Linda Nieves-Powell: Bringing Latino Flavored Productions

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Linda Nieves-Powell is the president and CEO of the multimedia entertainment company, Latino Flavored Productions, Inc. based in New York, which she founded in 1995. As well as a playwright, author, mother, wife, and entrepreneur.
I spoke with Linda over the phone in November. Here’s Linda…

What is the short version of how you founded Latino Flavored Productions in 1995?
I was writing seriously for two years; I started in ‘93. I was a little frustrated because I didn’t know how to get any of my stuff out. I would send it out and I really wouldn’t hear much. In ‘95 I decided to try to produce on my own to get my stuff out and that’s how it started.

You started a company!

I did. The funny thing is it all came back to me. When I was 9, I would invite kids to my backyard, give them scripts to read, and we would do these plays. So, when I started to do this, it was so natural for me. I didn’t think twice. I sort of knew instinctively what to do.
I guess when you place that thing out in the universe, you also start meeting people that lean that way—and that’s exactly what happened. I met someone who became my co-producer and produced my first show. We’re still friends, it’s so wild.
So, I started by taking that huge risk. What it eventually grew into I had no idea that that was going to happen.
You state in the mission of Latino Flavored Productions that: “Our productions reflect the desired quality entertainment that speaks to today’s Latino audiences and that will introduce an entirely hip new flavor of entertainment to mainstream.� Can you talk more about this, and what you mean by “desired quality entertainment�?
I take great pride in learning craft. I’ve spent a lot of time studying what I do. I’m self-taught for the most part. I make sure that whatever we do is well written and well acted. That’s what I mean by quality. Not just getting things together and throwing it up there. I really do take care of every detail of the production.
I also never try to be anything that I’m not. The voices you hear, yes, they’re very Latina. But, they’re not alien to everyone else. We try to touch on universal themes that affect all of us. When you walk into my show, you know it’s a Latino thing going on. There’s no doubt. But you never feel isolated or alienated when you’re sitting in the audience and you’re not Latino. That was my intention as an artist. I wanted to create that and I still work on doing that. My first book coming out on Simon & Schuster, [Freestyle Chicas] is with the same intention: create a very Latino product that will speak to many.
What do you mean by Latino product? Are all the characters Latino or Latina?
The product itself being the book or the play, are pretty much all Latino. My world, whenever I write, is always Latino. It’s rare that I’ll write something where there is one Latino character and everybody else is not. I just kind of like that world. [Laughs] I’m so free in that world. When you think about it, when you’re not in that world, it’s sort of hard to be you. You sort of have to change and adapt to every situation, especially if you’re in corporate America.

Do you write all the scripts and plays that you produce?

Yes, for the most part everything under Latino Flavored until now. I actually went and found somebody by the name of Jenny Saldana who wrote two plays and I am going to be producing them. She’s remarkable. I found a kindred spirit. Although she’s Dominican and I’m Puerto Rican, we are like sisters. The voice, the humor. It’s really funny because when we sat and we talked, we screamed out loud like two kids when we found out John Leguizamo was our inspiration. “Yeah, you know, somebody gave me this tape of this guy on HBO and the show was called ‘Mambo Mouth.’â€? And I was like, “Oh my God! That’s the same show that inspired me to write!â€?
I want to do this more often, actually. [Produce other writers] I would really like to give the opportunity because first of all, writing is a task. It’s hard, and I like to do it well. I would like to give those opportunities to people who have something to say.

Do you consciously try to tackle certain issues through your productions?

Always. I am an activist and an artist. I want to touch upon things in everything that I write. For me, one of the biggest things is racism within our own community. Growing up I had to experience that with my own father saying things.
In Jenny’s piece, she’s 34 years old and is diagnosed with breast cancer and gets a double mastectomy. But her play is so funny. A lot of the stuff that I do is very women-oriented. It’s about women.
I do purposely, even in my novel, as funny as it is, I do talk about race. I talk about stereotypes in the Latino community. But I never do it in a hit-you-over-the-head kind of way. I sneak it in. Nobody wants to be lectured to. The hardest part is to creatively mold what it is that you want to say without taking away from the story. Without being so preachy. That’s my challenge all the time.

What inspired you to write your first novel, Freestyle Chicas?

