Young U.S. Latino changes lives in El Salvador through soccer and ‘The Power of Play’

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The first class of AFJA in Los Amates. (Photo/ Sara Jule / AFJA)

There are few who know the extreme disparities between the U.S. and Central America like 29-year-old Steven Levy.

His mother immigrated to Los Angeles from the infamously dangerous Los Amates, El Salvador in 1979. A decade later, Levy was born, the youngest of five brothers — and the only one born on U.S. soil.

 

He was also the one to give birth to a legacy of lasting change.

One year ago, he founded Academia de Fútbol Juvenil Amatense (AFJA) — a Los Angeles based non-profit that recycles soccer equipment throughout the U.S. and establishes community-based soccer academies for youth, ages 5-19.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC.

Founder Steven and mother Maria at his graduation from USC. (Photo/ Ron Sosa / AFJA)

Brian Aguilar, of Guatemalan heritage and Levy’s college friend, heard about the project and was inspired to make a short documentary about it called, “El Poder del Juego” (“The Power of Play”). It will be screening at the Central American International Film Festival this Saturday, November 10, in Los Angeles.

The idea for AFJA was conceived because Levy’s mom would send him to her hometown, a town made up of about 150 homes in the northern part of El Salvador, during summer vacations, while his school friends were being sent to summer camp. This allowed Levy to witness firsthand the life his mother had left behind.

“I saw kids, already at 10, working in agriculture and doing hard work,” said Levy about the impoverished youth in El Salvador, who often only had one pair of worn shoes, if that.

“I would communicate with the kids, and make friends, through soccer,” said Levy. “I would start leaving stuff behind like soccer balls, equipment, and toys, because I saw the disparity between my friends here and there.”

Fast forward to 2015. Levy graduated from the University of Southern California, and he now works full-time in IT at an LA-area hospital. However, despite his average American life, with everyday comforts like clean drinking water and takeout food, the image of his young friends in El Salvador — without those same luxuries — never left him.

In the summer of 2017, Levy decided to start a Go Fund Me with a $500 goal, which was quickly surpassed.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA.

Donations collected are sorted out at AFJA HQ in Lynwood, CA. (Courtesy AFJA)

“I was just going to buy new gear, and bring it to the kids, but within two weeks we surpassed the goal,” Levy told NBC News. “After I went to El Salvador and took videos and photos, then it really took off. People saw the joy in the kids’ faces. We captured the moment of some of these kids receiving their first shoes.”

The original idea was to give these hard-working youth an outlet to play, but it grew to become an academy for them to also be future leaders in their towns. There are three requirements for eligibility, including academic, attendance, and community service. One of their most important duties is “clean up days.”

“The coaches, teachers and kids in the community get together to pick up the trash in the neighborhood,” Levy explained. “You know we’re having impact when a 5-year-old sees an adult throw a wrapper on the ground and says, ‘Hey, pick that up.’”

Another serious problem Levy has witnessed is the water, which is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.

“The same water kids were taking to practice is contaminated. One of the moms told us she had to take her 10-year-old to dialysis, because of the level of contamination in the water,” said Levy. “We partnered with another nonprofit called La Mission por Vida, (launching a Giving Tuesday campaign on the 27th of this month) which provides water filters for the whole community.”

Levy said he could not have done this all without the help of his mom, who is the program’s director, residing back in El Salvador, as well as the help of other family members and some of the children’s parents. Thanks to the group effort, the organization now serves 122 youth in Los Amates and Ateos, El Salvador, and there are plans to start a chapter in Guatemala in January.

In Los Angeles, Levy said it really hits home for him to see Central American children in the news, detained by immigration authorities. But he understands why they try to come. It’s out of desperation.

“Here we are with the same kids, and what they look like when someone believes in them,” he said.

Levy said he’s most proud that he’s making his mother proud.

“She came to the U.S., worked the jobs nobody wanted to work,” said Levy. “My brothers joined the military, and I went to college. [Los Amates] is where my mom comes from, the school she went to still has the bullet holes from the civil war.”

