Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about how Latinos are redefining narratives within Hollywood. Click here to read the first in our series. Crossposted with permission from palabra.
José Manuel “Lico,” Jiménez was a child prodigy and one of the first Afro-Latinos to leave Cuba in the 1860s to study classical music and perform in Europe. Although he received standing ovations in cities across the continent, when he returned to his beloved homeland he found that, sadly, his talent as a classical musician was not as widely appreciated by some in colonial Cuba.
But the pianist known as “The Ebony Liszt,” persevered – and his tale of strength and triumph against incredible odds is an authentic Latino story that is about to be told. Preserving his legacy is one of the goals of his great-granddaughter, actor Julie Carmen, who is executive producing a documentary on Jiménez’s life. “There is part of Black (Afro-Latino) history that has been erased – and the whole range of my family is coming together to reintroduce the world to their accomplishments,” Julie said in an interview with palabra.
Best known as the star of films such as “The Milagro Beanfield War,” “Windows on the World,” and programs such as “The Tales of the Walking Dead” anthology and “Grey’s Anatomy,” Julie is a veteran performer – and now producer, who understands the business of moviemaking. She is active in Latino Hollywood, organizing table reads to support both performers and writers and as a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences she has the opportunity to sponsor qualified actors for membership.
Julie is also among the many Latino creatives who are networking and collaborating on projects that shine a bright light on the complex and nuanced narratives of the Latino experience seldom seen on screen. She is especially proud of the documentary currently in progress, “Lico Jiménez, the Ebony Liszt,” which showcases the remarkable life of her great-grandfather, an acclaimed pianist and composer.
He “was discovered at age 12 en el Palacio de Cantero in Trinidad, Cuba,” said Julie. “At age 15 he was in the Paris Conservatory and won first place ahead of (his classmate, French composer) Claude Debussy.”
Julie said Jiménez, along with his father and brother, were among the first Afro-Cuban musical artists to travel throughout Europe in the 1800s. Jiménez performed for audiences filled with the most accomplished musicians of his generation and was often compared to the famed Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.
But when he returned to Cuba a few years later, he faced obstacles. “At the time that my great-grandfather went to Europe, classical music was not acceptable for people of African descent to perform in Cuba,” she said.
Although Jiménez and his family had been born free, that was not the case for thousands in Cuba for much of the 19th century. “Slavery was still legal,” Julie explained. Consequently, Jiménez decided to move to Germany, where he married and started a family.
Nowadays, Lico Jiménez’s descendants live all over the world, and while working on her documentary this spring, Julie got to meet some of them for the first time. “Basically, the story that I am producing now is the coming together of the two branches of the family, the Cuban branch that we knew nothing about, and the European branch,” Julie said.
The cousins immediately bonded, and organized a special concert celebrating both their great-grandfather’s music and the inauguration of a plaza named after him. It was an event that made national news on the island.
Isidro Betancourt, the film’s director, tells palabra that being involved with the documentary is an honor for him. “Directing this documentary with Julie is a new experience for me and I’m fulfilling a dream of making this great musician known, (because he was) someone who was unknown and unfairly forgotten. Getting him (and his music) to be known, studied, and played is the key objective of this documentary.”
Julie shares the same vision and describes her film as a compelling work of art that she believes will resonate with people everywhere.
“Race and tribalism and nationalism are really polarizing the world, and people are gravitating toward what they feel is their little tribe,” she said. “Through the generations in our family we have seen a lot of multiculturalism and mixed marriages and people from all different backgrounds falling in love, marrying, having children, and raising those children with progressive values,” she added.
The Lico Jiménez documentary is being produced at a pivotal moment in the history of American entertainment. Calls for a more balanced media portrayal of Latinos have grown louder, with advocates voicing concerns that Latinos — who comprise nearly 19% of the U.S. population — are often erased or misrepresented.
While Hollywood has recently expressed an interest in Latino projects, research suggests that the industry needs to more carefully consider how its content is depicting various communities and, in turn, impacting society.
