Growing up, Mexican-American actress Vannessa Vasquez directed her younger cousins when they put on family plays and productions. She took on the role of a showrunner, assigning parts to her relatives. That experience came in handy this year when she enlisted her family’s help for a brief scene in the comedy short Elise for Congress.
“It was fun. It felt like we were kids again playing pretend,” the Texas-born performer tells Luz Collective.
In the short film, which is less than three minutes long, the Emmy-nominated actress plays the title character, Elise Martinez, a first-generation Mexican-American who, as you might guess from the title, is running for congressional office. The film, written and directed by Ernie Bustamante, gives a brief look into Martinez’s campaign, which is at once inspiring, corky, and hilariously realistic.
The short is based on Ernie Bustamante’s pilot script Public Affairs, which he wrote in 2010 after working on his dad’s fast-paced political campaign. No stranger to political bids, Bustamante was also a staffer for former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign before he moved to Los Angeles to transition into television writing.
In 2018, Bustamante remembered one of his earlier scripts, Public Affairs, and thought the plot had become timely. At the time, five Latinas had been elected into Congress, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM), Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL), Veronica Escobar (D-TX) and Sylvia Garcia (D-TX).
Looking for an actress to play the leading role, Ernie Bustamante reached out Vasquez, who is popular for playing Camila Barrios on the Hulu series East Los High, after learning she was a celebrity spokesperson for IGNITE. The nonprofit encourages women to run for office and become civically engaged. It was clear to Bustamante that Vasquez would have both an interest in the topic and some insight on running for office. Fate would have it that Vasquez was similarly interested in landing a project about a Latina elected official when Bustamante pitched her the idea.
“There were a lot of Latinas who were coming up to me. They were saying that it felt so good to have representation and to finally see themselves [in public office]. That’s why they were also inspired to become part of the organization and run,” Vasquez says. “I was like: Well, they also need to see themselves [in media]. We should create a story like this, where they’d have a visual example.”
With Vasquez on board, the duo went to work. After initially pitching the story around, and at one time working with “a nightmare producer,” they decided to take the project into their own hands. Filming shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, the pair released Elise for Congress on YouTube in October 2020.
(Photo Courtesy of Ernie Bustamante)
“We wanted to put it out there, get feedback, and create an audience for it [to] have proof that it’s not just us … that there are lots of people who want to see themselves [in these roles],” Vasquez says.
The underrepresentation of Latinxs in the film industry has been an ongoing topic. In fact, UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report this year found that just 4.6% of all film roles in 2019 were played by Latinx actors. And the dearth of Latinx representation isn’t exclusive to the big screen. Between 2018 and 2019, Latinxs made up only 5.5% of lead roles in cable scripted shows and 5.9% of lead roles in digital scripted shows.
While there have been some new Latinx-led series, many have not had long lifespans. ABC’s highly anticipated projects The Baker and the Beauty and Grand Hotel were both cancelled after one season. Similarly, Starz ended the groundbreaking show Vida this year after three seasons, and Netflix scrapped its teen comedy The Expanding Universe of Ashley Garcia following only two seasons.
The Untitled Latinx Project, a group of Latinx creatives seeking to widen representation in the entertainment industry, published an open letter to Hollywood during Hispanic Heritage Month this year about ending Latinx exclusion from film and TV. Ernie Bustamante was among the more than 270 writers, directors, showrunners, actors, and producers who signed the letter.
“I’ve been on shows that are about Latinos that are created by white people, that are created by white writers,” Bustamante says. “Then they hire the staff to create stories for these characters, to service those characters, which is problematic. You need Latino voices from the beginning.”
With the Elise for Congress short, and growing interest in it, Bustamante and Vasquez are planning to pitch the project as a series. They want to explore the topic in greater depth and help change the narrative of Latinas in politics through storytelling.
For Vasquez, it’s not important if she lands the leading part in the series or if another Latina is casted for the role. What is pivotal, she says, is that Latinas visualize what it’s like to run for office and become inspired to take the leap.
“There are no stories like this being told. We need to have that example for people to believe that this is possible for us,” Vasquez says.