“With the academy,” said Levy, “I want to build a sustainable model to be able to use soccer as a vehicle for social change.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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‘Home Truth’ Shows a Mother’s Fight for Justice After Her Husband Killed Their 3 Daughters

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Jessica Lenahan, 52, the subject of the new documentary “Home Truth.” (Courtesy Adequate Images)

Jessica Lenahan has gone through a mother’s worst nightmare, and it all took place on one night in June 1999. A new documentary portrays her ordeal.

The Castle Rock, Colorado, mother of four had successfully obtained a permanent restraining order against her emotionally abusive husband, Simon Gonzales, earlier that month, requiring him to remain at least 100 yards from her and her four children, except during specified visitation time. Despite that, he took his three daughters in violation of the restraining order. Lenahan frantically called the police for hours; they told her there was nothing they could do and to let them know if the girls did not come home.

In the early morning hours, Gonzales drove to the police station and started shooting; the police shot back. They found he had killed his three daughters; the bodies of Rebecca, 10, Katheryn, 9, and Leslie, 7, were found in his van.

Filmed over the course of nine years of Lenahan’s life after the tragedy, the documentary “Home Truth,” directed by Katia Maguire and April Hayes and co-produced by Latino Public Broadcasting, captures an intimate portrait of the lives of Lenahan, her surviving son, Jessie, and how the trauma from domestic violence is difficult to extinguish, no matter how much time passes.

The film documents Lenahan’s relentless pursuit of justice to change the ways police and towns respond to domestic violence situations and includes interviews with members of her legal team, such as attorney Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, a former Obama adviser on violence against women.

In time for Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the film premieres Wednesday on the World Channel at 7p.m ET, as well as additional PBS stations throughout October (check local listings), and will be available for streaming on pbs.org beginning Wednesday as well.

The directors of the film heard about Lenahan’s story from someone at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in 2008. At that point, Lenahan, who is of Native American and Latino descent, had already been fighting her case for nine years and had endured a long and emotionally strenuous journey. She had filed a lawsuit against the Castle Rock police for failing to enforce her restraining order right after the incident, and in 2004, her case reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Image: Jessica Lenahan, Children

Jessica Lenahan, 52, the subject of the new documentary HOME TRUTH, and her four children. (Courtesy Adequate Images)

When it was ruled, 7-2, that she had no constitutional right to the enforcement of her restraining order and that police departments could not be sued for improper enforcement of such orders, Lenahan and her legal team, including the ACLU and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, filed a case against the U.S. government with the help of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

With this case, Lenahan became the first individual domestic violence survivor to bring a case against the United States before an international board. In a 2011 landmark decision, the commission found the U.S. was responsible for human rights violations against Jessica and her three deceased children.

Maguire, an Emmy-nominated Latina filmmaker, said they first saw Lenahan speak at an event.

“What struck us the most is that she is able to talk about the horrific things that happened to her over and over again,” said Maguire. “We thought, ‘How does telling her story affect her? How does she do that? We understood that the story had historic significance but being filmmakers, we wanted to look deeper into her story.”

“We really started telling the story from before the girls were killed,” Maguire told NBC News. They had footage of the girls as well, because their father had a habit of filming them — and Jessica —frequently.

Though it took nearly a decade to make the film, Maguire said they learned a lot about the judicial process and the lasting effects of domestic violence on families.

“The skeleton was Jessica’s case, but the other part was her relationship with her son, Jesse,” Maguire said. “The ripples go on far and wide. It’s a problem we have to look at from a public health perspective as well.”

Jesse was 13 when his sisters were killed, and he mentions in the documentary that when the girls died, so did the nurturing side of his mom that he loved so much. The symptoms of post-traumatic stress took a toll on their relationship — and to this day they remain emotionally and physically distant.

“Everyone is in a different place in their lives,” explained Maguire. “Different family members need to step away to take care of themselves, and we thought that was a very powerful part in the story.”

She added that she is proud of Jessica, who continues to fight for justice and against her fatigue. Although Jessica has made some strides, even winning awards from the U.S. Human Rights Network, among other groups, she told NBC News she still has lots more work to do.

Lenahan is currently a visiting scholar at the Dorothea S. Clarke Program in Feminist Jurisprudence at Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y. She said it’s been a 20-year battle regarding her case, but she wants an outcome that recognizes the legal rights of domestic violence victims not just in the U.S. but in other countries as well.

