The Frida Cinema: Later Days: Interview with co-director and co-writer Sandy Sternshein

Later Days, the recent independent comedy film, features local film teacher Sandy Sternshein as a co-director and co-scriptwriter alongside Brad Riddell.

A Gen-X love letter to 1980s comedies, Later Days follows a married middle-aged couple, Mike (David Walton) and Pam (Majandra Delfino), with Mike planning a surprise 1980s prom-themed birthday party for Pam, with their friends and former classmates attending. However, the intended happy nostalgia-fest turns into an unexpected rollercoaster ride.

Sternshein originally from Long Beach, has had a lifelong passion for film. After attending USC film school, he took the path of indie filmmaking. Eventually, he became a popular film and media teacher at the local community colleges, Santiago Canyon College and Santa Ana College, as well as the popular arts charter school OCSA, Orange County School of the Arts.

In his classes, Sternshein encouraged students to follow their writing strengths in a variety of genres, whether it be comedy, action, or horror. He also exposed his students to a wide variety of filmmakers and films, including obscure documentaries, foreign, and classic films, to challenge the way they interpreted film, the filmmaking process, and inspire creativity.

Sternshein shares with us his path from becoming a film teacher, to making an indie movie, and the knowledge he inspires to pass on to others along the way.

Bonilla: What is your connection to Orange County?

Sternshein: I was born in Long Beach, but I grew up in Seal Beach and Los Alamitos. I’ve mostly lived in Orange County, even when I went to USC, I lived in Seal Beach. Jen and I, when we first got together, lived in Hollywood for a couple of years, when we were working in production. I’ve always felt like this is my home and I am much more productive here than I am in LA.

Bonilla: What led you to pursue an education in film?

Sternshein: I went to Whittier college as a religious studies major. The truth is, I wanted to go to NYU as out of high school because Spike and Martin Scorsese went there. It was the school of schools. But I ended up at Whittier. Whittier didn’t have a film major, but I think they had a minor.

I took a class called “Religion and Cinema”. We didn’t have a great film department at Whittier, but this class was life-changing. We’d watch Peter Sellers and Hal Ashby films.

That class exposed me to the idea that to create good films, you have to know things about the world. You have to read everything you can get your hands on and watch everything you can. That class changed it for me. I liked this class so much I decided to become a religious studies major and not a film major.

I ended up going my junior year to Israel, studying in Tel Aviv. I saw the world and the experience opened my eyes.

In 1999, I went to graduate school at USC, right after my wife and I got married. She went to law school and I went to USC’s film school.

Bonilla: What led you to go into teaching?

Sternshein: I knew I wasn’t going to make a million dollars right away at being a filmmaker. If I got an MFA, I could teach film. I had taught before in the Whittier City School District. I knew how to teach and was good at it. So, I could have a career as a screenwriter and make some money.

Bonilla: What film classes did you teach?

Sternshein: At OCSA, I taught screenwriting, production one, production two, and a web series class.

For Santa Ana College, I taught postwar cinema from 1945 to the present day, mass media, introduction to film production, directing/producing from film and television, and all three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

At Santiago Canyon College, I taught mass media and the three screenwriting classes, beginning, intermediate, and advanced.

I’ve taught pretty much everything film-related.

Bonilla: How did you become affiliated with OCSHA? 

Sternshein: OCSA started at Los Alamitos High School when my wife was there. My son is at OCSA in Santa Ana. My wife Jena and I both taught there. My kids went to El Sol, a dual immersion school across the street from OSHA, on Broadway, in Santa Ana.

I re-connected with Ralph Opacic, who had been a teacher and friend, who also founded OSHA. Then, I started teaching film classes and screenwriting there. Later, I taught at Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College.

Bonilla: How did you approach film writing when you were teaching?

Sternshein: Like great literature, I wanted to introduce my all students, to this way of telling a story, this personal, independent way of making movies of writing stories. Though they’re small, little stories, they say something about us, about life.

I recently spoke to a class of aspiring filmmakers. I told them, “I know you’ve been through a lot of struggles in your life. Honestly, you can’t be a screenwriter, without some adversity”. I guarantee you’ll come out of it a better writer because you understand.

You have to go through suffering and pain to tell a story with empathy. When you come across people on the camera, or when you’re interviewing them, you have some empathy and bring some of that to the page.

Bonilla: What inspired you to go from teaching to full-time filmmaker?

Sternshein: In my class, at the end of the semester I would tell my students to, “Go out there. Tell your story. Don’t wait for the gatekeepers. Don’t ask for permission”. This is a pitch that I’ve been giving for years. But, I wasn’t doing what I was saying. The more I gave that speech, the less authentic I felt.

Finally, I did two things. One, I went to my wife and I shared, “I’m thinking about getting out of teaching, so I can go make a movie”. It wasn’t her favorite idea, but she agreed, “If your miserable and that’s gonna make you happy. Then absolutely”. And so I did.

Second, I went to Brad, who had moved to Chicago as a tenured professor at DePaul University. He ran the screenwriting program there. I asked him, “I want to try to raise some capital and make a little movie, at one location. What do you want to do?” We threw some ideas around and I pitched this movie.

In 2017, I pretty much walked away from teaching to make this movie. Here we are four years later and it’s finally coming to the screen.

Bonilla: Which film and/or filmmaker inspired your filmmaking?

Sternshein: Spike Lee for sure. I remember seeing Do the Right Thing and it changed me. This idea that the hottest day of summer where everything comes to a head was amazing. Ernest Dickerson‘s cinematography was so warm.

Then, I saw a flyer at McDonald’s that Spike was going to be at Cal State Long Beach. My mom, a teacher, let me take that day off from high school to see him. I was probably a junior in high school. Jungle Fever was coming out and he was beginning Malcolm X. It was life-changing just to hear Spike speak.

