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?”
MY BOLIVIA OAKLAND SCREENING
AT THE NEW PARKWAY THEATER
Tuesday, December 5 at 7PM
474 24th Street, Oakland
As part of the Berkeley Film Foundation Monthly Series
MY BOLIVIA STREAMING ONLINE
ON THE WORLD CHANNEL
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.