The title of the 2011 short film I, Me, Light, by San Antonio multimedia artist Guillermina Zabala, succinctly captures the nature of her work as a photographic artist and documentary filmmaker.

Light is the primary medium she uses to create images, and the films and photographs she makes illuminate the identities and personas of their subjects.

“Film is all about light,” Zabala said. “That piece, it was for me an opportunity to start bringing other subjects [to light].”

Originally made for the 2011 Luminaria contemporary arts festival, the film was later shown at the McNay Art Museum in 2014.

The documentary Juanito’s Lab, which Zabala made with her spouse Enrique Lopetegui, follows the career of San Antonio musical prodigy Juanito Castillo. It was selected as the opening film of the 42nd annual CineFestival at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in 2021.

Most recently, Zabala won the CineFestival 2022 Premio Mezquite jury award for Best Texas Short Film for the documentary Las Artivistas: The Journey from Artist to Activist, a 22-minute film that follows three young Latina artists as they combine artmaking with a drive for social justice.

Filmmaker Guillermina Zabala’s film Las Artivistas: The Journey from Artist to Activist won the CineFestival 2022 Premio Mezquite jury award for Best Texas Short Film at CineFestival.
Filmmaker Guillermina Zabala’s film Las Artivistas: The Journey from Artist to Activist won the CineFestival 2022 Premio Mezquite jury award for Best Texas Short Film. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

La Plata to San Antonio

A documentary has not yet been made on Zabala’s own journey. Born in La Plata, the capital of the Buenos Aires province in Argentina, Zabala went on to attend film school as a teen. She described the school as similar to SAY Sí’s film and video program, where she has served as media arts director for 17 years.

The La Plata film school had been shut down by the military dictatorship that ran Argentina from 1976-1983, but was revived in the early 2000s by former teachers of the school.

“That’s exactly where I started thinking about how important social activism is,” Zabala said, and realizing that “film and video are very powerful mediums for social activism.”

When she reached college age, she visited an uncle who lived in Los Angeles and ended up staying to pursue a career in film. Her journey as an immigrant is documented in a photographic collage shown recently at Centro de Artes in round two of the New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program Exhibition.

The many disciplines incorporated into filmmaking, from writing to photography to editing, appeal to her multidisciplinary sensibility as an artist, Zabala said, and might be a key to cinema’s particular power.

“The film format is so powerful,” she said, in part because it can portray multiple perspectives of the same issue.

“Film incorporates so many different disciplines, it moves the audience emotionally and intellectually in a way that other art disciplines can’t necessarily do,” she said. “It really transports you to another place. But then when you come back from that experience, hopefully, the idea is for you to think, reflect and become more aware.”

When Lopetegui was offered a job as the San Antonio-based music editor of Latin magazine Rumbo, Zabala wrapped up her L.A. projects and joined him, taking the SAY Sí job and quickly becoming part of the city’s cultural scene.

Empowering voices

For I, Me, Light, Zabala asked fellow artists to face the camera and inscribe one identifying word in the air using a bright light attached to their index fingers. Community artist Andy Benavides wrote “Smart,” the name of the youth education program he runs with spouse Yvette Benavides, and musician Max Baca chose the word “Blessed.”

Each subject was empowered to choose their own word, and Zabala said she found the process of observing them struggle to encapsulate themselves fascinating.

Empowering the voices of her subjects is among Zabala’s strengths not only as a filmmaker but also as a teacher, according to performance artist Sarah Tijerina. Tijerina first met Zabala as a student at SAY Sí.

Zabala taught her students the importance of “being courageous and brave enough to say what you have to say,” Tijerina said.

Jon Hinojosa, SAY Sí’s president and director of innovation, said Zabala’s continuing work as an artist enhances her ability to teach effectively.

“We’ve always looked for mentors and teaching artists who are going to be great role models,” he said. “We hit it perfectly with Guillermina because she’s an amazing working artist and her work is so important and profound,” particularly for marginalized communities and communities of color.

Tijerina appears as one of three San Antonio artists in Las Artivistas, in one scene enunciating a spoken word poem about the pressures of assimilation she felt as a young Latina trying to fit into predominantly white culture, straightening her curly hair every day for five years.

Zabala is unusual as a director for creating a collaborative atmosphere and for empathizing with her subjects, Tijerina said.

“She has such a natural way of getting people to open up and be vulnerable without pushing it,” Tijerina said. “She was able to create a relationship with her subjects, versus just telling us what to do.”

Art as activism

Marcella Ochoa, a San Antonio native who lives and works in Los Angeles as a writer, director, and producer, served as a juror for CineFestival 2022. She said she connected with Zabala’s film on many levels.

“I resonated with the subject as I know what it’s like to have to assimilate and the in-betweenness of feeling Mexican and American and finding where we fit into in this country,” she said in an email to the San Antonio Report.

“I also know what it’s like to be Latina in a mostly male, white-dominated industry in entertainment,” Ochoa said. “I really resonated with the fact these women are using their art to empower themselves and create change through their art for our community as I try to do the same in my work.”

Filmmaker Esmeralda Hernández also appears in Las Artivistas and said she hadn’t necessarily considered her artwork activism until Zabala framed it in that way.

“We had a conversation about the Chicano movement, and if I consider myself an activist, and I had to think about it,” Hernández said. Las Artivistas focuses on her film Cake, which tells the story of a young girl’s birthday party disrupted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who detain her father.

When Hernández considered her work through Zabala’s lens, she realized that “through my art, I really do have a voice that makes me an activist because it pushes these images against the norm and against the stereotypes that we have.”

Zabala sees herself reflected in her young subjects. Making Las Artivistas was “a little bit of an eye-opening [experience] for me too,” she said, “in terms of validating or empowering my own process as a Latinx artist.”

She said in making the film she wanted to explore how art and social activism blend, “and how they can be together and be stronger [for it].”

And Tijerina sees Zabala, whom she and other SAY Sí compatriots call “Gisha,” as a reflection of her own artistic goals.

“Gisha, herself, I see as an artivista,” Tijerina said. “In all of her work … she puts stories out there that she knows need to be heard.” In Las Artivistas, “She was the absolute perfect person to open up the space for young people to do this because she has her own journey.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...