An East Bay filmmaker explores, on camera, his family’s checkered past
Michael Fox, Oakland Magazine, November 30, 2017

Rick Tejada-Flores’ grandfather, José Luis Tejada Sorzano, was the president of Bolivia in the turbulent mid-1930s. And that’s pretty much all Tejada-Flores was told as a child growing up in Los Angeles about his family’s legacy in South America.

He was curious, of course, and he remained so after he went off to college, became an activist, directed a film called Si Se Puede! for the United Farm Workers and forged a career in television as a respected documentary producer and director. Tejada-Flores demonstrated a penchant for research in portraits of Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns and a talent for interviews in The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Struggle (made with Ray Telles) and The Good War and Those Who Refused to Fight It (with Judith Ehrlich).

Both skills are on display in Tejada-Flores’ new one-hour film, My Bolivia, Remembering What I Never Knew. Needless to say, it’s a personal film, which marked a disconcerting departure for a filmmaker whose lifelong priority was telling other people’s stories.

“I had spent many years talking about going to Bolivia,” the East Bay filmmaker said. “It wasn’t that I wanted to do a film about my family. My real impetus was getting to know the country that my family came from.”

As Tejada-Flores discovers through his on-camera exploration and perambulation, the story of the wealthy, land-owning Tejada family intersects with the history of Bolivia in the 20th century in revealing and deeply uncomfortable ways. Let’s just say that by the time the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie makes a cameo appearance in the Tejada narrative, it is shocking without being surprising.

“Even though it was an interesting story, I wasn’t convinced people would be interested in seeing a film about Bolivia that wasn’t about cocaine or whatever,” Tejada-Flores said. “I was a very reluctant character. I was going to tell the story, but I was never going to be part of the story. I wrestled with this see of what my role in the film was. A lot of first-person films are more about the narrator than about the story, and I didn’t want to do that.”

Tejada-Flores’ innate humility and decency are apparent in the way he interacts with the Bolivians he meets. In a similar vein, My Bolivia’s pacing and tone eschew sensationalism in favor of quiet (albeit profound) revelation and low-key connection. Last but not least, Tejada-Flores spearheads a clean-water project—with a substantial financial contribution from his Southern California cousins, whose parents also told them nothing about Bolivia—out of a sense of both justice and caring.

“It wasn’t residual guilt,” Tejada-Flores said quietly. “I worked with the farmworkers. I had worked with poor people who fought back. It felt good to help people. I don’t feel like I’m responsible but it’s incumbent for someone in the family to help.”

As for his first foray in front of the camera, Tejada-Flores simply said, “It was a very strange experience. I don’t think I want to make any more personal films.”

Unfortunately, the difficult fundraising climate has dampened his enthusiasm for embarking on one of his typically ambitious documentaries.

“I’m taking a break, at least from big PBS projects. I’m 72. Do I want to spend the next six years raising money?”



Tuesday, December 5 at 7PM
474 24th Street, Oakland

As part of the Berkeley Film Foundation Monthly Series

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My Bolivia can be watched on the World Channel site until January 8, 2018

Michael Fox, writing in KQED Arts

A filmmaker and historian, Rick Tejada-Flores has made a nice career out of telling other people’s stories: Cesar Chavez (The Fight in the Fields), Diego Rivera (Rivera in America) and José Clemente Orozco (Orozco: Man of Fire), among others. Like the vast majority of documentary filmmakers, the veteran East Bay producer-director and all-around mensch was deeply allergic to stepping in front of the camera and making himself the subject. Ultimately, he realized he had no choice in order to recount his family’s saga in Bolivia.

The patiently probing and highly rewarding My Bolivia, Remembering What I Never Knew traces the strands of the Tejada clan from La Paz to Los Angeles (where the filmmaker was born) back to La Paz and on to the isolated rural countryside. Tejada-Flores’ personal journey expands into a mini-history of Bolivia in the 20th century, an edifying and gratifying development for viewers (like this correspondent) whose entire knowledge of the landlocked South American country was gleaned from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Tejada-Flores informs us at the beginning of My Bolivia of his ancestors’ prominence: He knew as a small boy that his grandfather had been president (José Luis Tejada Sorzano, from 1934 to 1936). But he was intentionally kept in the dark for decades about the ways in which the Tejadas gained—and lost—their wealth and influence. It’s a shocking legacy, and how Tejada-Flores decides to handle it gives the one-hour doc its transcendently bittersweet ending.

Interview on Chronicles of La Raza, with Julieta Kusnir, starts at 19:50

For those who speak Spanish, here’s my first Spanish interview, with Samuel Orozco on Radio Bilingue’s Linea Abierta

Other Reactions to MY BOLIVIA
Following are a few of the comments from the United Methodist Bolivia Missionary Reunion on July 21, 2017 in Little Rock, AK.   Full disclosure — one of my brothers was born in a Methodist Hospital in Bolivia.