I have a girlfriend that I knew since I was 12 years old. We grew up together until our late 20s and then we lost touch. She had two kids, I had no kids. I was single, she was married. Our lives were completely different. I was on party mode and she was on mom mode. And we lost touch. After years of not seeing her I get an email one day, and she’s like, “Is this Linda Nieves?� I was like, “Oh, my Lord!� We immediately hooked up and we started IMing each other afterwards.
Our instant messages were so funny. That’s how I started my book. She inspired me and everything that we talked about: “Remember back in the day when we used to do this? And we used to go party?� It became a book about the past, and how to let go. And what it is not to be able to let go of that past. How to move forward. The book is very spiritual. I do that a lot. There’s always a spiritual journey in all of my stuff. But it’s also a lot of fun.

What are some of the projects that Latino Flavored Productions has out now?

“José Can Speak� is a huge hit this season. That was something that I wanted to do because when I would go on these college tours, the guys in the audience would ask me constantly, “Can you do something for guys?� And I would say, “I can’t do that, you guys should do that. I don’t know what you want to talk about.� But one day I decided to try it.
I auditioned guys to see what they had to say about being men. Nobody wanted to step forward, which was no surprise because men don’t talk easily about those feelings. They just don’t come forward that easily. I then started thinking about someone in my past. [“José Can Speak�] is based on a real guy that I knew. I started writing a monologue about him and his issues. It’s women’s take on a man because we play the man. We may be acting as men, but it truly is a burgeoning of both female and male in that one character. Any of the emotion that the man can’t give, we give. But we did not play it as women. We did not cry like crazy. We held back the way a man does, but we said things a man would never say. This is a very popular play now on the college circuit.
I’m just so busy with the novel now. I really want to finish the “Latina Sex Project� that I started a year ago. I interviewed so many women. But the new stuff with Jenny Saldana—“Dancing in the Mirror�—we’re going to sort of incorporate those monologues with some of my monologues to make a new show.

Is “Dancing in the Mirror� about breast cancer?

“Dancing in the Mirror� was her first piece about the Latina experience. She wrote five monologues from very funny, diverse Latinas. I’m using about four of those and using two of mine. All of these characters have one thing in common: to dance in the mirror at certain points in each piece. It’s under the umbrella title, “Soul Latina,� featuring “Dancing in the Mirror.�
“Pink� I’m actually going to workshop at the Nuyorican [Poets Cafe] this spring. That’s what I do now. There’s a new play every year we’re workshopping it at the Nuyorican. And workshopping is just putting it on its feet to see how it goes. Invite the public, get some responses, develop it more, and then take it out to the colleges.
The colleges have been unbelievable. They are so supportive. I get colleges that call me three and four times. I had to tell Rutgers that I didn’t have anything new this year. I had to refer them to someone else I knew. I just don’t have the time to write something new every year.
Do you perform mostly for college audiences?
I didn’t before. And now that I’m doing it, this is all I want to do because I have a built-in audience now. It’s very different when you’re doing a show at the Nuyorican or Off Broadway. It’s very risky. It’s a lot of money. When you go on the college circuit, somebody is paying you to come out and perform your show, and they’re letting you know how they really feel about it. When a show is a hit on the college circuit, everybody finds out about it. All the sorority sisters will call somebody; somebody in Florida will call somebody in Boston. Before you know it, we have a tour going on. That to me is a lot easier and better than waiting for somebody to come along and give you that chance to put your show on.
I never expected to go this route. This is something that opened up. I really do think that the internet had everything to do with the company’s growth and success. Otherwise, no one would have known about us. If this had been ten years ago, it would have been a whole different story.

You posted your work on the web?

Yeah, that’s pretty much how the “Yo Soy Latina!� [“I am Latina!�] show grew because of a monologue I wrote and posted on the internet. Women across the country told me that they were inspired by it. And that’s what inspired the eventual play, “Yo Soy Latina!�
The internet for me has been instrumental. It is the number one tool that’s got me where I am today. I think that goes for a lot of people, especially Latinos. We don’t have it that way.

The money to get publicity.

