risks they take to bring stories to the screen.

Pamela Chavez was very comfortable in the role of “illustrator and animator.” And as she worked on her first animated film,  Caracol Cruzando, a 16-minute short about a young Costa Rican girl emigrating to the United States, she grew into the role of writer as well.

But directing, she remembers, that part was hard. “I hadn’t done anything of this magnitude before,” she says of the four-year-long project. The evolution from illustrator to director, Chavez says, “has been the biggest, with the biggest reward.”

Caracol Cruzando translates memories of her own childhood into a magical story of migration and resilience.  As Chavez assembled a team of talented animators, sound designers and story editors, it was important to her to have diverse, often marginalized perspectives represented behind the scenes—not just in the story she wanted to tell.

Chavez sat down with KQED Arts to talk about her inspirations, lessons she’s learned through filmmaking and what she hopes to see more of in the future.


How did you get your start in film?

This is my first major film project. I studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and I wrote  Caracol Cruzando while I was in school. Right around when I graduated in 2015, I received the grant [from Latino Public Broadcasting] to make this film.

How do you define success for yourself?

Success is being personally challenged to rise to the occasion to believe in myself to be a leader, to trust that I'm a good person to work with and that I have a lot of creative ideas to add to the world. And I think that's my personal goal, to believe in the power of my creative voice and to trust and to continue trusting my process.

Still from Caracol Cruzando, courtesy of Pamela Chavez
Still from Caracol Cruzando, courtesy of Pamela Chavez

What it something you wish you could say to your younger yourself?

As a queer woman of color, it's difficult to find confidence sometimes in the work that we do. I think telling myself I'm doing the most that I can, putting my whole heart into the process, my creative heart, my intellectual heart, all those parts to me, and not to put pressure on myself to create something that's totally perfect.

What is a source of inspiration to you that might be surprising other people?

Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-born French writer and director of animation. She wrote the animated film  Persepolis. People are always surprised to hear that, because it's not directly linked to the stories I tell. But I think that finding yourself in other voices is really important in finding your intersection between community struggles. This is really what solidarity and intersectionality is about.

What does future of filmmaking look like in your ideal world?

In my ideal world, I would see—and I'm speaking primarily to the animation community—stories and films from indigenous, Asian-American and Latino populations given equal voice in funding, perspective, leadership and teams, in a way that hasn't been seen before. It’s not just about having diversity to check a box for a studio or a company, but telling stories in legitimate, honest ways, spearheaded and written by communities of color, queer folks and folks who’ve been marginalized. So it is beyond just having representation, but about the stories and who is given creative input. -- Interview by Rachel Boyoung Kim

Caracol Cruzando is streaming as part of the 2018 PBS Online Film Festival.