Two men in coffeeshop

Cultural, academic partnership explores Latinx experience in 'Block Chronicles'

By

Marshall Terrill

Juan Carrillo and Jason Méndez came from opposite sides of the country, taught at rival colleges, cheered for clashing NBA teams and even listened to different hip-hop.

They were the epitome of East Coast and West Coast. 

Far from home, they both felt like fish out of water, but they shared similar cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. So an unlikely friendship formed, leading to a podcast, a national-level web series, a feature documentary film and projects that continue to evolve.

“We are ‘scholarship boys,’ because we both come from working-class spaces and we entered mainstream society where we have had to negotiate feelings of gain and loss,” said Carrillo, an associate professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. He hails from south Los Angeles and is the son of Mexican immigrants from the state of Sinaloa. “As Latino males in academia, there was a sense of dislocation from our communities, and we felt very isolated.”

Méndez and Carillo were both in North Carolina teaching at competing colleges when they met in the fall of 2012. Carrillo was teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was the founding director of the Latinx Education Research Hub when Méndez, an education professor at Duke, invited him to speak at a lecture series he was hosting.

“Juan gave a great talk about family, culture, displacement and hitting upon all of these touchstones and themes that really resonated with me,” said Méndez, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, New York.

The two men felt an immediate connection, which deepened when they brought their families together. They all got along.

They shared stories of their past with music blasting in the background. Carrillo was partial to Tupac Shakur and Ice Cube while Méndez preferred the likes of the Wu-Tang Clan and Nas. They also got together for televised NBA games, with Carrillo rooting for the Lakers against Méndez’s New York Knicks. They fell into a quick routine of smack talk during the games or while doing battle on PlayStation; it was all in good fun.

“We were allowed to have these human moments together and be free and not think about the pressures of academia,” Méndez said. “It was a friendship that had quickly evolved into a brotherhood.”

Through their shared stories and experiences, an idea evolved: Why not record a podcast of one of their conversations and see where it goes? They recorded a two-hour conversation and called it Block Chronicles — the title referring to stories from their past and growing up on “the block.” It became a space to respect the cultural resources and knowledge that raised Carrillo and Méndez and bridged their communities in ways that were not oriented in a deficit perspective.

It took a few months to get the project off the ground. By the time the podcast was finally posted, the two men had moved on in their professional lives. Carrillo landed at ASU. Méndez moved to Pittsburgh, where he pursued a career in the literary arts. Today he is visiting professor of education in the Center for Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Even though they were separated by thousands of miles, they still wanted Block Chronicles to grow. In early 2018 Méndez applied for a $10,000 grant through the Pittsburgh Foundation to film a seven-episode web series on various Latinx communities across the country. He promptly forgot about the application until he received an email a few months later.

“It read, ‘Congratulations, you are the recipient of a $10,000 grant,” Mendez said. “I called two people: one of my best friends, Cameron Parker, a professor at Brunswick County College in Wilmington, North Carolina. He used to be a producer for ESPN. Then I called Juan.”

Even though they abandoned the podcast, they kept the Block Chronicles name and pushed along an innovative approach that included a web series and later, an online magazine. They shot the first few episodes in Pittsburgh — all of it on iPhones to keep their costs down. Using mobile filmmaking enabled them to shoot 31 episodes. They visited places like New Mexico, Arizona, Puerto Rico and their respective hometowns — Los Angeles and the South Bronx.

“There is a lot of gentrification taking place around us and many in the community want a place where they can have that old-school identity."

— Sandy Flores, owner of Azukar Coffee in Phoenix.

In Los Angeles, they profiled award-winning writer Lilliam Rivera, who penned the young adult novels “The Education of Margot Sanchez” (2017) and “Dealing in Dreams” (2019). They also interviewed actor Taye Diggs (“All American”) about his series of children’s books, “Chocolate Me!” (2011), "Mixed Me!" (2015) and “I Love You More Than” (2018).

Over the course of eight months, they interviewed people in fields ranging from education and public health to arts and culture: This included musicians, artists, community activists, business owners, teachers, professors, researchers, photographers and a renowned urban revival strategist.

In December, they profiled Sandy Flores, owner of Azukar Coffee. Located in the heart of South Phoenix, the shop was the perfect story to showcase the fortitude of how a longtime community fixture is faring in the face of gentrification.

“The coffee shop is an identity for our community because it’s a place that brings people together,” said Flores, who hosts monthly art shows, workshops and yoga classes and holds an annual Dios de los Muertos event in the space. “There is a lot of gentrification taking place around us and many in the community want a place where they can have that old-school identity. It’s one of the few places in Phoenix that has generations of people that grew up and remained here.”

Block Chronicles really started to flourish thanks to the AW Mellon Grant Program, which awarded Carrillo and Méndez a $15,000 grant. The money gave them an opportunity to turn a 20-minute short about a Puerto Rican Celebration Day in Pittsburgh into a full length documentary feature called “Boricuas in the Burgh.” For the film, which will debut in 2021, they tapped their new friends Lilliam Rivera to narrate and Taye Diggs and Emmy Award-winning Emmai Alaquiva to co-direct. All of them said yes without hesitation.

Rivera agreed to narrate the documentary because their work will elevate the Puerto Rican community.

“I’m always paying attention to people who are documenting creative people of color and doing things that are really interesting and not getting enough play,” Rivera said. “I was excited about Block Chronicles because of the people they’ve chosen to highlight. There’s a community aspect to their work that elevates others and so it was an easy ‘yes.’ Even if this was something I wasn’t involved with, I know I would have promoted it on social media. I want to align myself with people who are doing positive things.”

The two educators have future plans for establishing Block Chronicle labs working with youth from communities similar to their own to produce their own content. They also want to shoot episodes in Mexico and other countries such as Iceland to explore Latinx communities and identity in unlikely places.

“It’s an exciting period for us because I’ll be eating Raisin Bran at 1 o’clock in the morning and get a phone call from Jason about collaborations in the works with artists, educators and Hollywood actors and I’ll be like, ‘Wow,’” Carrillo said. “It’s all happened so fast. There’s an energy that’s bigger than the both of us and I’m always reminded that Block Chronicles is about how education can happen beyond the walls of the classroom and how we can learn from places and people that are often overlooked.”

Top photo: Juan Carrillo (left) an associate professor in ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Jason Méndez, an assistant professor of urban education at University of Pittsburgh, talk about their Block Chronicles collaborative project, a national web series and online magazine profiling educators, artists, researchers and community organizations in the fields of Latinx and urban issues. They met at Azukar Coffee in south Phoenix, before interviewing shop owner Sandra Flores on Dec. 12, 2019. The artwork behind them was created for Azukar by local artist Lalo Cota. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now