At 32, I learned my mother's deepest aspiration was to study psychology. Her admission at 59 was every bit as surprising as when I learned she kept stacks of journals and personal diary entries hidden away. For as long as I can remember, she had been a caretaker, both at home and by trade, and here she was wide-eyed about the science of the mind. When I asked her why she missed out on pursuing it, she turned to me and said matter-of-factly, "Mamá thought it was too much ambition for a girl like me."
A girl like my mother is the youngest of nine born and raised in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. The product of a Black Caribbean man and white Caribbean woman, hers is a common Third World reality, where the custom of quietude and assimilation better ensured a girl's chance at some kind of life. Doubly common was burying her wildest dreams altogether.
Eunice Levis, a first-generation Dominican American from the Bronx, New York, is familiar with this kind of tradition and has long been charged with reimagining a history of playing small or safe. One of four women hand-selected in the highly competitive NALIP Latino Lens: Narrative Short Film Incubator for Women of Color, Levis's latest cinematographic darling is a sci-fi short called Ro & the Stardust.
"It's a story about a young Dominican girl helping to fulfill her terminally ill grandmother's dream of building a rocket ship to launch herself into space before her death," Levis shared over Zoom. The film opens in 2041, present-day Encue, a planet identical to Earth discovered 64 years prior. It stars Elvis Nolasco (She's Gotta Have It), Cindy De La Cruz, and Nadya Encarnacion and introduces Yolanda Nolasco as Mamá, a retired engineer and technologist who is hellbent on ushering in her inevitable death among the stars.
"It was inspired by my dad, who passed away four years ago today. He came to the US on a sports visa to be a Yankee. He was going to play major league baseball, but a shoulder injury stopped that from happening," Levis said. "He ended up staying in the Bronx and going to Clinton High School, working at the Wonder Bread factory his entire adult life before dying from asbestos exposure." In Levis's fantasy iteration of one Dominican father's larger-than-life ambition, three generations of Black Dominican women come together to help fulfill their matriarch's lifelong dream and dying wish.
"I think the most inspiring thing for me is seeking opportunities where people are maybe voiceless or quiet. People who live in the shadows. That is my main inspiration and what drives my characters and storylines." On the topic of Afrofuturism, which can be more concretely understood as a wide-ranging political and artistic tool/movement that dares to imagine a world where African-descended peoples and their cultures play a central role in the future and creation of that world, Levis doubles down on telling our stories in genre.
"Afrofuturism often doesn't acknowledge the Diaspora, that's something that I am so focused on right now. We can speak French, Kreyól, Spanish — we can speak pretty much everything. The Diaspora is not solely [Black] American, and it is not only English speaking. I want people to see Blackness in Spanish, too." Ro & the Stardust is intentionally written bilingual, marrying everyday Spanish and English colloquialism. "That was really important for me because I speak choppy-ass Spanish. [Laughs] I wanted to paint that bilingual reality, because that's just the way a lot of us spoke and thought."
A student of showrunner Misha Green, Levis looks to Lovecraft Country as a north star of sorts when it comes to using genre to "inform the parts that were taken away from us." "That is what I'm looking for. I seek opportunities that will allow me to reimagine history, to kind of peel back the layer of pain and fear and fill that in with necessary fantasy. Genre lets you be magical, lets you be fantastical, a hero, villain, or monster. It's so much fun, and it doesn't have to be completely rooted in reality. Our history isn't solid, and we know only fragments of it," she said. "We belong in an imagined future and in an imagined past, because we were always there. I think I want people to feel they belong in space and in the deep sea. I want us to know that my work will meet them exactly where they are."