Author Junot Díaz Says Dark Times Demand Action: ‘I’m still going to fight’

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Junot Diaz (Courtesy “American Creed”)

Junot Díaz doesn’t remember a time when he’s ever felt completely at home in the United States — the country he’s lived in for more than four decades and where he has found a home as an award-winning writer.

“I grew up in the margins of society — I assumed everyone, when they were 6 years old, was pulled up out of their home country and placed in another place where you had to learn English,” he told NBC News.

Díaz immigrated from the Dominican Republic with his family in 1974, settling in a low-income area in central New Jersey, an ethnically diverse enclave a few miles from Manhattan.

Now 49, he became an American citizen in his early 20s, and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” and receive a MacArthur Genius Award in 2012.

Díaz didn’t mince words when asked about a recent decision by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to no longer describe America as “a nation of immigrants” in its mission statement.

“I’m not surprised that a president who is a white supremacist would push for that kind of alteration,” Díaz said.

Reflecting on his naturalization ceremony, Díaz said, “what was most astonishing about it was that very few of us come into contact with the engine that produces so much genius and so much of what is extraordinary with this country.”

That powerful American moment “is something that these white supremacists fear and despise — disavowing the contributions of people of color,” he said.

Clearly concerned that the U.S. is becoming more and more fractured, he said people these days are “consumed by irrational hate.”

“We are living in very strange times,” Díaz said. “It’s a challenging time to be a person of color.”

But to him, now is the time for people to decide whether they are going to resist. “I believe in true democracy, inclusion and reparation,” he said. “If it’s dark out, I’m still going to fight.”

Díaz is one of 11 Americans, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and award-winning historian David M. Kennedy, who spoke about their lives, what it means to be an American and what can bind us together in troubled times in the documentary film, “American Creed,” which aired Tuesday (Feb. 27) on PBS (check local listings).

When asked, “What does being American mean to you?” Díaz responded that he didn’t know the answer but that he didn’t believe he has ever been “accepted” as an American.

Díaz, whose new children’s book, “Islandborn,” is due to be released next month, credits his childhood school librarian, Mrs. Crowell, with treating all students equally. She even believed a Spanish-speaking immigrant would one day write the next great American novel. That support helped solidify his identity in an unstable world, and he realizes how important that is to maintain for those coming after him.

“Libraries and the public school system are underfunded,” Díaz said. “We have to have a thousand fights in a thousand places.”

Díaz saw the contributions of immigrants firsthand in his working-class New Jersey neighborhood.

“We were like some strange United Nations experiment. My upstairs neighbor was African-American, my best friend was Cuban, my other friend was Egyptian,” he said. “It structured a lot of my thinking, a lot of my art. But in a nation as large as the U.S., it’s difficult to achieve consensus.”

He does not think issues like immigration or gay marriage are tearing our country apart; the “enemy,” Díaz said, is what he calls the economic elite and “mass media manipulation.”

“We’ve been very unfortunate in our leadership, and in our economic beliefs. The folks that have money and power have done much damage in this country,” he said. “When your only goal is to expand your profit, you’re not thinking about the civic, altruism, the well-being of the majority.”

“In the long-term,” Díaz said, “that’s going to leave us with a profoundly damaged planet.”

“We are very fortunate that we have many people that believe in civic justice,” he added. “Otherwise we’d be in much worse shape.”

What Díaz is doing, and what he urges others to do, is to get involved, through volunteering or other activities, and contribute to our “shared” world.

“I don’t approach our civic society as a writer or author, but as a member of it, regardless of my profession,” Díaz said. “I think everyone owes — everyone takes more from this society that they put back in. We all need to take a little time to pay back the interest, to pay back the debt that is ours.”

Being a part of the documentary, he said, is an attempt to open up a dialogue at a time when we are told there should not be a dialogue.

The documentary includes an account of two politically opposed activists who are working to find common ground. Joan Blades, the co-founder of the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org, founded Living Room Conversations in 2011. She is working with Mark Meckler, the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, as well as others on the right, to create meaningful dialogue between people of opposing views.

