This year’s 19th annual San Diego Latino Film Festival is mixing things up. 

In years past, the festival has chosen different Latin American countries to focus on, and has screened films relating to the experience of that country. 

This year the country of focus is the United States. Lisa Franek, Artistic Director of the festival, explains that she became obsessed with reading the U.S. census study. 

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“With a 33% growth of Latinos in the US in the last ten years--50.5 million Latinos representing 16.3% of the US population, this is a group that could no longer be ignored,” she says.

Kicking off the U.S. Latino showcase category is the film "America" based on the book "El Sueño de America" by Esmeralda Santiago.  Santiago is the author of two highly acclaimed memoirs, "The Turkish Lover" and "Almost a Woman," which was made into a film for PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.

The film stars relative newcomer Lymari Nadal as “America.” Nadal is the wife of actor, activist, and co-star Edward James Olmos. Nadal is best known for co-starring in "American Gangster," with Oscar-winning-actor Denzel Washington. The film is directed by Sonia Fritz and produced by Frances Laucell.  

Set in Puerto Rico in the 1980’s on the island of Vieques, the film takes place when the U.S. Navy was still testing military weapons. 

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“The impact on the people living there--the constant sounds of bombing, the military’s presence, and a depressed economy, all lead to an emotional volatility tangible in the film,” said Fritz.  

In "America" a young women moves from Vieques to New York City, in order to escape her violent and abusive lover. Her mother and stepfather find a place for her to live with a wealthy couple in need of a nanny to care for their two children.  

America is forced to leave her 14-year-old daughter behind in Puerto Rico.

“The story is really about a cycle of violence," said Fritz. "America, her mother, and her grandmother have all had children around the age of 14. So, when America leaves the island it is to essentially break the cycle."

"Sadly, that’s very much the way things are in Vieques today. Young girls have nothing,' she added. "At 14, it’s not uncommon for girls to elope, have sex, or get pregnant."

Like in the film, Fritz says that domestic violence is out of control in Vieques today.

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"This year 30 women were violently killed by husbands or boyfriends in Puerto Rico," she continued. "[It's] often in front of their children. Imagine the message that sends to the next generation.” 

"America" also directly confronts issues of migration and immigration. Actress Yareli Arizmendi, best known for her role as Rosaura in the film "Like Water for Chocolate," plays Maria— a Mexican nanny America befriends in New York. 

“I was attracted to the script because of the diversity of the women," Arizmendi said. "No matter where you come from into the U.S., you may be a Latina and share similar immigrant experiences, but your cultures are different."

"In the film, America, my character, and the character from the Dominican Republic, have all left their children behind, and we’re all working to make money to bring them to the U.S.," she added. "But our cultures are unique.” 

A dominant theme in this year’s festival is the need for Latinos to be the ones to tell their own stories.  

“Latinos need to be careful," Arizmendi said. "We can’t change our stories to give the mainstream audience what we think they want."

Arizmendi highlighted the importance of being "really honest with ourselves and tell our stories in a real way."

 "I believe 'America' tells a new story," she pointed out. "One that hasn’t been told.” 

Rebekah Sager is a fashion contributor based out of San Diego, Calif.  You can reach her at: Rebekah@shoplocalsd.com

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Rebekah Sager is a writer/editor for Fox News Latino. She can be reached at rebekah.sager@foxnewslatino.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager

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