The moviegoers broke out in cheers and applause as Xolo Maridueña’s name appeared in the opening credits of “Blue Beetle,” the first DC Comics movie to feature a Latino superhero.
They braced as Jaime Reyes, portrayed by Maridueña, emerged in the Blue Beetle suit, and danced in their seats to the sounds of Los Tucanes de Tijuana’s “La Chona” early in the film. Meanwhile, Maridueña’s grandmother, Maria Del Refugio Navarro, expressed how nervous she feels seeing him on the screen. “Muchos golpes,” she said. He takes a lot of hits, she said of her grandson’s acting roles, which include “Cobra Kai.”
“But I’m so proud of him and his parents. He’s such a humble and collected person,” she said in Spanish.
This was the scene at the AMC Burbank on Saturday as Maridueña’s family and friends gathered for a private screening of the film, hosted by the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory, an organization that secured funding to host free “Blue Beetle” showings in Alhambra, Montebello and Hollywood.
“We came out to represent the community,” said Pensri Silva of La Habra, a family friend of Maridueña’s family who attended with her Salvadoran mother and her nephew. “I’ve been telling everybody to see it.”
As writers and actors are barred from promoting their work due to the Hollywood labor dispute, Maridueña’s family, friends, and a host of Latino and community-based organizations are stepping up. They’ve held free “Blue Beetle” screenings, bought movie tickets for others, and continue to urge the public to see the film that’s written, directed and starred by Latinos.
The movie opened Aug. 18.
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“This is our way of saying, ‘Look, we know you cannot be in front, but we want you to know that you have thousands behind you,” said Carmelita Ramirez-Sanchez, Maridueña’s mother, who leads the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory. “When one of us can’t be there, none of us are as strong as all of us.”
The Latino Film Institute, Voto Latino, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers are among the 27 organizations that signed an open letter inviting everyone to “amplify the work that countless Latino artists have worked so hard to create.”
“It’s important that we show up for them at a time when they are not able to promote their projects,” the letter reads.
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The National Hispanic Media Coalition bought out a theater at the Starlight Whittier Village and hosted a free community screening on Thursday for children and their families from Whittier, East L.A., as well as students from Cal State L.A.
“‘Blue Beetle’ is one of the Latino films that our community has been waiting for,” said Brenda Victoria Castillo, the president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “We feel that we have to have a voice for those who cannot right now.”
The L.A.-based nonprofit Somos El Cine, which offers workshops and events to make film education more accessible, purchased dozens of tickets to give away to community.
A supporter of creative arts industries, Ramirez-Sanchez said she can’t help but feel conflicted over the labor strike and the “Blue Beetle” release happening simultaneously. Her organization focuses on pathways to careers in film, art, and digital media for communities historically denied these opportunities. The ongoing strikes are important, she said.
“I’m very labor forward, but I’m still a mom,” said Ramirez-Sanchez, a former producer and on-air personality for the hip-hop radio program “The Wake Up Show.”
“I can see that it impacts my son greatly, because this should have been a moment where he is sharing, and basking, and glowing, and really being able to be joyous in the opportunity,” Ramirez-Sanchez added.
Maridueña, in an Instagram post mid-July, voiced his support for the strike and told his fans he wouldn’t be able to promote the movie because of the labor dispute. “We need to stand on the right side of history,” he said.
“The people who are asking for the right to live and work and thrive in the business should be allowed to and should be able to,” Maridueña said.
Born and raised in L.A. in a Mexican American household, Maridueña went to El Sereno Middle School and graduated from Cathedral High School. His mother is Mexican American and his biological father is a Cuban Ecuadorian American. He expressed interest in acting at an early age, despite having limited T.V. time as a child, his mother said. “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland” and “Men in Black” were favorites growing up.
He took acting classes and roles at Casa 0101, a theater company in Boyle Heights founded by playwright Josefina Lopez. There, he acted in “Little Red,” an adaptation of the classic fairy tale “with a Chicana punk-rock twist.” Belissa Escobedo, who plays Maridueña’s sister in Blue Beetle, was also involved with Casa 0101.
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Edward Padilla, lead youth educator at Casa 0101, said “Blue Beetle” is an “opportunity to put us in a heroic light.” It could be a win for the “Latino community at large,” he said.
Padilla has been sharing about the movie through social media and among colleagues at a human resources consulting firm “who are very excited about the film.”
“For me, that is a very positive thing because it’s not just for the Latino community. This is a mainstream film … that just happens to have Latino characters,” Padilla said.
Kellie Figoten and wife Angel Rodriguez, who are both social workers, have been doing the same. Figoten has known Maridueña’s mother for decades and has been around since Maridueña was born. They’ve attended family Seder and barbecues together.
“Because he grew up with us, he knows all of our friends,” said Figoten, who also teaches at Cal State L.A. “He was always part of a bigger community village.”
Their social worker network of friends in New York, Washington, D.C, and other states who “have watched him grow up from our family album” are now promoting the film. Their neighbors and students are doing the same.
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To Rod Sepand, professionally known as DJ King Tech, having Maridueña as the first live-action Latino superhero “means the world to everybody.” He attended the screening on Saturday.
Sepand, who worked with Ramirez-Sanchez on the “Wake Up Show,” helped produce Maridueña’s recent debut single, “On My Way,” an homage to ’90s hip-hop featuring Adriana Padilla.
Sepand noted how fame can change a person, but he doesn’t see that happening with Maridueña, “a grounded [and] genuinely good person,” who is looked up to as a superhero.
“If you’re going to give power to somebody, give it to a good person,” he said.
In the end, Ramirez-Sanchez said, it’s not just about box office numbers.
“If this movie is huge, if this movie does not make numbers it’s supposed to, one thing is certain, this is something that can’t be taken back,” she said.
“Being able to really feel that representation that came from a very real, very honest, very beautiful place —those numbers, whether they match somebody’s imagination of what something should be a success or not — will not define the fact that our community is asking to be seen, and this was an answer to that request,” Ramirez-Sanchez said.