“We need to fight to make society better, to make it more accountable, make it safer, to leave it better for the generation that comes,” Díaz said. “Will we win this fight? I’m fighting because it’s the right thing to do.”

“I will take the humble devotion of the average person that believes in justice,” he added, “and I believe we are going to win.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

‘Lucha Mexico’ Filmmaker Honors Lucha Libre’s Proud Tradition

DOC NYC 2015 Premiere Of "Lucha Mexico"Left to right: Filmmaker Alex Hammond, professional wrestlers Jose Luis Jair Soria, aka Shocker, and Jon “Strongman” Andersen, and filmmaker Ian Markiewicz attend the DOC NYC 2015 premiere of “Lucha Mexico” at SVA Theater on November 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo/Monica Schipper / Getty Images)

For the longest time, documentary filmmaker Alex Hammond had wanted to work on a film which shed light on her Mexican heritage. The director of “Children of Haiti” and “Better Than Something,” which explored the punk underground, grew up in Connecticut but spent nearly every summer in Mexico visiting family; her mother had immigrated to the U.S. from San Luis Potosí.

The result is “Lucha Mexico,” her new film created with longtime co-director Ian Markiewicz, which explores the dynamic subculture of Lucha libre, the beloved and more than century-old Mexican professional wrestling sport.

After four years of shooting in mostly Mexico, “Lucha Mexico,” is being released in theaters and on iTunes on Friday, July 15, playing in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, among others.

Lucha libre literally means “free fight,” and dates back to the Franco-Mexican War in 1863. The wrestlers are known to wear colorful masks, which hide their true identities, and some are known for their aerial maneuvers. They also characterize themselves as “good guys” (called “técnicos”) vs. the “bad guys” (called “rudos”).

“I knew the moment I saw Lucha, that this is what I wanted to make a film about,” said Hammond, 35, to NBC Latino. “The idea that these athletes put themselves in the ring and put their lives on the line is where the interest started. When we got in there, we realized this world was so big.”

Hammond said it’s a good time to shine a spotlight on this sport, since it has been growing in popularity in the U.S. as well. Lucha Underground,” a weekly hour-long TV series which premiered in the U.S. on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network in 2014, is still going strong in 2016.

“Because it’s taken us five years to make the film from start to finish, we’ve seen lots of changes,” said Hammond about the growth of Lucha libre. “‘Lucha Underground’ is getting a lot attention now —you’re starting to find them happening more often, I think because WWE is so big. They helped introduce the Mexican wrestlers. More people are exposed to it.”

Film poster for "Lucha Mexico" by Alex Hammond.
Film poster for “Lucha Mexico” by Alex Hammond. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

One of the film’s protagonists is American Lucha wrestler John Andersen, who goes by the wrestling name, “John Strongman.”

“He came down to Mexico from San Francisco as a pro-wrestler, and we got to document his first time going to Mexico,” says Hammond. “He would live in Mexico for a month at a time — now there are more Americans moving down there to wrestle.”

Hammond says the “luchadores” (wrestlers) are like superheroes for Mexicans.

“They are very real for the people,” says Hammond. “When you go to any show, you’ll see a grandmother and a baby – it’s a family affair.”

The “luchadores” themselves also take their careers very seriously. They go to Lucha school, starting sometimes as young as 15, to learn the proper fighting techniques.

Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right)
Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right) (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

“These men and women are really athletes, and you see how hard they work,” says Hammond. “For a lot of them, their parents were wrestlers…It’s like a whole close-knit family. When you retire, you work as a wrestling coach.”

The film shows how fans idolize their superheroes, but it’s not so glamorous for the wrestlers themselves. Blue Demon, Jr., the son of the legendary Blue Demon — who was also an actor in many movies, as his wrestling persona, in the 1960’s and 1970’s — describes the way of life as “lonely.”

“Out of 24 hours, I wear my mask for 18,” says Blue Demon, Jr. in the film. “You have to be a loner and not go out too much, eat cold meals in the hotel. You can’t go out at night, or you might be recognized.”

Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr.
Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

It’s also a dangerous sport. Hammond says the famous El Hijo de Perro Aguarro died in the ring last year.

