Documentary explores culture, personal identity

ROCHESTER — Food is a universal language.

That is the concept Matthew Mann had in mind when he made the documentary "Arroz con Habichuelas" about his wife’s family and named it for the ubiquitous rice and beans dish served at any Puerto Rican gathering. His wife is Norma Holland, a longtime television newscaster with WHAM/Channel 13.

Creating the perfect version of the dish takes a blending of ingredients, which also serves as a symbol of the culture, he explained during a Sept. 19 interview. And the Holland family is a blend of his in-laws’ two cultures — Hispanic and biracial, he said.

"What happens in a family with people from different places? You throw them together and it makes something beautiful," Mann remarked.

Mann first screened the film in 2009 at the completion of his master’s degree in fine arts from Visual Studies Workshop at SUNY Brockport. He will show it again Oct. 16 as part of the city of Rochester’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. The film will be screened alongside an exhibit of historical photos of local Hispanic families originally displayed at the Pyramid Arts Center — now the Rochester Contemporary Art Center — in the 1980s. Hector Arguinzoni, who is a member of the recreation department’s Hispanic Heritage Month committee, said that screening the film alongside the photo exhibit seemed like a good combination.

The photos were taken by Leslie Locketz; Ira Srole, currently a photographer for City Hall; and Marilyn Anderson, a former professor with Empire State College, as a way to document a moment in time of Latinos in Rochester, Arguinzoni explained. The original photo display was part of a project of the Puerto Rican Arts and Cultural Center, which sought to highlight the various aspects of the community, he added.

 "I have wanted to revisit the exhibit for a while now," Arguinzoni said. "I felt that this would be a great opportunity for our youngsters to get a view into our past in conjunction with the viewing of ‘Arroz Con Habichuelas.’ … To me, it was I think a natural pairing. My focus has always been on our youth and the importance of exposing them to arts and our local history, which we need to continue to document. We have to be the stewards of our story."

And the story told in "Arroz con Habichuelas" is one that many can relate to, said Hector Díaz, who is Holland’s uncle and was interviewed in the film. Many in the initial viewing audience had tears in their eyes, he recalled, no matter whether they were white, black or Latino.

"They remembered the struggles they went through," Díaz said. "I think it depicts the story of many Latino (families). … It transcends ‘Puertoricanism’. That is the good thing about it."

For Lucy Díaz, known by family as "Luz," the film represented a journey, figuratively and literally, as Mann recorded his mother-in-law’s trip to Puerto Rico after being away for more than two decades, he said. She traveled back with Mann, Holland, her younger daughter, Andrea, and her nephew in 2008.

Mann shot footage during that trip as Díaz discovered the changes in her hometown of Arroyo that she had first left as a young girl, she said.

"Being there with my two daughters together at the same time and seeing a lot of the old friends, it was special," Díaz said of the trip.

In addition to creating the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico, Díaz said that she appreciates that the film captured scenes with her mother, who died three years ago.

"I thought it was nice that we have that piece there for years to come," she said. "A lot of stuff can never be put in a film or movie. But I thank God we had the mother that we had."

Holland’s grandmother was so revered that she often was the center of any gathering, Mann said. And she was the one who taught her children how to cook the pot of rice and beans, that again represents that strong connection to their culture — something Mann said he hadn’t personally experienced.

"Despite leaving Puerto Rico (so young), Luz kept her culture alive and instilled it in her daughters," he said.

So in the film, he also sought to explore the question of "What are you?" It was a common question for Holland and her sister as children of a Puerto Rican mother and a biracial father, added Mann, now a video producer for the University of Rochester’s communications department.

"That’s a question we all ask of ourselves: ‘Where do we come from?’" he said.

The first half of the film answers that by telling the family’s story from Díaz’s viewpoint, but then it takes a broader look into cultural identity, Mann said. The trip to Puerto Rico served as the bridge to the second half of the documentary, which examines how personal identity is tied to heritage or culture, he said.

Overall, the film offers a positive message for families to consider the question of who they are, added Hector Díaz.

"Whenever you can show somebody a film, and they think about it afterward and take something away from it, that is the most gratifying thing a person can ask for," Mann noted.

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