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The Boston Globe

Bilingual 'Blue Diner' Gives WGBH A New Voice

By Suzanne C. Ryan, Globe Staff

September 17, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Boston Globe, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

For years, Boston filmmaker Natatcha Estebanez has been pushing for the television industry to include more people of color in its programming. Tonight at 9, her voice will finally be heard when WGBH- TV (Channel 2) presents "The Blue Diner," a bilingual film she coproduced and shot in several of Boston's Latino communities.

Using English subtitles, the 100-minute movie explores the tumultuous relationship between a Puerto Rican mother, Meche, and her grown daughter, Elena, who live together in Dorchester. The daughter suddenly and inexplicably loses her ability to speak Spanish. And her boyfriend, Tito, performs a prank that gets Elena's mother suspended from her cleaning job at the Museum of Fine Arts. Struggling to communicate, the two women must confront their problems and a dark family secret.

Estebanez, a producer for WGBH's yet-to-be-launched children's series, "Postcards From Buster," created "Blue Diner" with her business partner, Jan Egleson, a Cambridge-based producer who worked for WGBH's now-defunct "American Playhouse."

"It was very evident that there's a large void of representation on television," said Estebanez, a native of Puerto Rico. "The challenge was: how to make people perk up and take interest in a story that doesn't have the usual stereotypes of drugs, guns, or Latino boxers."

Estebanez was inspired to write about Meche after she produced a documentary for WGBH's "La Plaza" series in 1990 called "Who's Cleaning Boston?" In that Emmy Award-winning show, Estebanez profiled a number of local cleaning professionals, including a woman at the MFA. "She was a teacher back in Colombia. Her story opened up the possibilities for us," Egleson said.

The team spent five years writing the script. They chose to film around Boston because it was cheaper than other cities and because it was their home. "Filmmaking should be authentic and it should come from real experiences. The film was written specifically for a community Natatcha has roots in," said Egleson, who is of Irish and Jewish heritage.

The Blue Diner, where many important scenes are shot, is a fictional Caribbean restaurant inspired by the old Blue Diner of South and Kneeland streets downtown. (That eatery has been renamed News.) For the film, the producers shot the outside of a restaurant next door to News, called South Street Diner.

Likewise, the MFA scenes were shot at the Boston Public Library and at the Massachusetts Historical Society. "For folks that really know Boston, they will see Elena walk out of one room in the Mass. Historical Society and walk into a room in the library," Egleson said. "For security reasons, the museum wouldn't let us shoot."

Although 40 percent of the actors were hired locally, the main characters were cast in Los Angeles and New York. "Authenticity was very important to us," Estebanez said. "I wanted our Cuban guy to sound like a Cuban guy."

Once the film was completed in 2001, the team had 18 months to release it in theaters before its television debut. It proved to be a tough sell. "Shopping this thing around was the hardest thing I have ever done," Estebanez said. "One big distributor told us that it wasn't violent enough. I was depressed for three months."

"The Blue Diner" is the centerpiece of WGBH's five-week recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Also scheduled to air is "Beyond the Border," a film about four brothers who leave their parents behind in Mexico and move to Kentucky (on WGBX-TV, Channel 44, on Sept. 27). "Jose Marti: Legacy of Freedom" is a documentary about the Cuban poet, philosopher, journalist, and political activist; actor Andy Garcia narrates the film Oct. 4 on Channel 44. "El Senador" is a documentary about Dennis Chavez, the New Mexico Democrat who was the first Hispanic US senator and the only minority member of the Senate from 1935 to 1962. The film airs Oct. 11 on Channel 44.

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