Premiering on PBS.ORG as part of Hispanic Heritage Month, John Jota Leaños’ short animated film follows the 1680 Pueblo Revolt that occurred along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico when the Pueblo Indians broke from the Spanish Empire. Considered by many scholars as the first American Revolution, the 1680 Pueblo Revolt has shaped the deeply contested territories of the US-Mexico borderlands even today. Native and Chicana narrators recall this living history through humor, music, rap and cartoons.
LPB caught up with producer John Jota Leaños and talked about the making of his short film. Currently an Associate Professor of Social Documentary at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Leaños is an award-winning Chicano new media artist who uses animation, documentary and performance to focus on the convergence of memory, social space and decolonization. Leaños’ animated work has been shown internationally at festivals and museums including the Sundance Film Festival, the Morelia International Film Festival, Mexico, San Francisco International Festival of Animation, the KOS Convention 07, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. The film is available to stream online HERE.
Frontera! Revolt and Rebellion on the Rio Grande premiered on PBS.org as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. Tell us about the journey of the film. What inspired you to create this project?
As someone who grew up watching and learning from “School House Rock!” musical cartoons, I have dreamt for many years of animating alternative histories of the West, telling stories not represented in our history books, stories that would speak to the Chicana/o, Native and mestizo communities in the Southwest and beyond. The myths of the “Wild West,” Manifest Destiny, Frontier Capitalism have entrenched themselves in the Master Narrative of America and these myths continue to frame our understanding of US exceptionalism and “free reign” in a time of globalization. In the shadows of the colonization of the West and its myths, however, lies a violent legacy, a legacy of erasure, amnesia and white supremacy. As a borderlands artist and animator, I wanted to make “Frontera!” not only to tell the complex history of the makings of the Southwest borderlands, but to also tell stories of resistance, resiliency and cultural perseverance of Native American and Chicana/o communities despite the colonial scars we have endured.
‘Frontera!’ is an animated documentary that tells the story of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Why do you believe it is important that this story be told?
Pueblo scholar, Joe Sando, has identified the 1680 Pueblo Revolt as the “First American Revolution.” The Pueblo Revolt is a living history for Chicana/os and Native people of the Southwest to this day. It marks the beginning of the Modern era for the Pueblo people and represents collective mestizo action and cooperation leading to a cultural renaissance and political and social autonomy that remains in the Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona to this day. By 1680, two generations of proto-American colonies had been established on the East coast, the Spanish had been embedded in the Americas and Native and mestizo people had been thriving in the region for many generations. I think it is important for a general audience to understand multiple histories in these regions we now call “home.” Histories of America are too often told as emerging from east to west – as if civilization began with the arrival of European colonizers – instead of framing the West as northern-southern migratory development of culture, civilization and exchange.
What is the most significant thing you want your viewers to understand about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt?
Most people outside of New Mexico do not know about the Pueblo Revolt and its ongoing legacies and meanings for its descendants. I think it is important for Native, Chicana/o, Asian, black and other colonized people to see stories of triumph, struggle, and resistance in fresh and creative ways. It is especially important for general audiences to learn alternative perspectives in history – ones that show us that transformation and change is possible through negotiation, communication and collective action.
Was your intention always to produce an animation? Ultimately, what made you decide on an animated documentary?
Yes, I set out to make a documentary animation. I am interested in public pedagogy, that is, creating media that communicates across generations and to people of varied backgrounds. Animation can also appear innocuous and can serve as a buffer in dealing with harsh, political subject matter. Colorful cartoons and catchy music can be the sugar coating for the bitter medicine made of colonization and resistance.
The Pueblo Revolt is a historical event passed down by oral traditions in Pueblo communities. Some Spanish records exist; however, many disparate parts come together to form an understanding of the events that led to the revolution. Documentary animation becomes a perfect vehicle for telling such a complex and multivocal story. On the other hand, because we are drawing and coloring everything, issues of proper representation become central to the production of all scenes, characters and sequences. This is where thorough research and knowledge of visual culture comes into play – we draw from photographs of landscapes as well as consider 17th century Pueblo and Spanish representations. We worked with Pueblo artists and scholars such as Warren Montoya and Lee Moquino to properly represent certain characters in the animation.
What challenges or difficulties did you come across during the making of this animated documentary?
