Alison Sotomayor On The Legacy of Problematic Men

Alison Sotomayor has spent her career telling the stories of people of color who have impacted not only their communities but America as a whole

Alison Sotomayor Hiplatina

Photo: Courtesy of Alison Sotomayor

Alison Sotomayor has spent her career telling the stories of people of color who have impacted not only their communities but America as a whole. An LA lady through and though, she grew up in East LA, graduated from UCLA and has continued to work in and focus on the city of angels throughout her career. From the very beginning she knew she wanted to tell stories that mattered with the goal of being a TV News anchor. But once in the newsroom, Sotomayor quickly realized that she didn’t like how short the segments were.

“I started realizing that I didn’t really appreciate that some of the very significant stories—whether it be about people of color or not—were not long enough to tell the story respectively and accurately,” Sotomayor told Hiplatina. She didn’t last long and months later she landed a job at KCET where she worked her way up from Human Resources to Life & Times Producer. She spent the next 10 years writing and producing educational stories that explore the complexity of various subjects that were close to her heart.

“I did a piece on the LA City Fire desegregation. I did a really cool piece that was 5 years after the 1992 LA Riots,” she said. “I did pieces on the African American and Latino erasure. I did a piece on the Museum of Tolerance, and the confessions of a skinhead. I received a couple of Emmy’s for my work, some Golden Mikes as well.” Sotomayor is most known for her documentaries Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and The Politics of Race & Tom Bradley’s Impossible Dream, two films about the life and legacy of the first African American Mayor of Los Angeles. Bridging the Divide, was broadcasted nationally on PBS in 2016 and in a number of film festivals including the Los Angeles Film Festival (2015) and the Pan African Film Festival (2015).

Photo: Courtesy of Alison Sotomayor

Most recently she produced, The Rise and Fall of the Brown Buffalo, a docu-reenactment on the life of Oscar Zeta Acosta, a forgotten volatile figure whose activism was integral to the Chicano Civil Rights movement. A figure that Sotomayor says should be remembered despite his rather long list of transgressions.

“He has been written out of our history. So in my mind he’s become marginalized and largely misunderstood,” she said. “So as filmmakers, Phillip Rodriguez and I, we really believe that we need to do stories that defend and honor extraordinary people who have done extraordinary things.”

After seeing the film, it’s clear that Acosta’s role in defending the East LA 13 pro bono is what solidified his contribution to La Causa. It’s also clear that it was his penchant for drugs, women, and courtroom theatrics that made him a character people wanted to forget. He once showed up to court high on acid (he was the lawyer), he ran for Sheriff of Los Angeles to prove a point (which he lost), and he is the only person to have subpoenaed and cross examined 70 LA county superior court judges, thus proving their bias in not selecting Mexicans for Jury service. Most infamously though, he is known for this relationship with writer Hunter S. Thompson and is generally remembered as “Dr. Gonzo,” the 300 pound Samoan character in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—famously portrayed by Benicio Del Toro, who also executive produced the documentary.

Acosta is the embodiment of “men are trash” and yet his story is one that situates the sound and the fury of the Chicano Civil Rights movement. It’s a complicated legacy Sotomayor took care not to sugarcoat in the film.

“Oscar is such a complex, complicated, interesting character to meet because he is very hell raising. He was very rebellious,” she said. “He was rebellious to the point where there’s a scene in the film where he was kicked out of the courtroom because he was so passionate about what he was saying to the judge. He was this symbol of rage, impatience, and the fight. And that’s something we still continue to fight for today.”

So what do we do with the problematic individuals that are vital to our history? How do we remember them without glorifying their actions? How do we integrate their legacy without promoting or glossing over their actions? These are questions that seem to be coming up the more we dig into the personal lives and true life stories of some of our favorite historical, literary and pop culture figures—most recently with Junot Diaz and the various allegations of sexual misconduct. These are questions that Sotomayor agrees we should be asking when talking about important figures with messy, problematic backgrounds.

“[As women we know] that Oscar is disingenuous. He abused and degraded and disrespected women. He wrote about that in his book,” she said.“He was deeply troubled, he was mentally ill and if he was alive today in 2018—which I call the year of the woman because all of the movements, like #MeToo and #TimesUp—he would more than likely be held accountable for his behavior because the women in these movements would not stand for it.” 

Acosta was not a man to emulate or admire, but he was a man who stood firmly for the rights of the Chicano Community. Ultimately Sotomayor hopes that her film will help inspire the next generation of activists.

“[Young people] are going to be making the change and [will be] meeting the demand that my generation fails to. We tried to make the change and it did not happen,” she said. “In the end, this movie about Oscar is just one tool that will help us better understand ourselves, our Latino history, our Chicano history, and the tremendous contribution that our ancestors made to this country. And we need more stories like this that help us better understand our humanity, and our suffering too.”

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