“José” is an award winning film from Guatemala about a young gay man’s struggles to find love in a socially conservative, homophobic society. “José” opens this Friday in South Florida theaters. But its star, Guatemalan actor Enrique Salanic, won’t be here for the film’s American premiere, as he’d hoped. That’s because the U.S. has denied Salanic a visa to enter the country.
Salanic was educated in the U.S. and Canada; today he lives in Xela, in Guatemala’s western highlands. He spoke to WLRN’s Tim Padgett from Xela about the film, coming out as a gay man himself in Guatemala – and why he was denied that U.S. visa.
Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:
WLRN: “José” won the Queer Lion at the Venice Film Festival – the prize for the best LGBTQ-themed movie. But this film is different from a lot of films about gay people in Latin America. The homophobia is certainly felt. But the story focuses more on how hard it is for a gay man to secure a loving relationship there. What drew you to the script for this movie?
SALANIC: I thought it was time for Guatemala to make these kind of movies and create awareness. Usually we see a lot of stereotypes of how a gay movie should be. But I think Li wanted to give a different perspective about it.
And that’s Li Cheng, the Chinese-born director of this Guatemalan film. What is it like today to be an LGBTQ person in Guatemala?
I would say you have to be very strategic about it. You’ve got to learn how to move, what to do, what to say in order to survive. In major cities it can be OK, if you manage yourself. But in other places you can be killed for being who you are. Fortunately, nobody of my friends have been killed, but they have been kicked out of their houses or their financial support has been taken away from them once they come out.
What was it like for you when you came out?
I think I was very fortunate. My parents, my siblings, they told me: Enrique, we want you to be happy. And I will never forget that act of love from my family. We practice the Maya worldview. In pre-Hispanic times, there were some Maya towns where it was completely OK for you to be gay or lesbian, because you could manage duality.
“José’s” story is beautifully filmed and acted. It’s told more slowly than American moviegoers are used to. So if you could be here now, what would you tell them is the most important thing to take away from this film?
That the LGBTQ-plus community, if they’re feeling alone, there are so many people going through the same experience and that unifies us all.
But let’s talk about why you aren’t here this week. The U.S. embassy in Guatemala twice denied you a visitor’s visa, even though California Congressman Ted Lieu vouched for you. You live, work and have family in Guatemala. But the embassy said you somehow don’t have enough of what they call “strong ties” to Guatemala to guarantee you’ll return there after visiting the U.S. You’re a so-called immigration flight risk. The embassy says it can’t discuss individual’s visa applications – but does this make sense to you?
No, not at all – for one thing because I studied at a college in the U.S. I graduated from Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri [in 2015]. I could have stayed in the U.S. then, but I decided to go back to Guatemala, because I wanted to give back to my country. I don’t want to stay in the U.S., I mean, the people I met there have been very kind and welcoming – but I just wanted to introduce the movie and then come back to my country, you know, and keep going on with my projects.
So they told me, “We cannot give you a visa because you might misuse it.” And at that point I was realizing that there was something political going on – the [Trump Administration’s] immigration policies and it’s also, you know, the topic of this movie, its strong message of LGBTQ awareness and how diverse this world is.
But I think the fact that I’ve been denied the visa is giving a lot of publicity for the movie, which is great.
“José” opens in South Florida on Friday, February 14, in Miami at MDC’s Tower Theater and AMC Aventura; in Fort Lauderdale at the Classic Gateway Theater; in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters; and in Lake Worth at the Lake Worth Playhouse. Director Li Cheng will appear for Q&A sessions at the Tower Theater February 13 at 7 pm; at the Classic Gateway Theater February 14 (time TBA); at the Lake Worth Playhouse February 15 at 4 pm; and at the Living Room Theaters that evening (time TBA).