As a Californian artist traveling to New Mexico to research the Pueblo Revolt, there were many obstacles and opportunities to get this story wrong. I was very careful to connect with and listen to a variety of Chicana/o and Native voices in coming to understand not only the story and history of the revolt, but also its meanings and importance to the living communities today. The film’s Associate Producer, lead researcher and anthropologist, Dr. Aimee Villarreal, is a native New Mexican from Santa Fe. Dr. Villarreal was able to guide the project with an in-depth understanding of potential misrepresentations and pitfalls that might come from such a project. She introduced the work to key Pueblo leaders and scholars working on the time period. Together, we interviewed several Pueblo community members, archaeologists and scholars about a variety of aspects of the revolt. This led to an informed, but long writing process that ultimately tried to represent and address some indigenous perspectives.
Another challenge in making the documentary was the labor, costs and time involved in creating an animation. Most animations and cartoons we see on television and in the movies are outsourced to Latin American and/or Asian animation “sweatshops.” It’s estimated that per hour rate for animation and motion graphics is $60,000 in India and approximately $400,000 in the United States. I would rather support Native, Chicana/o, black and other local artists in an attempt to build a sustainable animation practice in California and the southwest. As independent artist not looking to profit off of our work, we had to rely on various fellowships, grants and assistance from organizations like Latino Public Broadcasting. It is only with these organizations support and trust in the work that we could produce this and other work.
‘Frontera!’ is a collaboration between Chicana/o and Native American artists from California and New Mexico. Tell us about the importance of this collaboration and the effect it had on your film.
It was vital for us to have Pueblo support and contribution for the making of “Frontera!” We consider the Pueblo people the most knowledgeable audience for this story and most likely its harshest critics. We took much time to consider how certain representations and storytelling approaches would be received by a Pueblo and Latina/o audience. One of our principal narrators, Conroy Chino from Acoma Pueblo, is a former news reporter and documentary producer of Native film. His contribution to the script and animation as a voice over actor was essential. Poet and activist, Andrea Serrano from Albuquerque did the voice over for the woman narrator in the Casino. Her nuanced accents and knowledge of the story gives the film a special signifier that adds depth to the storytelling. New Mexican artist, Cristobal Martínez, developed the score for the animation. Martínez grew up playing various instruments and trained in New Mexican musical traditions. The flute he plays in the film’s score was designed and constructed by Martínez himself. The rap song was produced in the San Francisco Bay Area by Greg Landau and written and performed by rapper, Deuce Eclipse who plays with the band, Bang Data.
I also worked with several artists in the San Francisco and Oakland to produce hand-drawn “assets” for the animation. Artists like Crystal Gonzalez and Tony Coleman brought their unique styles and talents to produce hundreds of detailed drawings, sketches and storyboards. These artists, along with several others, combined to create a unique look to the animation which does not ascribe to one style as is done in the animation “industry.” Instead, we leaned into a variety of different styles to demonstrate that this story can be shown, drawn and told from many different perspectives.
Why is public media the best platform to showcase your film?
“Frontera!” was designed for public media because we see the story to be a shared American story. The documentary has played in some film festivals, but it is best suited for online viewing, classroom instruction and PBS broadcast.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
I hope people will walk away with an understanding of the history, colonization and resistance to colonization by the Pueblo peoples prior to the American colonial project. I also hope audiences are left wondering why they know more about ancient Greek culture from over 6000 miles away and over 2000 years ago, than they know about Native American culture and history that took/is taking place on the land beneath their feet. What is being hidden, ignored and excluded and why? I hope to plant the seeds for a decolonial understanding of our place and time, to instill wonder, passion and empathy for revolutionary acts of our ancestors. Ultimately, I think the Pueblo Revolt is an intriguing model for revolution, transformation and renaissance and hope that we might take note.
Can you tell us about any projects you’re currently working on?
I am currently fundraising, researching and writing another documentary animation dealing with the American colonial project, specifically, the Gold Rush. This animation will follow Frontera! and offer alternative perspectives of the Gold Rush from Native perspectives. We will take on issues of the assassination of the first American Governor of New Mexico, Charles Bent, and look into the complex events surrounding Sutter’s Fort and the discovery of gold along the Sacramento River.
What advice do you have for any aspiring filmmakers, especially those creating an animated documentary?
My advice for aspiring animators is to be careful what they get into as there may be no road back! I wasn’t trained as an animator, but since I started doing animation – “Frontera!” is my sixth animated film – I haven’t been able to stop. I really love it, but it takes so much time, money and dedication. Your social skills may diminish and your friends may wonder where you’ve been, but the possibilities and potential of documenting important stories through animation is endless and very exciting. Adelante!