Have you faced any particular challenges over the years with Latino Flavored Productions?
I’ve been very lucky. The only challenges are that I’m a one-woman production company and sometimes I become very overwhelmed. I have to delegate the work, but it gets harder and harder to maintain all of it.
I remember the first three years, every October I would do inventory. I’d figure out what I’m going to do the following year. I remember one year was get more media. The next year would be to buy some more equipment. Every year I had this plan. This year I wanted to bring in a writer, and I did that. So, I’ve had to really think like a business person and then I have to get into writer creative mode. It gets nuts sometimes. I have a 7-year-old, I’m married, and I have a house that I have to take care of.
How do you feel about stereotypes and the misperceptions of Latinos in the mainstream media?
I hate them. And I’m tired. But I’ll tell you what I hate more though. I hate when my own people do it. I see enough out there that’s being written and I go, “People, let’s just twist it. It takes a little bit of creative energy to put a twist on a stereotype.� It’s really easy to get up there and act like a crack addict. But what’s not easy is to humanize that crack addict.
There was a time when there were a lot of these independent films coming out and they were all about drug dealers. Who was writing them? Latin guys. And I said, “Boy, what is it going to take for these people to see beyond that?�
I like what Salma [Hayek] did with “Ugly Betty.� Somebody asked me at a Columbia University performance, “What do you think about the stereotypes? The women, they’re really sexy.� You know something, when Salma puts her hands on something I tend to trust it because she doesn’t seem to be the person that would do anything like that. I think the reason that there are sexy women [in the show] is because it’s about fashion, and it’s based on a telenovela [Spanish-language soap opera]. I don’t have a problem with that. And Salma is a sexy woman herself. It’s not about that. They created this wonderful character that is beautiful on the inside and is very universal. I like the show, and I like what she’s done with it.
Do you think Latino/as stereotyping Latino/as happens because of money or because the stereotypes are so common?
I don’t think they know. There is a group that is out there now. They put together a comedy troupe. One of the people involved told me to look at their stuff. I looked at about seven skits. Each and every last one of them was stereotypical. And I said [to myself], I could keep my mouth shut and I could call her and say, “Yeah, it’s great. Just keep doing what you do.� Because sometimes when you tell people the truth, they don’t know how to take you. But if I have information that could help somebody out—I’m going to give it. I have a passion for what I do, and why not share that information with someone else?
So, I said to her, “Listen, I’m going to be honest with you. You can take this information and throw it away. Do whatever you want with it. But I want to give you this information. Those characters that you created are all one-dimensional. You need to create a twist. What is your intention?� This is a word that I use all the time with my actresses. Even for myself. What is my intention in a project? When I speak to the actresses, “What is your intention in that role?� I asked that girl, “What are you trying to do? What are you trying to say?�
You know people sit there and write, but they’re writing these superficial, very off the cuff things and I don’t know why they even wrote it. What are your issues? What are your passions? What do you want to talk about? What are your ideas and opinions? Those should be instilled in those characters. That’s what gives a character life. She agreed with me actually. They want to put this on television. It’s absolutely not ready for television.
How do you feel about being named one of the 100 most influential Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine?
I never expected it. It’s really great. When those things come up and you don’t expect them, that’s when it’s even better. I’m happy. I felt a responsibility when that happened to keep doing what I do and making sure that I do the right things by my people. I also don’t live for that, but I know there’s a responsibility. It’s a nice extra. It’s a nice bonus.

How does your family feel about your work? Have they always been supportive of your writing?

No, they haven’t. [Laughs] When I started “Yo Soy Latina!� my mom said I didn’t belong in New York. “Get out of there!� And I was like, “Ma, I don’t know. There’s something about ‘Yo Soy Latina!’� Then I would work on it, and they would say, “Oh, how nice. But when are you going to get a job? When are you going to get a real job?� And I talk about this a lot. They always thought [my writing] was impractical. Now, they can’t believe it. They’re like “Wow!� They’re very excited, very proud. My mother used to send me these cards that would make me cry.
What advice do you have for young Latinas who are trying to make it in the entertainment industry? Or to write like you?
I want them to first of all, live their truth. Whatever that may be at that moment, to live their truth. Too many people I know would change their name thinking they would get more jobs. I think once you compromise yourself, you compromise yourself and then you’re not living your truth. Live your truth. Be proud of who you are. Don’t be afraid of being who you are.
I think most importantly, study. Study the heck out of whatever it is that you’re doing. Study the great people. That is what I love about the masters, like Meryl Streep. Or when you watch a movie that’s done beautifully. Or a book that you read. That is the craft. Just love the craft. It takes a long time before you can perfect it. I’m still learning and I continue to learn. Because a lot of girls think they’re going to make it because of how they look. That could possibly happen. That might put you somewhere. But it’s not going to sustain you. I think if you can master something that no one else can do, then you have a little name that you carved out for yourself.
And state your intention immediately. Your intention can change, but state it. Know your intention.

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