As an undergrad at Whittier college, I was in charge of the speaker series. We got Spike to come and speak to at Whittier. Then, I got to have dinner with him. He was so cool. At the time, his production company 40 Acres and a Mule West. He hooked me up with one of his creative executives and was really supportive early on in my career.

Bonilla: How did you meet your filmmaking partner Brad Riddell? 

Sternshein: My film partner Brad Riddell and I went to USC together. In our last year, in a scriptwriting class, my screenplay ended up on the first year of The Blacklist and his screenplay ended up becoming a part of American Pie Presents: Band Camp. Brad went the studio route, while I went the independent route.

Years later, we became friends again, and we wrote some comedy together, including a web series.

Bonilla: Where did the inspiration for Later Days come from?

Sternshein: 10 years ago, I threw my wife an 80s prom at the Orange Elks Lodge. She’s an overworked corporate attorney and works hard to support the family. I was home with the kids. At night when she gets home, we’d high five, and I go teach till 10 p.m. Then we’d finally get to bed together and immediately fall asleep. We were like two ships crossing in the night.

For the party, I got everyone in costumes. I thought it was going to be a fun night. But, what’s crazy, is when we put on those costumes, we realized that everyone diverted back to their high school self, and the cliques formed.

Brad had a band camp-like reunion. That didn’t go well. People had issues and all this stuff surfaced.

We thought, “What if the people on your Facebook feed, where everybody’s getting along, liking your photos, who you haven’t seen since eighth grade, all ended up in the same room for a night, and it all goes horribly wrong?”

Bonilla: How did you and Brad delegate the responsibilities of co-writing and co-directing?

Sternshein: We work well together and don’t fight a lot. We also had basic rules with the cast and crew, creating a nice environment on set. Somedays I’m working with the camera and he’s working with the actors. For the most part, we’re both weighing in on things, with one person delegated to speak to the cast and crew.

It was our first directed feature. We’ve been around a lot of movie sets, so it went well. I think in a lot of ways it went better than usual because there were two heads. Usually, a director is frantic since he’s constantly having to make multiple decisions in the same second on set. We still have chaos, but there were two of us making sure everything was going as planned and we weren’t missing anything. I would work again with Brad. I really enjoyed it.

Bonilla: What lead to the decision to film Later Days in Chicago?

Sternshein: We got a tax incentive to go shoot in Chicago, getting 30% of our budget back to shoot in Illinois. It was a huge deal.  Even though it’s supposed to be set here in the city of Orange. It ended up making it a Chicago story.

We raised all the money ourselves. Brad and I went to Chicago and pitched to the CMA, the Chicago Media Angels.  We were also selected by the SAG/IFP Table Read Series. Also, in Chicago, they had a series where they were reading scripts publicly. They chose ours and we were able to get more financing there.

We did all this about March 2019, before we shot that September. Everything was done in 19 days. We got everything edited by January/February 2020. But, in March, COVID happened.

The good news is that during that time, we worked on the soundtrack and everything else. We needed an authentic 1980s soundtrack. So, we have about eighteen well-known 80s songs on it. It’s pretty cool.

Bonilla: Later Days has a John Hughes feel to it. Was Hughes an influence on the film?

Sternshein: The John Hughes influence is huge. We’re going on 50 and were 13 when Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and all those movies were coming out. We love these movies. Brad also teaches a class at DePaul University which is a John Hughes film class.

When we sat down to write, we thought about The Breakfast Club, wondering, “What if Anthony Michael Hall was the CEO of Facebook?”, or, “What if what if Emilio Estevez, who was the big jock was a stay-at-home Dad?” Also, “How would those guys come to a meeting?” Imagine Anthony 25 years later, with a chip on his shoulder, wanting to everybody that he’s the man.

Since, Hughes’s films took place in Shermer, Illinois, a fake city, in his honor, our movie is set in West Shermer. Also, Audrey Francis who plays Karen in Later Days, is wearing Haviland Morris’ dress from Sixteen Candles.

Bonilla: How else did you inject the 80s film style into Later Days?

Sternshein: This film was shot to look like an old film, using a process to make the film look a little grainy. We really wanted that party to look like something out of the 80s.

The costumes were handmade by Sarah Albrecht. They’re amazing. Sarah did an amazing job. I’m so grateful for her. There’s a couple of Easter eggs we put in the film through famous-looking costumes and stuff in the background.

Bonilla: What does Later Days mean to you? 

Sternshein: Later Days is a very personal story. It was how I felt coming out of raising my kids with my wife. Adulting is hard, especially not seeing your wife all day. When you get this age, our parents are getting sick and dying, and all of the sudden, you feel mortal. You have to deal with that now.

Bonilla: How have audiences reacted to the film so far?

Sternshein: Everybody says it’s a sweet movie. Though it’s an R-rated movie, it’s wholesome. I’m kind of a sarcastic and edgy guy. So, when people I know see Later Days they say, “I didn’t think you have that in you”. It surprises them.

Bonilla: Do you have any upcoming projects?

Sternshein: We’re excited to continue to make more films and produce films. We’ve optioned the award-winning book called The Kindness of Strangers by Katrina Kittle. It’s a dark, but an award-winning book. Currently, Dominica Scorsese is attached to direct and we’re producing that.

Brad and I are writing a skateboard comedy called Back to the GrindTony Hawk is producing it, with Troy Miller attached to direct.

Bonilla: What do you hope that audiences take away from this film?

Sternshein: I hope people walk away thinking it’s a sweet and funny little movie, with a great soundtrack. I’m excited for people to see this and meet the characters. These are characters that we’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Overall, I wanted to make a movie for my wife to enjoy when she’s tired on a Saturday night, as she asks me to put something funny on. I feel like we made this movie for her and Brad’s wife, Tina. A movie that they could curl up on the couch, laugh to, and be distracted from all the complications of the modern world.

Later Days is now playing at select theatres nationally, TVOD, and digital platforms.