“We had to recut the movie,” said Hammond, because he was supposed to be one of the main characters. “It was a freak accident. He died wrestling.”

Hammond said that throughout the making of the film, several wrestlers died from various causes.

But ultimately, the luchadores think it’s worth the risks and the sacrifices. One of the trainers told Hammond that ‘in order to be a wrestler, you have to be hungry and want to have that triumph.’

“That’s essentially what we wanted to capture,” she said, “what drives them to constantly get back in that ring.”

Hammond doesn’t know yet where her next project will bring her, but she says she’s always been interested in exploring different environments.

“I like getting people to feel like they are there,” she says. “For ‘Lucha Mexico,’ I wanted to show also how beautiful Mexico is – not just what you see in the news — it’s not just drugs.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

The Lives of Migrant Farmerworkers’ Children Focus of ‘East of Salinas’

When we think about where our food comes from, we don’t often think about what our farm workers go through on a daily basis, let alone their children.

Award-winning filmmaker Laura Pacheco thought about it for the first time after reading a New York Times article in 2011. The story was about Oscar Ramos, a third grade teacher in Salinas, California, who came from a migrant family. Ramos teaches in Sherwood Elementary School, where half of his class is made up of children of migrant farmworker families. Often these children have to move several times a year to follow the harvest and have to wake up at 3am to go to a babysitter, before school, so their parents can go work in the fields.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” said Pacheco. “He knows what’s missing in these kids’ lives,” said Pacheco about Ramos.

There are more than 2 million farmworkers in the U.S., and their median wage is a little over $9 an hour. Immigrant farmworkers (approximately 75 percent are coming from Mexico) often leave their home countries to seek a better life for their families. However, the average migrant child may attend as many as three different schools in one year, often making it difficult for a child to advance to the next grade level.

'East of Salinas' producer/director Laura Pacheco  (Courtesy ITVS)

‘East of Salinas’ producer/director Laura Pacheco (Courtesy ITVS)

Pacheco was so intrigued by these figures that she wrote Mr. Ramos and told him she’d like to meet and talk to him about making a film. Together with co-director Jackie Mow, they decided to focus on one family, and one boy in particular, José Anzaldo.

“We decided to follow one to get an intimate look of what a migrant family is like in America,” says Pacheco.

After three years of filming, their film, “East of Salinas” will be premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, December 28th. (10pET, see PBS for local listings).

Jose’s mother, Maria, is from Mexicali. She used to work in a clothing factory, but she couldn’t support herself and her children. Jose’s stepfather is from El Salvador, where he also did agricultural work, but he says, “You can live there, but you were always hungry.”

Coming to the U.S., the family still often goes to bed hungry, but not as much. José loves school, especially math, but he is one of two million undocumented children living in the U.S. today. He is María’s only son who was not born in the U.S. – so she worries about his undocumented status and what that portends for his future.

Pacheco and Mow were able to follow José around since the 3rd grade. He’s already attended more than five schools and is now in 7th grade. He’s continuing to do really well in school, said Pacheco.

“In the beginning, he’s a little naive about his situation, and at the end he becomes more aware,” said Pacheco. “It’s really hard to see someone’s potential, and then leave and not know if he’s going to have food the next day – Oscar (his teacher) still goes to see them and takes the boys to the movies.”

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the 'East of Salinas' documentary.  (Courtesy ITVS)

Teacher Oscar Ramos takes 5th and 6th graders, including José Anzaldo, to visit UC Berkeley, part of the ‘East of Salinas’ documentary. (Courtesy ITVS)

His teacher Oscar Ramos sees the little boy’s promise and wants to help him get ahead. The question is, what opportunities will be available for children like José, a bright student who is undocumented?

Pacheco hopes viewers take away certain things from watching the film such as what education is like for farmworker children and where our food is coming from.

“But if I had to say one thing, I hope José lives in people’s hearts,” says Pacheco. “Immigration is a hot topic right now. It gets so polarized. People feel so righteous on both sides of the debate, but you can see who the kids are that are going to make America great and should be given an opportunity.”