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A 2021 study about Latinos in film by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that in top-grossing movies from 2019, “39.3%…of all characters were part of gangs, involved in sex trafficking, or members of crime syndicates. Of the top-billed Hispanic/Latino characters shown as criminals, nearly half (40%,) were violent…21.4%…of all Hispanic/Latino characters (were) depicted as violent criminals.”
These statistics are part of the reason why many in Latino Hollywood are working hard to change the narrative. “They end up publishing stories that are all about drug dealers; that are all about criminals,” Julie said. “And it just cements in the minds of the general population that Latinos are marginalized criminals who are only coming here to take something from America.”
In addition to her documentary, Julie is also developing other projects – many with Latino storylines – that defy the stereotypes. And like-minded professionals have joined her.
Writer-producer Nancy De Los Santos is one of Julie’s industry connections. De Los Santos was the associate producer of such iconic films as “Selena,” “My Family,” and is currently in pre-production with “The Answer to My Prayer,” a Latino-themed romantic comedy.
“I think the collaboration between Latinos in this business is super important. I say I work in Latino Hollywood, and I really do.” De Los Santos said. “I know that we share information as much as we can.”
As a show of camaraderie, Julie and De Los Santos have teamed up and secured the film and life rights to the dramatic, true story of Frank Gallegos, a lawyer from New Mexico and his wife Marta, a doctor from El Salvador. The couple’s experiences include outstanding personal achievement attained through hard work, as well as unimaginable tragedy brought on by war and the whims of fate.
Gallegos was just 21 when a devastating car accident in New Mexico left him comatose for weeks and partially paralyzed. Marta was only 25 and was completing her medical training in the jungles of Guatemala when she was shot in the face during a massacre in a village during the country’s decades-long civil war.
They endured excruciating pain and years of medical treatment and surgeries. Yet, in spite of their formidable challenges and physical disabilities, they never gave up. Frank was determined to become a lawyer, and Marta, who later emigrated to the U.S. had no doubt that someday she would practice medicine again.
Frank and Marta Gallegos eventually went on to become successful professionals, finding love along the way, starting a family and leading happy, purposeful lives. Today both are in their late 60s. Marta is still a doctor, and Frank continues to practice law part-time.
“It is not a Latino story. It is a story of human beings, and tenacity, and love and overcoming tremendous barriers,” De Los Santos said.
“I think it’s important at this particular time, to tell this particular story because Latinos are being marginalized – scapegoated politically,” Julie said. “And there aren’t enough positive role models to point to and say: ‘There is a doctor who changed history. There is a lawyer who moved the needle.’ We need positive role models.”
Frank and Marta Gallegos are also hopeful that their arduous journey will serve as inspiration for the kind of literary and theatrical projects that many are yearning for.
“That is such a great movement in the industry to start telling these stories,” said Frank Gallegos in an interview with palabra. “They haven’t gotten to our level yet, as far as (Latinos making it) from the ground up – making it into the highest level of society and changing laws and saving lives. (Hollywood) has a ways to go, and I think that this where (our) story can be a bridge.”
De Los Santos agrees. “I know our stories will resonate with the mainstream community. They just need to be given that pedestal – like any other movie. Put it on the pedestal and see what happens.”
De Los Santos adds that if anyone can help bridge the gap, whether it be through the Gallegos’ story or the Lico Jiménez documentary, it’s Julie. “I truly believe that Julie Carmen is the missing link between Latino Hollywood and Hollywood,” De Los Santos observed. “She knows a lot of people, and has the (confidence) to just go and talk to them about things. She has no fear.”
Julie simply smiles when asked about this assessment, and quietly points out that her knowledge about the business and large network are the result of decades in the industry. But she says what’s most important today is that with the entertainment industry showing signs of change, it may be the right time for Latinos to tell their own stories.
“The wave (of interest) in Latino-themed films…is coming back in full force. There are more projects right now,” said Julie. “There are more powerful people doing great projects. American Latinos are doing solid work.”