The Frida Cinema Blog: African American Documentaries Part 2 :Groundbreaking African American Women

Continuing our 3-part documentary blog series highlighting the history, culture, and influence of African Americans in America, are 10 documentaries streaming now, honoring groundbreaking and history-making African American Women.

10. A Ballerina’s Tale

Misty Copeland is the first African American female principal ballet dancer at the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre. Battling the conventional standards of the world of classical ballet and a potentially career-ending injury, Copeland has blossomed into one of the most famous ballerinas in America.

9. American Masters: Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock and Roll

Pioneering singer, electric guitarist, and songwriter Sister Rosetta Tharpe aka “The Godmother of Rock and Roll”, created a revolutionary musical and lyrical style of gospel, becoming a major part of the foundation of early rock and roll. Her work heavily influenced the first generation of rock and roll royalty, such as Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.

8. American Masters: Althea

Althea Gibson was the first African American woman to take the international tennis world by storm in the 1940s and 1950s. Through her tennis career was short-lived, she made history by becoming the first African American of any gender to win the Grand Slam tournament in 1956.

7. Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley

EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, directs this documentary, examining the life, career, and legacy of the groundbreaking LGBT+ comedian Moms Mabley. Mabley, one of the most cutting-edge comedians of the 1960s, addressed everything from civil rights to female sexuality, while breaking down color and gender barriers in standup comedy on television.

6. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender LGBT+ advocate and a beloved icon of the 1960s gay rights movement, who died of an apparent suicide in 1992. Trans right activist Vitoria Cruz, investigates the unsolved questions of Johnson’s tragic death, which was not given a proper police investigation, while also celebrating Johnson’s impact.

5. The Loving Story

The interracial love story between Mildred and Richard Loving is responsible for one of the most important civil rights era supreme court ruling against segregation, Loving v. The State of Virginia. Mildred, a soft-spoken Virginian housewife, took the initiative to have her interracial marriage recognized legally in their native Virginia, becoming in the process a civil rights advocate.

4. Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed

This Peabody Award-winning documentary highlights the challenges and triumphs of the pioneering politician, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. In the height of the civil rights movement, Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress (1969-1983), the first African American of any gender to run for president, and the first woman to run for the presidential nomination for the Democrat Party.

3. (In)Visible Portraits

Over a three-year period, first-time director Oge Egbuonu, collected an array of stories from Black female scholars and historians, to everyday Black women and girls, creating, “a love letter to Black women”. A documentary from the heart, Egbuonu shows how despite the challenges Black women have faced historically and currently in America, they continue to rise up, breaking gender and racial glass ceilings.

2. I Am Somebody

This trailblazing civil rights documentary, directed by Madeline Anderson, is recognized as the first half-hour documentary to be directed by African American female member for the DGA (Director’s Guild of America). It follows the strike of African American hospital and nursing home employees, working to form a union and receive higher wages, with help from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

1.     4 Little Girls

Spike Lee’s profoundly heart-wrenching documentary of how four girls, Addie Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair, who lost their lives in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, on September 15, 1963, changed America forever. Lee’s signature impactful and in-depth style of storytelling makes this film an essential documentary of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, becoming a preserved film in the National Film Registry of the United States Library of Congress. 


The Frida Cinema Blog: African American Documentaries Part 1: Groundbreaking African American Men

Honoring the life and legacy of civil rights leader Senator John Lewis, this 3-part blog series will be highlighting documentaries of African Americans, their culture, and influence in America. With such a vast array of documentaries highlighting trailblazing African American men, below is a list of documentaries to stream now.


A master of modern American music, music icon Quincy Jones revolutionized contemporary music as a composer, musician, songwriter, arranger, record producer, and film/television producer. His over a 60-year groundbreaking career in entertainment has impacted an array of genres and musicians from Frank Sinatra, to Barbara Strained, and Dr. Dre.

Richard Pryor: Icon

Considered the greatest and most influential stand-up comedian of all time, Richard Pryor revolutionized comedy with his signature no hold bars language and blunt honesty. His comedic genus could be seen through his stand-up specials (Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip), scriptwriting (Blazing Saddles and Stanford and Sons), and acting (Harlem Nights and Stir Crazy).

When We Were Kings

The Oscar-winning documentary explores one of the most famous heavyweight boxing championship matches of all time, between Muhammad Ali and George Forman, in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle”. It also evaluated how African Americans connected during the Black Power Era to the content of Africa culturally and politically.

1968 – A Mexico City Documentary NBC Sports

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Olympics, known as one of the most memorable Olympics of the 20th century, due to the silent protest of the African American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. While the documentary, narrated by Serena Williams, evaluates the social and political issues surrounding the 68’ Olympics, special attention is paid to the journey of Smith and Carlos to the Olympics and the impact their protest had then and today.

The Black Godfather

Though lesser known to mainstream American pop culture audiences, behind the curtain of Hollywood, Clarence Avant, aka “The Black Godfather”, is a significantly influential music executive and film producer. Known as a mover and shaker in entertainment, Avant helped shape and promote positive black American culture in entertainment, launching the careers of a vast variety of African American celebrates.

Sing Your Song: The Story of Harry Belafonte

Considered one of the most influential black performers in modern music, Harry Belafonte, the “King of Calypso”, evolved from a successful singer (“Day-O” aka “The Banana Boat Song” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora)”) and actor (Carmen Jones), into an outspoken civil rights activist. Belafonte has spent his life using his celebrity influence to bring to light humanitarian issues both nationally and internationally.

Who Killed Malcolm X?

The outspoken civil rights leader Malcolm X challenged authority without fear. 55 years after Malcolm’s death, this 6-part documentary intensely analyses Malcolm’s history, assassination and the influence of his legacy.

John Lewis: Good Trouble

Following the life of the political force and civil rights leader Senator John Lewis of Georgia, in his over 60-year participation of social activism and fight for civil rights. How his strength and bravery became a force challenging the social status quo while impacting American politics.