“These are the families who are picking food for America,” says Pacheco. “We should know what their lives are like.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

‘Unity’: A Latin-Style Tribute to King Of Pop Michael Jackson

Composer and arranger Tony Succar (Photo/ Julie Hunter)

Composer and arranger Tony Succar (Photo/ Julie Hunter)

At 28, composer and multi-instrumentalist Tony Succar has accomplished a pretty remarkable feat. For the past four years, he has worked tirelessly to bring to life the masterpiece that lived in his musical mind – to unite 100 talented musicians, including Jon Secada and salsa stars such as Tito Nieves, Obie Bermudez and La India, to make the first-ever Latino tribute to the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson. In other words, think “I Want You Back” with a salsa twist.

After licensing obstacles and hours and hours of rehearsals and editing with Michael Jackson’s very own Grammy-winning audio engineer Bruce Swedien, Succar’s 12-track album, aptly titled “UNITY: The Latin Tribute to Michael Jackson,” is being released April 14th on Universal Music Classics in collaboration with Universal Music Latin Entertainment.

As part of the project, Succar and his production company produced an hour-long documentary about the legendary experience which is going to be released on DVD in Mexico this month and with plans for the U.S. in the future.

It’s fuego!” (“It’s fire!”) is how Succar describes his debut album.

Born in Peru to a Japanese mother and a father with Lebanese, Mexican, and Spanish roots, Succar immigrated to Miami, where he presently lives, when he was two. He was surrounded by music all of his life, as his parents Antonio and Mimy Succar were musicians in Peru. While in the U.S., the family started their own family band called Mixtura – the same name Succar named his current production company after.

Soon after graduating with a master’s degree in jazz performance at Florida International University in 2010, Succar says he got a call from a booking agent asking him to produce an outdoor Halloween tribute to Michael Jackson called “Thriller on Collins.”

“But I said, ‘I’m a salsa band – how am I going to do that?’,” Succar recalls replying to him. “So it was like God saying this is going to happen. I did a salsa version. The people loved it,” he says. “When I saw the reaction, I thought if they liked it with ‘Thriller,’ they would like it with other songs. It was a dream for me starting from nothing.”

After the success of show, Succar wasted no time in starting a Kickstarter campaign which raised $10,700.

“The main thing that connected with me is his (Michael Jackson’s) musicality. He kept pop music at a high level. Being a musician, you love that and all of us [musicians] understand that,” says Succar. “And secondly, I really admired that he wrote music with a very positive social message that spoke about love and change. Something we need to respect Michael Jackson for, and why I named the album “UNITY.”

The other musicians share a similar sentiment.

“Michael Jackson was an influence for a lot of singer-songwriters,” says singer Jon Secada in the “UNITY” documentary. “I think what attracted me to this project starts with the music – how much I love the music. I think Michael Jackson would love it, because he was an innovator. He enjoyed taking chances.”

Tito Nieves added, “All we can do is make sure his music never dies.”

How did Succar get so many well-known musicians to participate in his project?

“It wasn’t that I chose them, it was a domino effect,” says Succar. “I tried to get Tito Nieves for three months until I said ‘Olvídate!’ (‘Forget it!’) I ran into Kevin Ceballo. We started recording the songs. I was planning just to do it with him. Then a guy peeked in the studio one day and said, ‘Hey, it sounds pretty good.’ He was really good friends with Tito Nieves!”

Apparently, Succar says he had e-mailed Nieves so many times, they told him he had been labeled as spam. However, thanks to that random listener who knew Nieves and called him on the spot, Nieves agreed to participate in the project immediately.

“The music spoke for itself – that’s how everyone was chosen,” says Succar. “No money in the world could have made this happen.”

Succar says he listened to every Michael Jackson song multiple times in order to choose the tracks for the “UNITY” album. At first, he was going to choose the ones that gave him goosebumps.

“But all of them gave me goosebumps,” says Succar laughing.

“All African music has la clave – bam bam…bam bam,” he continues, while tapping his hand on his knee as if it were a cajón – the first instrument he ever learned at age three. “When you analyze Michael Jackson’s music, I would call it African American music. When I listened to the music, I’d play la clave to it, if it sounded good, those were the ones I’d keep.”

Then, he says he thought about how to create a story with the songs he picked.

