Today, you can order Alicia Villanueva’s handmade tamales from William Sonoma.
If you’re in the San Francisco area, you can get them delivered locally through her website, and you’ll find her at all the major food festivals and events in the area, with more than a dozen different varieties of her signature dish, all prepared in her 6,000-square-foot kitchen, where she employs 22 people through her family business, Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas.
Soon, you’ll even be able to enjoy her tamales on Alaska Airlines flights, and possibly even American Airlines flights as well – that deal is still in the works.
But while her business is booming now, that hasn’t always been the case for Villanueva, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico and started making 100 tamales in her home kitchen every night – after cleaning houses during the day and taking care of her three children – and then selling her tamales on the street, sometimes making as little as $20 for an evening of culinary effort.
“As an immigrant myself, I felt very drawn into the story of Alicia – she’s a wonderful and charming person,” says Oscar Guerra, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and an Associate Professor of Film and Video in the Digital Media and Design (DMD) Department at UConn Stamford. “I think that was very remarkable, to be able to meet people who are really hopeful about what it means to become American.”
Guerra met Villanueva while producing and directing his latest documentary-style film, Grit & Grace, a unique project that premiered on December 13 at the National Archives in Washington D.C., with a mission almost as compelling as the three stories of the American dream – including Villanueva’s – that it shares.
Coffee with the Congressman
Grit & Grace tells the three very different stories of Villanueva; Joseph Graham, Jr. of North Carolina; and Jeremy and Wendy Cook of West Virginia. The film – narrated by the actress Sarah Jessica Parker – is a first-of-its-kind production on behalf of the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, chaired by Connecticut Congressman Jim Himes.
Guerra first met Himes at an event for Stamford Hospital in the late summer of 2021. They met again for coffee a month later.
“He started telling me about this idea,” Guerra recalls. “He wanted, for the first time, for a U.S. Congressional committee to produce a film, not just a report. Because that’s normally what all committees do at the end of their term, they produce a report. But he thought it would be more impactful if we were able to come up with something, that it could be more compelling than just writing a report. And I thought that was really interesting.”
The Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth was convened by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to develop solutions to what it calls “the key economic issue of our time: the yawning prosperity gap between wealthy Americans and everyone else.”
The committee was tasked with developing recommendations for addressing economic disparity in the country, but also intended to “Show America to Itself,” working in a nonpartisan manner to document the hopes, concerns, and aspirations of Americans regardless of differences or the issues that divide them.
“He told me that he wanted to tell stories about the American people, what it means to be American, what it means to achieve your American dream,” says Guerra, “and I said, ‘I think that’s wonderful.’”
After a lengthy process of interviewing people to potentially feature in the film, the committee staff settled on the three stories, and Guerra went to work bringing his signature style of personal connection with real stories to this new venture of docu-style filmmaking.
“Creating media that unites, that’s something that I really want to do with my films,” Guerra says. “I think that media can entertain. Media sometimes educates. Media informs. And lately we’ve seen a lot of media that divides. I think that we’re very polarized. So, I’m trying to get into this wagon of media that unites, and I’m trying to find stories where we can find commonalities among people and reclaim the humanity in each one of us, because that’s how we can actually connect at the end of the day.”
Stories of Resilience and Determination
Guerra and his team traveled the country, conducting three-to-five-day shoots with each of the participants at their homes, businesses, and neighborhoods.
In California, they toured Villanueva’s commercial kitchens, saw the nonprofit organizations that helped her turn her home-based tamale operation into a viable business plan, and saw the home that her family purchased as the business began to succeed.
In North Carolina, they learned from Graham about how the single father of four struggled with the impact of systemic racism in his early education, how family financial struggles initially derailed his dream of completing his college education, and how he eventually went back to school, ultimately earning his master’s degree and starting his own business focused on equity.
In West Virginia, they met the Cooks, who take care of two sons with special needs while running a home-based antique shop. When pandemic restrictions forced them to close their physical location, they were forced to pivot their business to an online model – made all the more challenging by an unreliable internet connection in rural West Virginia.
