Latinos in Hollywood know that to truly make a difference in the industry, the change must take place behind the camera as well as in front of it. Producer Maylen Calienes, a Miamian who was born in Cuba and raised in Florida, began her career as an actor but quickly realized she could do more in a different role.
Calienes was in town for the Miami Film Festival, where a film she produced was up for the HBO Ibero-American Short Film Award. A few days after the event — and after celebrating a win — she met with New Times outside a café in downtown Miami. Wearing a black dress accessorized with a fuchsia shawl and bright-pink lipstick, Calienes sat in front of a multicolored building with matching pink stripes. Nearby, tall palm trees swayed in the breeze and the sun shone overhead. It was as if Miami was properly welcoming home one of its own.
When she first moved to Los Angeles nearly two decades ago, she was able to book steady work as an actor. After some time, though, she noticed something indistinguishable about the characters she for which she was reading.
“I would go to these auditions, and the roles would be very, very stereotyped,” Calienes says. “Whether it was the gang girlfriend or the highly sexualized, feisty Latina or the maid, all these characters were rooted in an unoriginal cliché.”
If she wanted to read for stronger, more authentic Latina roles, she had to write them herself.
“When I made my first short film, I was completely self-taught,” Calienes says. She got by with a little help from her friends, and in 2005 she premiered The Dance of Death at the LA Short Films Festival. The ArcLight theater in Hollywood was filled with both newcomers and veterans such as Carol Burnett and Christopher Lloyd. Sitting there, taking it all in — the lights, the velvet curtains, the crowd — Calienes decided to work more behind the camera.
“I felt that as a storyteller and as a producer, I would be able to make more of a difference and have a hand in creating opportunities for other Latinos like me.”
A few years later, in 2008, Calienes attended Sundance. While at the annual film festival in Park City, Utah, the now-producer was hungry to find her place. “I quickly noticed that there were not many opportunities at Sundance for Latinos to gather.” For many years, she gravitated toward the Black House Foundation because that was where she felt she fit in best.
“In 2015, I was given the chance to throw a mixer,” the filmmaker recalls. “Out of that event, the Latino Filmmakers Network was born, and every year since, I’ve put on this event to show Sundance and everyone at Sundance that we Latinos need representation — because representation matters.”
The network spread to become more than just a yearly gathering, and now Calienes hosts monthly workshops in California.
“We recently teamed up with Broken Barriers to start the New Normal Reading Series, where we highlight minority talent,” she says. “We know it all starts with a story, so we’re giving writers the opportunity to hear their work aloud and workshopped.”
In the years since starting the Latino Filmmakers Network, Calienes has spent the majority of her time producing. One of her most recent films is Esta Es Tu Cuba (This Is Your Cuba), for which she executive-produced. The short, directed by fellow Cuban-American Brian Robau, won the HBO Ibero-American Short Film Award at the Miami Film Festival earlier this month. It also picked up a student Emmy at the College Television Awards this past weekend.
“Brian [Robau] is actually the one student in the history of the Academy who has won two Student Academy Awards,” Calienes says, clearly in awe of her colleague and friend. Robau first won for his short It’s Just a Gun in 2017, and now for Esta Es Tu Cuba in 2019.
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Although Calienes and Robau were introduced by a mutual friend, it is through organizations such as the Latino Filmmakers Network that Calienes hopes will connect writers with directors, directors with producers, or any combination thereof.
“The conversation has to start somewhere, and as filmmakers and storytellers in Hollywood, it’s our job to educate people through the films we make,” she says.
Calienes' goal, not only with the Latino Filmmaker Network but also as a writer and producer, is to help define the American-Latino voice in Hollywood. “Our heritage is something that should connect us; we shouldn’t be separated because of our backgrounds but rather should come together because we’re American Latinos. And together, we have to start defining our voice in the industry.”