“‘I Want You Back’ was a song he sang as a little boy on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’…the most important I wanted to include were songs that spoke about Michael Jackson’s mission – about unity and change,” says Succar, who also ended up including “Earth Song” sung by La India and “They Don’t Care About Us” sung by Kevin Ceballo, among others. “At the end, it’s to be a grain of sand to continue what he wanted to see in this world – ‘No’ to discrimination and ‘yes’ to equality.”

Succar says he had become the ultimate fan of Jackson after he died, and even more so after this project.

“I’m so thankful for the opportunity for me to put a drop of sand in his legacy and inspire others to learn about his music,” he says. “Many times Latinos know the songs, but not the lyrics so sometimes we change the lyrics to Spanish.”

In total, 100 musicians participated in the “UNITY” album, but Succar says there are 16 of them that travel to play.

“I want to be able to tour the live Michael Jackson experience,” says Succar. “I strongly believe that ‘UNITY,’ that title, is not only a representation of what this album means, but a representation of a movement that I’d like to create where we can unite cultures and do special projects. I want to try to do the same with other artists and bands like The Beatles, and the Bee Gees – songs that translate to the Latin format. Un granito de arena. UNITY is not going to end here. You’ll see more in the near future.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Film, “Justice for My Sister,” becomes movement for eradicating violence against women

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Kimberly Bautista (right) filmmaker of “Justice for My Sister.” (Courtesy Kimberly Bautista)

Many have heard of the mysterious killings of the women in Juarez, Mexico, but filmmaker Kimberly Bautista is traveling from country to country to spread the word about what she says is the femicide that’s also common in Guatemala and other Central American countries.

Her award-winning documentary called “Justice For My Sister” is about a 27-year-old Guatemalan mother of three who left for work one day and never returned. It was revealed shortly after that her boyfriend had beaten her to death and had left her on the side of the road. According to Bautista’s data, 580 women were murdered in Guatemala in 2007, and only one percent of those cases have been solved.

The film, which promotes awareness of violence against women, has made the rounds in film festivals in the U.S. and Central America and will screen in San Jose, Costa Rica, Wednesday. It was named the best long-form documentary in Central America as well as in the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival this past October. But most importantly, its anti-femicide message has turned into a movement.

“The goal is to replicate what we’ve done in Guatemala across Central America and to raise awareness about violence and for ways women can get help,” says Bautista, who has also started Texting Peace – a program which allows women to report threats or harassment via text message.

Another aspect of her anti-violence campaign is training youth to learn about the cycle of violence, and engaging men in the conversation.

“Most violence against women is a result of male privilege, because society is constantly justifying their actions – that contributes to more violence,” says Bautista who gets funding through different embassies. “Once they receive their training, they present events in their specific communities.”

Bautista, 28, is originally from Pasadena, Calif. and is born to a Colombian father and Irish-American mother. However, she has been an activist against the violent killing of women in Juarez since 2003.

“I think that to a certain extent domestic violence against women is so marked by silence that I wanted to offer a platform to intervene in that,” she says. “There are many facets of violence – sexual, physical, verbal – it’s just so pervasive…A key part of violence prevention is to provide people with a safe space to develop their leadership skills, so they can be active community members and call out violence when they see it.”

She says she the anti-domestic violence movement in general becomes more proactive through community building and holding people accountable.

“I want people to understand that this isn’t just an issue between two people, — it’s a societal issue,” says Bautista. “When people see the film, they tend to relate to the characters. At the screenings, we’ve heard stories of rape, economic and emotional violence.”

The filmmaker is no stranger to violence herself. During the end of the 4-year period it took to make the documentary, Bautista herself was held hostage and raped by armed assailants in the house she was staying at in Guatemala. Her camera equipment was stolen, but to this date, there’s no resolution to the case, and it’s unclear if the perpetrators had targeted her because of the work she was doing.

“We were able to identify two suspects, but they were released,” says Bautista, which is a similar occurrence that happens in other violence against women cases in Central America, according to the film.

She explains this act of violence towards her made her realize her film could be used as a prevention tool and hopefully encourage especially men to take a stand against violence.

“In the process of making this film, we were able to take justice into our own hands in a transformative way,” says Bautista.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com