King of the Wilderness

Among the multitude of films and documentaries about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., this documentary takes an in-depth look at the last few years of his life. It evaluates the multitude of heart-breaking consequences he faced, including being unethically and illegally targeted by J. Edgar Hoover (the director of the FBI) and the immense backlash for being anti-Vietnam War. Though he suffered, he noted, “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promise land”.

I Am Not Your Negro

James Baldwin, one of the most significant American authors of the 20th century, wrote the unfinished memoir manuscript of Remember This House, which this documentary is based on. Through a passionately profound observation, Baldwin’s words take viewers into a deeply personal perception of the complexity of African American history and how his words of yesterday connect to today’s #blacklivesmatter movement.


Why Carmen Miranda Did Not Originate the Spicy Latina Stereotype

As a subscriber to the YouTube channel We Are Mitu, I look forward to watching their videos on a regular basis.  One video that caught my attention recently was Kat Calls newest episode, Season 2 Episode 4 “What Makes Latinas So Spicy”.  In the video, Kat claims that Carmen Miranda both “personifies” and originated the “spicy Latina” stereotype.  Though Carmen is one of the more famous Latinas from the Golden Age of Hollywood, she is not the origin, nor the sole personification of the spicy Latina stereotype, as Kat claims.


The Origin of Spicy Latina:

First, before we can call any Latina the origin or personification of the spicy Latina, we need to know when and how spicy was used to describe Latinas.  According to the OC Weekly column, Ask a Mexican, by Gustavo Arellano, from April 14th, 2016 (, the earliest known use of the word “spicy” to describe a woman, was in 1866.  This was not affiliated with race or ethnicity, just “…hailing the virtues of a “spicy woman””.  The earliest mentions Gustavo could find referring to Latinas as spicy was from The Philadelphia Star in 1909, with an article calling a Latina, “a hot tamale”.  Later in 1919, a vaudeville advertisement, in The Seattle Star for a show called The Spanish Vamp, describing the show as “A Spicy Dish of Senoritas”.  Though these are the earliest publications Gustavo was able to find about spicy Latinas, the stereotype probably existed before 1866, proving that the idea, or the origin, of a Latina being spicy existed well before Carmen’s birth in 1909.


The Spicy Latina Definition:

According to, personification is “an embodiment or incarnation”.  Kat believes that Carmen is the personification of the spicy Latina, based on her definition of the spicy Latina being “over-sexualized, curvaceous, loud, and exotic”.  By this definition alone Carmen could be the spicy Latina, but the stereotype of the spice Latina is far broader.  Other terms affiliated with the spicy Latina stereotype include confrontational, violent, feisty, sassy, hot-tempered, passionate, bold, flirty, a good fighter, a Latina who can defend herself, a Femme Fatal, and even a great/passionate dancer.  With this broad description, any Latina including Carmen Miranda, Michelle Rodriquez, Rita Moreno, and Frieda Kahlo, can be described as a spicy Latina.  No one Latina can completely personify being a spicy Latina, just an aspect of the stereotype.


The Spicy Latina in Cinema:

In cinema, the origin of the spicy Latina stereotype can be traced back to the silent era, 1891-1927.  Latinos, predominantly Mexicans, played bit parts in early Hollywood silent film but predominantly in westerns.  Since early silent western films told simple good and bad guy stories, Mexicans were typically typecast as the bad guys.  Mexicans were portrayed as dumb, dirty, violent, quick-tempered, and overly sexual.  Mexican men were sexual predators (Bronco Billy and the Greaser 1914: , and The Gunfighter 1917: while Mexican Women were immorally promiscuous (1912: Broncho Billy’s Mexican Wife  These images created Latinos as spicy, in a negative way.  Disgusted and outraged by these portrayals in Hollywood films, both Latin Americans and Latin American governments called for boycotts of these films.  Not wanting to lose this growing profitable market, Hollywood repackaged the Latino image, into what we know now as the “Latin Lover”.

Spanish actor Antonio Moreno, who was Hollywood’s first “Latin Lover” affirmed, “I was promoted as to what you now call a sex symbol, though I did nothing to promote this perception.  But Americans wanted to believe that people of Latin origin were more naturally spicy”.  Moreno success, lead to the rise of other Latin Lovers, including Rudolf Valentino (who was marketed as Spanish but, was Italian), Ramón Navarro, Lupe Velez, and Dolores del Rio.  This new spicy interpretation of Latinos showed them as spicy in a sophisticated and romantic way.


The Spicy Latina and Nudity:

According to Kat, contemporary Latinas on television are 37.5% more likely to be naked on television, than their non-Latina counterparts.  The origins of the spicy Latina in media being excessively semi-nude or nude and being over sexualized didn’t begin with Kat’s person of origin Carmen Miranda.  Though Carmen showed her midriff in her costumes, a famous Latina who was constantly overly sexualized and appeared semi-nude on film, in leading roles was Dolores del Rio.  In 1932, for the film Bird of Paradise, Dolores only wore a straw skirt and two leis of flowers covering her breast (  The following year in Down to Rio, Dolores wore a two-piece swimsuit and a pair of overalls with no shirt underneath (  These and other semi-nude and nude female images in film caused such a controversy that it helped contribute to the creation and enforcement of the Hays Code of 1934, which was used to make Hollywood films “wholesome and moral”.


