When Portland filmmaker Genevieve Roudané went to her first Fiesta Grande in Chiapa de Corzo, a small town in southwest Mexico, she thought she had found a huge queer party. Instead, she was among the chunta—mostly straight men dressed as women, some of whom were actually homophobic. Though not a fixed identity, these characters based on the idea that the new year flips the social order fascinated her and became the subject of her new film, The Chunta (Las Chuntá), which connects global audiences to the celebration while also linking the custom to international queer dialogue.
“These traditions that go back hundreds of years that are ultimately indigenous traditions in Mexico show a different way to participate in your community, a different model of acceptance,” says Roudané. “A different way to explore gender identity is something I think a lot of different people can learn from, and not only from the past.”
Las Chuntá follows members of two pandillas (gangs) getting ready for Fiesta Grande, held every January. Though there’s no need to clutch your pearls: Roudané says the pandillas are more like what your grandma would call a big group of friends. One expressive pandilla, run by the feisty but respectful Esther Noriega, includes gay men, trans women and people of all orientations who affectionately call her “Auntie.” Another gang, led by the prominent Madrigal family, holds to a narrower definition of the chunta that includes a stricter dress code.
There is little agreement on Fiesta Grande’s roots. Revived about 40 years ago after nearly a century of obscurity, theories about its origins include a syncretic mix of Catholic and indigenous spirituality manifested in Saint Sebastian, who is seen in many parts of the world as the patron saint of the gay community. Another is tied to a legend about a rich Spanish woman who threw a lavish party after her son was healed, and the chunta represents her servents.
"I don't try to define one version of where the origin of the festival is," Roudané explains, "but explore more the drama of the human complex and the relationships between the dancers."
The documentary illustrates how both pandillas are clearly excited for Fiesta Grande, as they prepare skirts, blouses, makeup and eyelashes. But through all the glitter and glam, tension was undeniable. Though progress is made—Las Chuntá was filmed during a period of significant LGBTQ+ rights victories in Mexico and the U.S.—there is still homophobic violence in both countries. Murders of transgender people in the state of Chiapas often go unsolved. Noriega’s gang wants to feel safe and included in the Fiesta Grande, and at home.
"The tradition itself is not a gay tradition," Roudané says. "It's a tradition that's mostly straight people and, more recently, queer have been participating in, which has created this kind of scandal. On the other hand, queer people have existed and participated everywhere, right? So it makes me wonder about the origins of the festival, and whether there's kind of a history that's been lost there, about maybe a time when gender wasn't as binary."
Audiences will hear subjects in the film plainly stating their right to exist, with distressingly familiar counter-arguments. There's even some Facebook drama. But everyone will also see proud, lovingly rendered decorations and costumes. Roudané includes gorgeous shots of sun-drenched party flags, LED-soaked art displays and reversed footage of fireworks exploding above the festival crowds.
Las Chuntá made its Los Angeles debut at the film festival Outfest in July, and its latest Portland screening will include a Q&A session with the director as well as a panel discussion with local Latinx luminaries like Joaquin Lopez, who recently produced a stage show and album entitled Universo, drag queen Kaina Martinex, and theater director-event curator Cambria Herrera.
"I always try to push up against that idea that Mexico is behind. I don't think that's the case, an assumption that Mexico needs to be helped by the United States," Roudané says. "I think it might be the other way around."
SEE IT: The Chunta (Las Chuntá) screens with a post-film Q&A with director Genevieve Roudané at NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org, on Thursday, Aug. 15. 7 pm. $5-$10.