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The film Mosquita y Mari — the first narrative feature by a Chicana director to screen at the Sundance Film Festival — is both the singular vision of writer-director Aurora Guerrero and a crowdsourced production that could not have been made without multiple communities coming together.
Guerrero's first full-length film tells the story of budding love between two Chicana teens growing up in the Huntington Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mari (Venecia Troncoso) is a scrappy, hard-knock kid of a single mom who arrived undocumented in L.A. The girl nicknamed Mosquita (Fenessa Pineda) is the studious, reserved, only child of two doting parents.
The characters are based on Guerrero and a friend — her "Mari" — whom she met at 13. In real life, Guerrero had been languishing in what she describes as a sort of teen numbness. Her friend shook her out of it, and in doing so stirred up complex, charged emotions.
In the film, the two girls become friends, but can't dive headlong into their nascent romance because they're dealing with issues like the eviction notice at Mari's house and the relentless focus on Mosquita's academic performance. There are parallels with Guerrero's teen experience throughout the film.
"It was what I look back on as a very beautiful love story that we had when we were young," Guerrero says. "We never put words to it, and I never gave it its proper place in my life as my first love."
Guererro adds that, for her, the experience was a transformation from "just feeling comfortable in myself, to feeling like I was somebody, to feeling like I was Aurora and I belonged in the world."
A Community Production
Years later, after attending film school, Guerrero began converting those memories into a screenplay. But she had bills, and she came from a working-class background. Being a writer full time was out.
So Guerrero supported herself with another talent — community-building. First she worked at a film institute, building up her network of indie directors in the process, and then on neighborhood campaigns with Latino moms in L.A.
During that time Guererro didn't abandon Mosquita and Mari's story — and after almost seven years of writing on the side, she had a screenplay. Getting a production financed was another matter.
"That's when I decided to turn to my community, and that's when everything changed," Guerrero says. She decided to raise the entire production budget of $80,000 by soliciting small, individual donations via Kickstarter. With two days left before her deadline, she still had $35,000 to go. Her filmmaking and online communities swung into action.
"I mean it was just ... wild," Guerrero says. "People were Facebooking, tweeting ... everyone was rooting for Mosquita y Mari to make it."
"From the jaws of defeat came this great victory," observes Yancey Strickler, one of Kickstarter's founders. "No one has made up a gap that big, that late, except for Aurora."
Once the money was raised, the rush was on to finish production in 30 days and enter the Sundance Film Festival. Guerrero crowdsourced again. She presented a production plan to residents in Huntington Park, the East L.A. neighborhood where the film is set.
"I wanted to develop an internship program with the making of the film," Guerrero explains. "I wanted to give youth in the area exposure to the making of an independent feature, especially with a majority people-of-color crew. And ... every head of the creative departments had to mentor."
Nearly all the young people in the film live in Huntington Park, and one of the lead actresses is from the area, too. Industrious teens scouted and secured shooting locations, often at a discount.
A Love That Speaks Its Name
Guerrero's first love now lives in the Bay Area, not far from Guerrero. They reconnected a few years back, and the woman told Guerrero about her life with her husband and children.
But Guerrero hasn't told the woman the film is based on their friendship.
"Even if we don't put a label on it, it doesn't take away what it was," Guerrero muses. "And it was very special, and it was very intimate, and it changed my life. It might not have changed her life. But it changed mine."
Mosquita y Mari was just picked up by a distributor and will be in theaters later this year.
Nishat Kurwa is a reporter for Turnstyle, a project of Youth Radio.
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