Pilsen filmmaker Esaú Meléndez
When 15-year-old Esaú Meléndez joined his family in Chicago two decades ago, thoughts of a life beyond the borders of his Bucktown neighborhood were as far off as the city—Mexico City—he had left behind. “I basically was in survival mode,” Meléndez, now 35, recalls. “I didn’t really think about opportunities because I had no idea what was going to happen.”
And indeed, during those first few years, he found himself swerving toward the rut carved so deeply for so many non-English-speaking immigrants to Chicago: long hours working in a factory, in a restaurant, on a day-labor construction site. But in time, the same roadblocks the city seemed to put in his path became the paving stones for a very Chicago-like success story.
Today, Meléndez draws on his experiences here to make films. His first full-length feature documentary, Immigrant Nation! The Battle for the Dream, for example, tells the story of the modern immigrant-rights movement through that of a single mother from Chicago, Elvira Arellano, who fought her deportation. The film, which won the 2010 Cine Latino Award at the DC Independent Film Festival and Best Documentary at the Chicago Latino Film Festival, has screened at numerous festivals around the country, and Meléndez is now working with PBS to air it nationally. (The project was funded in part by Latino Public Broadcasting.)
For all his early struggles in Chicago—the gangs who ran his high school, the tedious job in a cookie factory that he took to make ends meet—Meléndez also found opportunities. The open-enrollment policy Columbia College had at the time—and student loans and scholarships—allowed him to study film and video in a nationally recognized program. After college, he found work with the Spanish broadcast network Telemundo and WYCC, a Chicago PBS affiliate—places that gave him valuable hands-on training.
Most of all, he found a richly diverse culture in Chicago, one filled with colorful people and powerful stories. “I really like the diversity, the communities run by small businesses. That’s a big part of the independence and the stories I want to do—stories that talk about community ideals and socially oriented films.”
Pilsen, in particular—where Meléndez lives with his wife and year-old son—has provided both story ideas and a deep pool of artistic talent. “It’s a community where many artists live, and there are a lot of movements going on with music and other art forms,” he says. “If I need actors or writers, I can find them right there.”
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp