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Many people in the Northwest tend to equate “Mexican” with “Latino,” but that’s a limited perspective. As a Mexican-American, I see that dynamic play out on a regular basis like when people think all Latinos wear sombreros and eat spicy food.

Even so, many people have a superficial view of Mexican culture based on chips, salsa and margaritas, and the knowledge level goes down even more for countries like say Uruguay and Bolivia.  I’m all for exposing non-Latinos to not just Mexico, but to the cultural bounty of the 20-plus countries that make up Latin America.

Enter Jorge Enrique Gonzalez Pacheco, a Cuban immigrant who moved to Seattle in 2006 after a stint in Miami. He recognized the void of Latino awareness in the Northwest and founded the Seattle Latino Film Festival.

“This is a festival for Latinos and people who don’t know about Latinos,” Gonzalez Pacheco, a poet and writer told me. “There is much more to know about Latinos than restaurants and manual labor.”

The film festival, now in its sixth year, continues expanding its programming, locations and audience. This year, the festival is screening films at seven Seattle locations and on public television in Redmond and goes through this Saturday (read more here).

I talked to Gonzalez Pacheco about what film festivals can do to raise cultural awareness and why not just Latinos would be interested in watching Latino films.

Q. Why did you start the Seattle Latino Film Festival?

A. When I moved to Seattle in 2006, I saw that there was rich and varied Latino community here, but there wasn’t a type of cultural embassy to represent the various cultures here. I started to get to know the community here, who were the major players and most represented groups. In Seattle, I found that people here adore cinema and films, but the city lacked a good reference point for Latin American cinema. That’s when the light bulb went off in my mind and I decided to start a film festival. In 2009, we started the festival and to date, we have an organization that helps create awareness of Latin American culture in both Seattle and for the entire state.

Q. Are you targeting the local Latino audience or a broader audience?

A. The idea was to create a multicultural film festival. What is missing in Seattle is for the broader community in Seattle to truly know Latinos outside of just restaurants or washing cars and how we are on a deeper level. We as Latinos also need to let ourselves be known. The festival caters to a broader audience and helps Latinos to feel pride in our culture.

It’s important for Latinos in this country to not be seen as immigrants coming here to take jobs or break the law. On the contrary, Seattle is a city that is open and welcoming to immigrants and other cultures and that provides an opportunity for Latinos to showcase our culture and different experiences.

Not only are there Latinos from different countries here, but a new generation of American-born Latinos who also want more awareness of their parents’ and grandparents’ culture and homelands. The festival provides a new perspective on the intellectual side of a culture that is both beautiful and vivid.

Q. Why is it important to raise cultural awareness about Latinos?

A. Part of my own personal philosophy is that the more you can learn about the unknown, the better. When I arrived from Cuba, I was 33 and I landed in Miami. I stayed with family, who welcomed me into their home and took care of me. I appreciated their help, but staying in Miami didn’t satisfy my desire to see more of the United States. I ended up in Seattle and I remember my first winter, I had never driven in snow, so I went out and tried it. My friends were worried about me, but I wanted to master driving in the snow. In a similar vein, the film festival brings new experiences to people who don’t know about Latin American culture. I talk to festival goers all the time who tell me, I learned about something I didn’t know about my home country. We are entertaining people, but we are also educating them. When something is foreign to me, I want to learn about it. Curiosity is a good thing when it leads you to better understanding.

This year’s festival focused on New Chilean Cinema featuring films such as “Best Worst Friends.”