The Spicy Latina Temper:

Before Carmen’s introduction in American films, in 1940, another spicy Latina, who preceded Carmen, who was known for being “loud and exotic”, with “broken English”, as well as “the hot-blooded Mexican”, “a hot tamale”, and “Tabasco”, was Lupe Velez.  From the success Lupe gained from a starring role in the 1939 film Girl from Mexico (, Lupe starred in a series of six successful spin-off comedic films called the Mexican Spitfire, from 1940-1943.  These films were highly successful in both America and Latin America.  In all of the Mexican Spitfire films, Lupe played an over the top cartoony spicy Latina speaking and shouting in Spanish and English with a thick accent.  It was not uncommon for Lupe’s character to be confrontational and get into physical fights. (


Hollywood’s Propaganda Tool:

Kat also mentioned that Carmen’s image in Hollywood movies during WW2 was a “propaganda tool to better our relationship with Latin America”.  Yes, during WW2 America needed to make allies with Latin America, to prevent the neutral Latin American countries, from becoming a part of the Axis powers.  While Hollywood, also needed Latin American audiences due to the European film market being closed off to them.  However, the trend of featuring Latin America as the setting for Hollywood musical comedies and cartoons began as early as the beginning of the great depression in 1929 and became more popular during the rise of the Third Reich in 1933.  This extended into the early 1950’s, featuring other actors like Cesar Romero, Aurora Miranda (Carmen’s sister), Ricardo Montalban, Dolores del Rio, Desi Arnaz, and Rita Moreno.

Cesar Romero:

Aurora Miranda:

Desi Arnaz:

Dolores del Rio:

Ricardo Montalban:

Ricardo Montalban and Rita Moreno:


Carmen Misunderstood:

During her years in Hollywood films, from 1940-1953, Carmen was cast in 14 musical comedies as just a musical performer and/or a comedian.  As the legendary actor, activist, and founder of the Nosotros Foundation, Ricardo Montalban, stated in an interview for the documentary The Bronze Screen: 110 Years of the Latino Image in Hollywood, about Carmen, “She was criticized in Brazil because they thought that she was making a caricature of Brazil.  But that’s not the point.  The point is, I mean, we can’t lose totally our sense of humor.  We’ve got to evaluate things for what they are.  And a musical comedy is far from being an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence.  I mean, a musical comedy was to entertain”.



Despite my issues with the spicy Latina stereotype, as a Latina, I don’t want to be too critical of early Latina film pioneers like Carmen.  Can you blame Carmen for portraying a spicy Latina stereotypes?  You could, but you’d be overlooking what she and other early Latinas, like Dolores and Lupe were able to accomplish in a very short period of time in Hollywood.  Yes, they did portray certain stereotypes.  Still, these women became a part of the Hollywood elite at a time when “separate but equal” was still legal and accepted in America.  Their roles, no matter how spicy, helped bring diversity to Hollywood’s Silver Screen.  For Carmen’s contributions to both cinema and music, on April 5th, 1976, Brazil opened The Carmen Miranda Museum, in Rio.  Today, we Latinas have an opportunity to learn from the efforts of women like Carmen, as well as benefit from the doors they opened for us.  As scientist Sir Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen farther than others, it’s by standing on the shoulders of giants”.  And one of those giants is Carmen Miranda.

How One Day at a Time Helped Me Cope with My Mom’s Cancer

One Day at a Time is a Netflix show produced by the legendary television pioneer Norman Lear. It’s a modern update on the classic 1980’s sitcom of the same title. The show focuses on the Alvarez family, a Cuban American family in Los Angeles, which includes mom Penelope (Justina Machado), her two kids, Elena and Alex, as well as her mother Lynda (Rita Moreno). The show deals with a number of contemporary topics, from racism, to LGBTQ acceptance, and immigration. For me, I related to Penelope’s challenges of coping with the challenges of being a single mom, and dealing with her post-military service issues of chronic pain and PTSD.

In 2015, my Mom was diagnosed with Stage 3 Liposarcoma Cancer. We were devastated. While trying to cope with this news, she also needed emergency surgery to remove her cancerous tumor (6.5 inches by 4 inches) and the cancer cells on the wall of her abdomen and reproductive organs. Not knowing if she’d be strong enough to live through the surgery, Mom asked me if I would be the legal guardian of my autistic brother, John. I said yes, but inside, I was terrified. Before Mom’s diagnosis, I was trying to balance college, co-caregiving John with Mom, pursuing a career in writing, and caring for my own fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition. Now, I was John’s sole caregiver, in charge of running and keeping the house, and helping Grandma co-care-give for Mom post-surgery, on top of my own needs.

By not being able to handle all these massive changes so quickly, I suffered from frequent panic attacks. There were times I was afraid of leaving my bedroom, because of all the responsibilities waiting for me outside. I also became hesitant to answer my cell phone, terrified of getting another call about Mom getting worse, or her having to back to the emergency room. Thanks to the love and support of my family and friends, I was slowly starting to accept and cope with the situation. Though Mom is in remission, she still needs more surgery and is now dealing with health consequences from her cancer treatment. I still struggle with the fear of what life would be like if she died.

When One Day at a Time was first being advertised, as a Norman Lear project, I was excited to see Norman create a show around a Latino family. And with Rita Moreno being apart of the show, it made it even more intriguing. While watching the first episode I immediately connected to Penelope. Penelope faced many challenges similar to mine. She had to deal with the drastic change of becoming the primary, and at times, the sole provider for her family. It was her job to keep her home afloat, while helping, caring, and supporting her family. As rewarding as it can be to help others, it can also be overwhelming, especially if you’re doing it primarily own your own.

Due to Penelope’s military injuries, she at times she would struggle with her chronic shoulder pain (featured in episodes six and seven, of season one),
which would makes moving difficult. Mobility issues is something I also face on a regular basis with my Fibromyalgia. Though I don’t have PTSD, like Penelope, I can relate to the struggle she faces of trying to deal with life, while also trying to cope with the nightmares, panic, and the fear that can come from a life changing event.

In May of 2017, I attended a screening of One Day at a Time and a cast interview, in Los Angeles. Fortunately, I was one of the few chosen from the audience to ask a question. I was thrilled when both Rita and Justina answered my question. After the panel discussion was over, I had the opportunity to meet and tell both Justina and executive produced Mike Royce, how the show helped me cope with my own situation. Mike was very encouraging, while Justina gave me a big hug. Meeting them made my night!

