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New film 'Life is Art' documents Rancho Mirage resident Pepe Serna's impact on Hollywood

The Desert Sun (Palm Springs) 12/5/2022 Eliana Perez, Palm Springs Desert Sun

Pepe Serna has been featured in more than 100 films and 300 shows throughout his career. Yet, his name is only vaguely familiar to the broader public.

Perhaps most often, it's Serna's appearances in prominent films — including "Scarface" with Al Pacino and "Silverado" with Kevin Costner — that allow people to catch on to his legacy in Hollywood.

"Pepe Serna: Life is Art," a documentary about the Mexican American actor released this year, showcases his decades-long work in film, and how it has helped pave the way for other Latino actors.

"I was never a star," Serna said, using finger quotes for the word "star." "But now that I'm the star of my documentary, I've become the star of every show I ever did."

Serna, 78, hails from Corpus Christi, Texas. As a working actor, he's moved around Southern California several times, but ultimately established his full-time home in Rancho Mirage in 2016.

He considers himself an actor since childhood. "I had already been doing improv my whole life, because that's what life is, it's improv," Serna explains in the film.

With that mindset and his love of performing, Serna kept his eye on Los Angeles, and intuited that eventually he would make it there to act, he said.

Pepe Serna dressed for his first movie role in "Jacket of Blood in Gold," shot in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the 1960s. © Courtesy of Pepe Serna Pepe Serna dressed for his first movie role in "Jacket of Blood in Gold," shot in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the 1960s.

Serna finally arrived in Hollywood in 1969, at age 24. In his first seven months there, he landed small roles in five films. Several of them were Westerns, for which he was able to lean on his "Texas cowboy" roots.

In "Car Wash," shot in 1976, Serna played "Chuco," a mischievous employee in the titular shop. According to David Damian Figueroa, a producer of "Life is Art" and a lifelong friend of Serna's, "It was the first time we got to see a Chicano (acting) in mainstream." He called the role "iconic."

As Serna garnered more screen time, he said he started to be typecast in "gangbanger roles," due to his Latino background, though he didn't feel negativity around it.

"I couldn't do anything other than what was given ... I was fulfilled," he said.

Serna, however, acknowledges there isn't adequate Latino representation in American film, even today. "I don't see anybody. We're 18% in the U.S., but only 3% (are seen) in Hollywood."

The most recent Hollywood Diversity Report from the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that in 2020, Latinos made up close to 19% of the U.S. population, but were cast in only 4.9% of leading roles in cable shows and 4.6% of movie roles.

In 2020, Serna penned a call to action to Congress, asking it to "address and resolve the lack of inclusiveness and diversity in the entertainment industry."

To advocate for himself, Serna didn't wait for anyone to approach him about making a documentary; instead, he initiated the process.

Figueroa recalled feeling proud after Serna asked him to assist with the production of "Life is Art."

"As Latinos, we're often taught to dim our light, but we have to be comfortable in it," Figueroa said. "He said he was going to do a documentary about himself, and it wasn't with arrogance."

The filmmaker signed up for the project and anticipated others in the industry would jump on the opportunity to highlight Serna's "unmatched career" in the film.

He was right.

"Life is Art," directed by Luis Reyes, features commentary from several Latino actors that Serna has either worked with in the past or simply call him a friend.

Actress Eva Longoria shares a hometown with Serna. She said in the documentary: "I had never even left Texas when I was in college, and so for me to see somebody from my tiny hometown be somewhere as glamorous as Hollywood, I thought, 'Wow! That's cool.'"

Gloria Calderon Kellett, who's produced shows including "One Day at a Time," "Jane the Virgen" and wrote current Serna project "With Love," also shared in the film: "He's been working consistently since the '70s and that's a difficult task for any actor, (more so) a Latino actor."

Focusing on the positive rather than the negative is a theme in Serna's life, and thus also in "Life is Art."

Though "Pepe" is typically a nickname for the name Jose, Pepe Serna's first name is actually Pablo — he earned the nickname "Pepe," in part, because it sounds like "peppy," which perfectly describes the actor's personality.

Serna said he hopes his documentary inspires people to choose a "role" in life and have it be a peppy one. And Figueroa emphasized that for him, the biggest takeaway from the film is how Serna demonstrates that "life is to be enjoyed."

"Life is Art" was slated to premiere at the 2022 Palm Springs International Film Festival, but the event was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions. It later premiered at the Latino International Film Festival in Los Angeles in June, and has been featured in various film festivals throughout the year.

The documentary will return to the valley on Dec. 10 during the 8th Annual Official Latino Film and Arts Festival, at the Palm Springs Art Museum. The night will be a double feature for Serna, as "Abuelo," in which he stars, will also screen.

Life and art in the Coachella Valley

Actor and artist Pepe Serna stands by his painting, "Family in Crisis," inside his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Nov. 28, 2022. He is the subject of the film "Life is Art" which will be shown at the Official Latino Film and Arts Festival in Palm Springs. © Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun Actor and artist Pepe Serna stands by his painting, "Family in Crisis," inside his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Nov. 28, 2022. He is the subject of the film "Life is Art" which will be shown at the Official Latino Film and Arts Festival in Palm Springs.

Pepe Serna and his wife of over 50 years, Diane Serna, met in the Los Angeles region and lived there for many years, in proximity to Pepe's acting career. Hollywood, Eagle Rock and Orange County's Balboa Island are all areas they have called home.

But in 2006, the couple moved to Palm Springs — a move that Pepe said felt natural, given the city's nickname of "Hollywood's Playground" and because Diane prefers hot weather.

Eventually, the Sernas moved to Rancho Mirage, where they reside today in their colorful and vibrant Mexican-themed home.

Diane is a clothing designer and Pepe still acts, but he also indulges in painting. Their house is filled with countless works by the actor, which depict Mexican culture, spiritual symbols and their loving marriage.

Pepe Serna is also involved in advocacy for the farmworker community, on both a local and national level. He's known to participate in events organized by United Farm Workers, a labor union for farmworkers in the U.S.

Pepe Serna, an actor and artist, reads a poem at the unveiling of the new mural of Dolores Huerta in Coachella, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2021. © Eduardo Aguilar/The Desert Sun Pepe Serna, an actor and artist, reads a poem at the unveiling of the new mural of Dolores Huerta in Coachella, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2021.

Last year, he wrote and recited a poem dedicated to farmworkers during the unveiling of a mural in Coachella honoring the civil rights leader Dolores Huerta.

"I didn't live it, but I know it's important," Serna said of the farmworker experience. He added that his collaboration with UFW is another way for him to stay involved with the Latino community.

Serna has also been a speaker at colleges and universities across the country, sometimes to elaborate on his craft and other times as a motivational speaker.

As a follow up to the documentary, Serna is working on "Life is Art" the book and hopes it can be incorporated into teaching programs at schools.

After "Abuelo," directed by Kayvon Derak Shanian, Serna will next appear in "Flamin' Hot," a film about the origin and popularity of Hot Cheetos, directed by Eva Longoria and set for a 2023 release.

Eliana Perez covers the eastern Coachella Valley, including the cities of Indio and Coachella. Reach her at eliana.perez@desertsun.com or on Twitter @ElianaPress.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: New film 'Life is Art' documents Rancho Mirage resident Pepe Serna's impact on Hollywood

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