While it’s impossible, Guerra explains, to boil all Americans down into just three archetypes, the stories chosen for Grit & Grace embody the resilience and determination of the American people.
“When you see the stories of Alicia, Joseph, and Jeremy and Wendy, they come from very different walks of life,” Guerra says. “But the only thing that they all want from our government is for people work together and be there for us. So, at the end of the day, we’re actually not that different. We all go through the same struggles, and if we try to increase our compassion, if we try to raise our level of empathy, we can find that we all go through a lot and that there’s dignity in the struggle.”
Both Director and Professor – and on a Deadline
Guerra – who won an Emmy award in 2021 for a PBS Frontline documentary that followed an immigrant family from Guatemala living in Stamford, the mother’s life-and-death battle against COVID-19 while pregnant with her second child, and the teacher who agreed to care for the newborn infant while the local community rallied to support the family – often spends months or years documenting the stories he features in his films.
For Grit & Grace, he had only about six months.
“It was not until the summer of 2022 that we actually kickstarted this project, so it took a while to get going,” he says. “I wasn’t even sure if it was going to happen or not. It’s unusual to produce something valuable in this short amount of time, but we were working nonstop.”
He was also working on the film at the same time as his newest Frontline documentary, After Zero Tolerance, which also premiered in December.
“Having the right people on your team, it becomes crucial,” Guerra says. “It’s working with the right people at the right time and having the passion to make it happen.”
As with previous projects, Guerra worked as both a director and a professor, looking to UConn students and colleagues to help form that crucial team.
Samantha Olschan, an assistant professor in the DMD program at UConn Stamford, designed the logo for the film and worked with Michael Roca ’25 (SFA), a DMD sophomore studying Motion Design & Animation at UConn Stamford, who joined the project in the fall as a title designer in the post-production phase of the film.
It was Roca’s first time joining a project like this, and he says he learned a lot about working on a team through the process.
“In terms of the team itself, there was a lot of communication going on the whole time,” says Roca, “and that’s pretty major. Every second counts in a project, especially when the deadline is near. Oscar did let me know that the deadline was near, I was like, ok, I’m going to need to commit to this a lot, if I’m going to get this done.”
While DMD senior Christopher Orrico ’23 (SFA), who is studying Film and Video Production at UConn Stamford, had worked on film productions before, he’d never operated at the scale he says was required of him for Grit & Grace. But he didn’t hesitate when Guerra asked him to join the project.
“I jumped at it – I think I texted as soon as he asked me,” Orrico says. “I texted back not 30 seconds later, ‘Yes, I’m down, let’s go. Don’t even care what it takes. What do we gotta do? What am I doing?’”
Orrico worked as a camera operator for the project – invaluable experience, he says, that has jumpstarted his goals to eventually work as a director of photography and cinematographer on films, particularly documentary-style productions.
But it also pushed him outside his comfort zone – and literally out of Connecticut – as he traveled with Guerra to California, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Washington D.C., accompanying Guerra on his shoots with the film’s participants.
And as he ate tamales with Villanueva – “She did nothing but feed us,” he shares with gratitude – spent time with Graham and his oldest son, and experienced the day-to-day joys and struggles of the Cook family, Orrico’s personal commitment to the project grew.
“At some point during this entire project, I wanted to be even more invested into it, not just from a career standpoint, but from an empathetic standpoint,” he says. “I wanted to do what I could, because this project is important, and I wanted to give everything that I had and more.
“I learned so much throughout this entire thing, and obviously still being a student, I still made mistakes, and with each mistake that I made, I made it a point to make sure I didn’t make it the next time. That is something that I’m forever grateful for, for both Oscar and his projects.”
Grit & Grace will be screened at UConn Stamford in an upcoming event this spring, sponsored by UConn DMD and Dodd Human Rights Impact. Additional screenings and events at Harvard University and New York University in Spring 2023 are currently in planning stages. To learn more about the project and the U.S. House Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, follow @GritandGrace on Twitter or visit fairgrowth.house.gov.