During this time, I’ve learned that my panic comes from three things: one, the stress of taking on too many responsibilities and roles, two, from feeling that I can’t accomplish my personal goals, and three, my fear of what would happen to my family, especially John, if Mom died. At times these feelings are overwhelming. But like Penelope, I’m learning that I can’t do everything at once and that its okay. I need to take time to care things by priority, including self care. If I need help and its available, I need to accept it. And most importantly, I can’t be afraid of what might be, despite how terrifying something can potentially be. I simple have to take life One Day at a Time.

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Why The Speical Olympics Are Important to My Family

When some people hear the phrase “Special Olympics”, they think of it as a non-productive play day, with no rhyme or reason. A day for “retards to get medals for playing”. As aggravating as this perception can be, it’s not that uncommon to see people uninformed about what the Special Olympics entails, let alone know what the Special Olympics means to the participants and their families. Having a brother, John, who is a Special Olympic swimmer, I have seen the good that the Special Olympics has given John, his team, and other Special Olympians.


Improved Social Skills:

With social skills being a major challenge for John due to his autism, he has struggled to interact with others. When he was younger, he didn’t even want to be touched. However, when John discovered swimming, he liked the feeling of being in the water. It was comforting for him. Soon, John felt comfortable enough to interact with his swim coaches. He would let them swim close to him and touch his arms. This eventually helped John with his social skills at school. He was starting to talk to others and make friends.



At first, John was nervous about working with a swim team. But through John’s improved social skills, he was able to develop a sense of teamwork. Since he was the most experienced swimmer on his team, he later became the team’s captain. Feeling responsible for the other swimmers on his team, he does his best to help and encourage his fellow teammates, to do their best. Today, they work well together as a team.


Networking with Other Special Needs Families:

When having a family member who is special needs, it can feel very isolating. Through John’s swim team, we, the families of the swimmers, have built a little community among ourselves. We help each other in a variety of ways, from sharing information about resources, to providing rides for swim meets. And those times when someone is going through a hard time, we are there to support each other. John has also made friends with other swimmers, which makes the experience that much more enjoyable for him.


Community Outreach:

At the Special Olympics, there is a carnival-like area, where Special Olympians and their families go for food, games, and to meet local community sponsors. Sponsors vary from major corporations like Disney, to medical groups giving free eye and hearing exams for the Special Olympians. This helps the sponsors learn about the needs of this growing community and how to accommodate them. Additionally, Special Olympic families, especially those with little resources, find organizations that can better serve them and their children’s needs.


Self Confidence:

One of the major struggles for those with special needs is self-confidence.
Some Special Olympics may feel that because they have a special need, they are in some way inferior to those who are typical Olympians. Through the Special Olympics, these Olympians find happiness in competing in a sport they are passionate about. This happiness leads them to feel a boost in their self-confidence. When John is recognized as a Special Olympian in public, people treat him with a high regard that he normally would not get. This gives him greater self-confidence and self-value.

Despite the misconceptions often associated with the Special Olympics, for those of us involved in it, it’s changed our lives. The Special Olympics is a necessity. Not only for those in the special needs community, but also to show mainstream society that these talented special athletes want to belong and be accepted into mainstream society.

Why Families like Mine Need Speechless

Recently, I started watching ABC’s comedic sitcom Speechless.  Speechless, set in Orange County, California, is about the many adventures of the DiMeo family (Jimmy, the dad; Maya, the mom; and their children JJ, who has Cerebral Palsy, Ray, and Dylan).  Each episode focuses on the ups and downs that are part of the daily life, of a special needs family.  Like the DiMeo family, I live in Orange County, and come from a family of five, with a special needs child: Dad, Mom, Joe (older brother), John (younger brother with autism), and me.


The more I watched Speechless, the more I found common experiences between the DiMeo family and my family.  Though my younger brother John has autism, and JJ and Cerebral Palsy our families face many of the same challenges.  For example, in the first episode, “Pilot”, the DiMeo’s change schools with the hope of getting JJ an Aide, so he could be apart of the main school population.  To help John integrate with the school population, our family also faced the challenge of getting John an Aide.  Eventually, John was able to get two aides.  And, like JJ’s aide Kenneth, John’s Aids Crystal and Eric helped them excel in school, both socially and academically.


Jimmy and Dad are each the sole breadwinners, of each family.  They take on this responsibility so their wives can focus on helping the children, especially their special needs sons.  Other ways that they contribute to the household include, including giving rides, and advice.  Maya and Mom are passionate about helping her kids.  They will go to any length to help provide their children with the support each one needs.  And, if you try to cross them, or hurt their kids, watch out.


JJ and John are very intelligent.  Each has a keen sense of humor.  Yet, despite the limitations, JJ’s and John’s disabilities puts on them, they want to experience life like any other young man.  Ray and Joe are scientific inclined young men, trying to establish themselves as individuals.  Though they spend much of their time establishing themselves, they do their best to help their special needs brothers.  Dylan and I have a close bond with our special needs brothers.  We are both sisters, who are fiercely protective of our special needs brothers.  But, our special needs brothers, do their best to help us, in their own ways.


Growing up in a special needs family, there were many times that I felt like a freak.  I was made to fell that I should be ashamed of having a special needs brother.  When my family and I would go out, and John would usually have a meltdown.  People would stare at us, as though we were bad people.   Their comments varied from, “What a spoiled brat”, “Those irresponsible parents”, or even accusations of our ethnicity being to blame for John’s “bad” behavior.  At school, there were times where kids would taunt John so badly, he would have meltdowns.  While some kids, were cruel enough to beat John up, because they saw him as an easy target, due to his autism.   It breaks my heart to think about how ignorant and at times scary, some people’s treatment of special needs children can be.