A multi-generational systemic burden was lifted by the combination of truth and reconciliation through an act of restitution. We are more free when others are also free.

We don’t always see the perpetrators at the top; we came in and worked with the people on the bottom. It was very interesting to see how the patrones felt.

I didn’t know anything about Afro-Bolivians and their history. I didn’t realize there was such a caste system.

I particularly appreciate that your position of non-violence comes through clearly, and that you do not sugarcoat war, but portray it realistically for what it is.





Lessons from Bolivian History

When people ask me where I come from, I say Southern California. That’s where I grew up, but my father came here from Bolivia to study at Cal Tech. He wasn’t an undocumented worker — he came from a wealthy family. When I was little I heard about the family estates, and about my grandfather, who was President of Bolivia from 1934 to1936. (Of course, in the 190 years since Bolivian Independence in 1825 it has had 80 presidents. The fact that Evo Morales is the first Indian President in the country’s history is remarkable, but the fact that he has been president for almost 10 years is really amazing!)

My father never took us back to Bolivia, in fact he hardly talked about Bolivia at all. Finally I decided to see for myself. When I did, I found a remarkable story; and since I’m a filmmaker, that was the starting point for my film My Bolivia, Remembering What I Never Knew. The more I learned, the more I felt that my family’s story might serve as a sort of paradigm; a way of understanding some of the basic forces that have shaped the continent’s history. Here are some of the themes that have emerged as I uncovered the family story.

The Fragile Nature of Democratic Institutions
When you hear that your grandfather was president, you plug in what that term represents here… convoluted elections, immense power, the desire to achieve consensus, etc. My grandfather was elected Vice President in the elections of 1931, and became President after a military coup in 1934 (some have suggested that he engineered the coup but I think that is very unlikely). When I took a look at the 1931 Bolivian elections here is what I found. Bolivia had a population of approximately 2 ½ million then, the vast majority Indians. In the presidential elections that year, a total of 39,000 votes were cast. Indians and women were not allowed to vote, and white males could vote if they met property-owning or professional standards. Of course, the only alternative to what they called democracy then was military rule. It was always pretty vague about how my grandfather started as Vice President and ended up as President. What happened was that there was a coup in the middle of the war. It looks like the army coup leaders were hoping for the appearance of legitimacy in elevating my grandfather to the Presidency. And that was the pattern from then on. My grandfather was ousted in another coup in 1936.

Slavery in the Hemispheric Context
Most Americans think that African slavery was a particularly North American institution. But of the roughly 10 million Africans brought to the New World, less than 500,000 came to North America; the rest to the Caribbean, Central and Latin America. Although Bolivia is a primarily an Indian country, my family and many others owned slaves in the colonial period. The slaves had been brought to Bolivia to work in the mines in Potosi, but when they couldn’t stand the altitude and cold, they were brought down to the sub-tropical areas to work on the large estates. Their descendants still live in the same region, but now they speak Aymara as well as Spanish, wear traditional Bolivian garb. Afro Bolivians remain at the bottom of Bolivian society. In fact, they are practically invisible, and race in Bolivia is a defined as relations between white people and Indians.

A War for Oil or to Disract?
Bolivia and Paraguay fought a war in the Chaco dessert between the two countries from 1932 to 1935. It was the bloodiest war in Latin American history. Best figures are 60,000 Bolivians and 20,000 Paraguayans died. In a majority Indian country like Bolivia this means that most of the casualties were Indian.

The Chaco region was and still is virtually uninhabited, with no natural resources. Both Standard Oil and Shell had been prospecting in the region, so the popular belief was that the war was fought to control the oil that was thought to be there. This is certainly a theme that has echoed in other areas, particularly Iraq. The irony is that after the war, there was no oil to be found.

I believe that a more plausible explanation for the conflict was the classic one of using war to distract people from domestic problems. Bolivia, an extremely poor country, was also suffering from the devastating effects of the Great Depression.

However, there was an important result of the meaningless war. The generation that fought, known as the Chaco generation, formed the nucleus of the movement that finally led the revolution of 1952 that overturned the old order, initiated land reform and universal suffrage and nationalized the mines. I was amazed to find out that another family member, whose name has been written out of family history, was in the leadership of the revolution and administered the land reform that stripped our family of its estates.

Welcome to a different Bolivia

This is the first iteration of a new web site created to document and facilitate the production of my latest, and most personal, documentary film, My Bolivia, Remembering What I Never Knew.

The film is shot and in the final stages of editing.  I will soon be launching a Beacon Reader campaign to raise the funds for the finishing costs involved…  things like the music, sound design, animation and color correction.

Thanks for your interest, and your help

Rick Tejada-Flores
Alturas Films