by j.p. anderson | February 24, 2014 | People
Pepe Vargas, founder of the Chicago Latino Film Festival
Pepe Vargas started his career as a politically active law student in the ’70s in Argentina, but the Colombia native has found his true calling in Chicago as one of the city’s most highly regarded ambassadors of Latino culture. Vargas arrived in Chicago in October 1980, eventually enrolled at Columbia College, and graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism. That’s where he discovered a love of film—from Citizen Kane to the works of Roman Polanski—that led him to establish the Chicago Latino Film Festival, which celebrates its 30th anniversary April 3–17 at the AMC River East 21.
From a first-year attendance of 500 to last year’s 35,000, the festival continues to grow, with a scheduled 2014 slate of more than 100 features, shorts, and—in honor of the anniversary—a special program with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of 11 films from Latin America and Spain that have been nominated or have won Oscars in the Best Foreign Language category. Vargas maintains a laser focus in putting together the festival (“It’s an extremely complex process and a test of endurance,” he admits), which is why, in his off hours, he relishes the quiet of Edgewater, where he resides in a high-rise on the lake. On a break from carrying out his duties at the Film Festival and as executive director of the International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago, Vargas opens up about some of his favorite places in his far North Side nook.
The Foster Avenue underpass boasts a mural celebrating Chicago’s Native American community
“I bought a condo in Edgewater in early 2007, and I’m happy there. Lake Michigan is a magnificent piece of the landscape of Chicago, and I enjoy being close to it. I actually lived in the neighborhood back when I arrived in Chicago in 1980—but at the time it was a very depressed area. Now it has changed dramatically. The beaches are clean; the train stations are new. It’s like day and night.
I live right in front of Foster Beach, close to the path, so I’ll often ride my bicycle down to Navy Pier. I love all of the beauty and freshness in the air, as well as the neighborhood’s great diversity. I do my shopping at the Mexican neighborhood market, and I see people from everywhere in the world—the Middle East as well as Kosovo, Armenians, a lot of Eastern Europeans, and also the gay community in Andersonville, and students from Loyola University. It’s an incredibly vibrant community that centers around the Berwyn Red Line train station, which is open 24 hours, so there’s a lot of walking in the area.
Governor Pat Quinn with Vargas
Living in Edgewater is a great way to recharge my batteries. When there’s no traffic, it’s a 12-to 15-minute drive from my office to my apartment, where I have a spectacular view of the lake. In the morning I can see the sunrise, and the sight of the sun coming out over the lake relaxes me and allows me to focus, forget about the pressures of my job. I take it as a gift. A lot of people from the neighborhood come out to walk early in the morning, and I do that for half an hour or 40 minutes on Foster or Hollywood Beach. The neighborhood is safe, with people walking late at night. It feels like home.
I’m very close to the Asian district on Argyle, and I’m a fan of those spots—I like Vietnamese food, Thai, and there’s also a couple of good Chinese restaurants. The Edgewater Produce market I am a regular at. It’s the quality of the fruit, the fresh meats and fish, and the great diversity—when I go there I see people from every walk of life.
Volleyball players on Montrose Beach
Two things I really like that are relatively new to the neighborhood are the murals under the passway at Foster and Bryn Mawr at Lake Shore Drive. They’re beautiful pieces—students and the park district and the alderman got involved, and a couple of summers ago they were put there—and they are perfectly preserved. The Bryn Mawr mural is a historical piece and a reflection of the early days of the neighborhood. And nearby you see the pink hotel—the old Edgewater Beach Hotel, now apartments—which is a landmark and has so much history. When you look at maps of the area from the 1920s, the hotel was really the only large building there at the time. The inside is beautiful and has so much character.
I particularly enjoy springtime in the neighborhood—the leaves and flowers coming up. People start to go to the beach for walks, running, bicycling. The mood changes thoroughly—people suddenly have big smiles on their faces—it’s a kind of optimism that comes with the warmth of spring.” The Chicago Latino Film Festival runs April 3–17 at AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., 312-431-1330
photography by kendall karmanian (bryn mawr); courtesy of the chicago park district (montrose beach)
January 4, 2019