As much as I would have loved to have a program like Speechless around when I was in grade school, feeling as though no one else was going through the same struggles as my family, I’m truly grateful Speechless is on television now.  Today, with 1 in 66 kids being diagnosed yearly with autism (Center for Disease Control), 1 in 5 people in America have a disability (US Census), and 13% of children/youths in public schools are receiving special education (National Center for Educational Statistics), we need television programs like Speechless.  Unlike many television programs, that show the special needs character as either pitiful or the butt of cliché disability jokes, Speechless is able to take a comedic look at the challenges facing special needs families, while being genuinely heartwarming.  But most importantly, Speechless is helping to normalize special needs families.  It shows a special needs family going through the same basic challenges faced by every television family.


My family and I are grateful to Speechless show creator Scott Silveri, the show’s writers, and the actors who portray the DiMeo’s and Kenneth.  Together, they have beautifully orchestrated the special needs family experience, for television.  And, for what feels like first time, for special needs families, like mine, our stories have finally become a part of mainstream television.


Thank you, Speechless.

Dear Nostalgia Critic

Dear Doug,

Thank you, for your Nostalgia Critic program, on YouTube.  It’s helped John, my autistic brother, gain a better understanding and interest in film.

Before John became a fan of yours, the only films he would watch were animated and slapstick comedies (The Three Stooges).  While these films were fun to watch with him, our family wanted to expand John’s interest, by exposing him to other kinds of films.  Yet, nothing we showed him interested him.  Fortunately, through John’s interest in Family Guy, it opened many doors for him, including the door for cinema.  Family Guy, introduced John to films, like Ted, Police Academy, and The Sound of Music.  But your program kicked that door of cinema wide open.

After watching your program, for a few weeks, John started to describe films from a simple, “It was funny” to “It had a strong opening, but depending more on gags than plot”.  Our family was floored.  John was critiquing these films with terminology, as though he was in a college film theory class.  When we asked him where he was learning how to critique films, he told us about you.

Excited that we, his family, took in interest in what he was watching on YouTube, we watched the A Troll in Central Park review with him.  As John laughed, I was stunned by what I saw.  I didn’t know what to make of you, or your humor.  It was hard to see why John liked you.  You were talking so fast, I couldn’t make out two-thirds of what you were saying.

Later, so I could better understand why John liked your program, I watched the A Troll in Central Park review, four more times.  Then it hit me.  Your high energy and enthusiasm are similar to John’s reactions when he gets excited about something that he deeply cares about, whether it’s Pokémon, or political satire, with John Oliver.  And, like John Oliver, you are well read and passionate about your subject.  You also explain film structure and theory, which can be very complicated, in a simple, funny, yet, educational way.

Because of you, Doug, John was exposed to films he would have never watched, or heard of.  He was motivated to venture out to films beyond animation.  For example, John has watched and been deeply moved by films, like Gandhi, Sullivan’s Travels, and Kinky Boots.  He also watches documentaries and mini-series.

John has also become an amateur film critic.  After we take John to a movie, he’ll critique everything about it, from the structure of the film to the characters, and the soundtrack.  He’s a big fan of DreamWorks, Pixar, and Illumination Entertainment.  But, after listening to your critiques, John will never go near anything affiliated with Michael Bay, or M Night Shyamalan.

Every Tuesday, John and I watch your show.  Then, we talk about the film, or topic you covered, and compared to other movies that we like.  Your emphasis on what is a good story structure has helped John better understand story structure for other forms of media like television, video games, and fan fiction.  He also uses the story structure formula, he learned from you, for his own fan fiction chapter stories.  This has helped improve his basic writing skills, far beyond what writing skills he had in high school.

Thank you, for the impact you’ve had both on John, and for encouraging original ideas, in a world focused more on blockbuster and franchise films, rather than original ideas.  I’m sure there are other people like John, who enjoys what you do, and can’t wait to see you every week.


Justina Bonilla

P.S. John’s favorite character on your show is the Mercenary.  He’s surprisingly both serious and funny.

How My Autistic Brother and I Relate to Stewie And Brian from Family Guy

John, my autistic brother, and I spend a lot of time together.  His favorite activity to do together is watch cartoons.  One of his favorite cartoons is Fox’s primetime smash, Family Guy.

At first, I didn’t see what John saw in Family Guy.  As far as I was concerned, it was silliness with no rhyme or reason.  But, the more I watched Family Guy with John, I realized why he was drawn to it.  Beyond its gags, flashbacks, and bright colors, Family Guy shows the Griffin family, a family that loves each other, and is there for each other, despite their faults.  The family relationships that stood out to me the most, was the special brother like bond between, Stewie, the genius baby, and Brian, the family’s talking dog.

The more I watched Family Guy I saw realized that Stewie, reminded me of John.  Like Stewie, John is the youngest in our family, too.  They are also resilient, intelligent, and witty.  Since Stewie is a baby and John has autism, they are again and again not taken seriously by others.  This perception works for and against them.  Being underestimated, not only drives them to work harder, but allows them to surprise even their harshest critics.

In high school, there were staff members, who thought that John was not intelligent, because of his autism.  They had low expectations for him.  During his sophomore year, he was given the opportunity to take the high school exit exam.  No one thought he could pass it.  Many non-special education students failed at their first attempt.  John proved these staff members wrong, by passing the high school exam, on his first try.  He scored higher than the average score, in mathematics.

As intelligent as Stewie and John are, they are also very innocent and loyal to those they love.  We see the innocent side of Stewie, when he travels to England, in the hopes of living on his favorite television show Jolly Farms.  Stewie’s loyalty shines through, especially when he helps his older brother, Chris, from studying together for a history test to getting Chris ready for a date.  John’s innocence can be seen through his compassion for the innocent.  He will questions, like “Why do some people in power hurt innocent people?”, etc.  While John’s loyalty shows through the many things he has done to help me, including coming to my defense, when he feels I’m being disrespected and helping me when I’m sick.

When I told John that he reminded me of Stewie, he surprised me, by telling me, that I reminded him of Brian.  At first, it didn’t feel like a compliment, being compared to an arrogant boozehound.  John also pointed out, that everything I do for him, Brian does for Stewie.  Brian spends a significant amount of time with Stewie.  He is Stewie’s caregiver, teacher, best friend, and protector.  All of these aspects of their relationship can be seen in the road trip episodes of Family Guy.

As John’s primary caregiver, I spend the most the time with him, helping him with daily activities.  We also love to watch anything funny, like comedy films and stand up.  I also try to expose him to anything I think may interest him.  John will also come to me with his questions and concerns.  I do my best to help him learn and understand the issues.  We, like Brian and Stewie, also go on adventures together, from going to the movies on the bus, to attending concerts.

The moment I realized John and I were like Brian and Stewie, was when Brian died.  As we watched the episode of Brian’s death, I saw the way John painfully looked at Stewie, at Brian’s funeral.  Stewie was trembling, as he watched Brian, the one person he cared for the most, being lowered into his grave.  John cried.  After John calmed down, I asked him why he felt so bad about Brian.  John revealed to me that was afraid of losing me, the one person he cares about the most.  This broke my heart.  I never knew John cared that much about me, until that Family Guy episode.

Stewie and Brian reflect John and me in more ways than I ever expected.  Through Stewie, I’m able to better understand and appreciate John.  While Brian has shown me, how much I impact John, and how much we need each other.  Each of us helps the other, in good and bad times.  We help each other grow, while still finding time to have fun and laugh.  No matter where we are in life, John will be my Stewie, and I will be John’s Brian.  The best way to describe how I care about John is what Brian once told Stewie, “You’re my best friend.  And I love you.”

South Park and it’s Surprising Depiction of Disabled People

When most people hear about the animated television show South Park, they automatically think about the shock humor that has made this show one of the most popular, yet controversial animated programs on television today.  Though the show does push comedic boundaries, South Park has surprisingly been a pioneer, in depicting special people in positive ways.  This was pointed out to me, by John, my younger brother with autism.

John, who is a big fan of animation, noticed that there is scarce representation of developmental disabled people in animated television shows.  Though there have been characters with developmental disabilities on television programs, such as Glee (Down’s Syndrome), Parenthood (autism), and Sesame Street (autism and Down’s Syndrome), it’s limited in animation.

John first discovered South Park through its video game, The Stick of Truth.  Though some of the humor of South Park was too edgy for John, the disabled characters, Jimmy and Timmy, made a big impression on him.  Jimmy has a stutter and walks with the assistance of forearm crutches, because of his Cerebral Palsy like disability.  Timmy, can only repeat his name, and is in a wheelchair, due to his unknown genetic disorder.

South Park portrays Jimmy and Timmy, like any other typical character.  They go through the same struggles, triumphs, heartbreaks, and misunderstandings, like the four main South Park characters (Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and Cartman).  Though Jimmy’s and Timmy’s disabilities play a major part in their lives, their disabilities are not their greatest obstacle.  Their greatest obstacle is just being guys in the modern world.

From the episodes of South Park that John and I have seen, there are no jokes made to solely make fun of Jimmy and Timmy for being disabled.  Yes, their disabilities are used as a part of story lines.  But, we haven’t seen any episode where they are mocked just for their disabilities.  When the main characters speak to Jimmy and Timmy, there are not dumbing down their vocabulary, to talk to them.  They speak to Jimmy and Timmy like any other classmate.

One of the South Park episodes that made the biggest impressions on John was “Up the Down Steroid”, 2004 (Season 08, Episode 03).  “Up the Down Steroid”, is split into two stories.  In story one, Jimmy and Timmy are going to compete in the Special Olympics.  But, in order to get an edge in the competition, Jimmy turns to steroid use.  Timmy does his best to get Jimmy to stop using steroids.  In story two, Cartman learns that the Special Olympics are giving a cash prize of a thousand dollars.  Believing that it would be easy to beat the Special Olympians, Cartman pretends to be disabled, to enter in the Special Olympics and win the money.  But, Cartman gets a hard dose of reality, when he is severely beaten by the Special Olympians, in every competition he participates in.  He learns that the Special Olympians are skilled athletes and should not be taken lightly.

With John being a Special Olympian, in swimming, he feels that some people, like Cartman don’t take the Special Olympics seriously.   John and his swim team train hard and compete in multiple swim meets, just to be able to qualify for the Special Olympics.  And yes, you can be disqualified in a Special Olympics competition, if you swim incorrectly.

Before South Park, in 2001, Family Guy, had an episode about steroids use in the Special Olympics, called, “Ready, Willing, and Disabled” (Season 3, Episode 15).  John connected deeper with “Up the Down Steroid”, than “Ready, Willing, and Disabled”.  Though Family Guy had funnier jokes about the Special Olympics, it didn’t focus on the Olympians themselves, like South Park did.  The Olympians were taken seriously.  With so much misinformation about Special Olympians, John felt that South Park had a more sincere depiction of the Special Olympics.

Another developmentally disabled character that stood out to John, in “Up the Down Steroid”, is Nathan.  Nathan has Downs Syndrome.  He like John, understand that people stereotype him as lower functioning, because of the lack of knowledge of their disabilities.  But, unlike John, Nathan is a protagonist that takes advantage of this stereotype.  Nathan plays up his disability among the adults, to make them believe he is lower function.  This allows Nathan the cover he needs, so, he can plan and attempt to scam his peers.  Yet, Nathan’s plans and scams usually comically backfire on him, making him a likeable protagonist.

Although South Park has a reputation of making fun of taboo subjects, like abortion and religion, in regards to the developmentally disabled, they are not made fun of for being disabled.  They’re people, who just happen to be disabled.  So, thank you, South Park, for portraying Jimmy and Timmy like any other boy.  And for giving John, a positive depiction of developmentally disabled people, on television.