Elisha Miranda’s first exercise in storytelling happened at Columbia Film School when she had to tell a story about pets. Miranda had none during her childhood, but she had a story about a girl who was obsessed with cockroaches.
It’s been only two years that Miranda joined San José State as the professor and chair of the Film and Theatre Department, and she’s flipping the script in the classroom with her unusual knack for stories. “Our students are full of incredible stories,” she says. As a storyteller, Miranda believes in the power of characters and unexpected narratives. “I’m about craft. I’m about students coming out and learning how to be a strong writer. We look at characters, themes, dialogues and plots, and all of those things that make a really strong story,” Miranda adds.
She is also helping students understand the problematic signs of history and colonized thinking. In her classes, for example, she would pick mainstream stories like The Jeffersons, Dexter, I Love Lucy, Chico and the Man, and think about experimenting with the original characters by placing them in modern socio-political settings. “How do we decolonize our minds and the history that we’ve been fed?” she says. “How do we flip the script in our own work?”
Miranda’s entire career has been used to flip the script on who gets to tell the story. “Why do some people get to tell stories about other people? Why is light skin privileged over Black and brown narratives,” she asks.
As one of the leaders of the arts community in the region, Miranda is creating a safe space so students can talk about issues they encounter, and figure out the right tools to organize and take direct action through creative storytelling. Miranda’s priorities: “What stories do my students want to tell? How do I equip them with skills to tell the stories that only they can tell?”
Growing up between the Black and Latino neighborhoods in San Francisco in a Puerto Rican family, Miranda started out as a graffiti artist, visually narrating concerns of the community in the 80s. During those years, her involvement in a youth leadership program brought her close to the ideologies of José Martí, the Cuban poet who, she says, “was not a Fidel Castro or a Che Guevara, but he used his pen to talk about freedom.”
Miranda realized then that her own pen could be used as a form of cultural activism. She could challenge the stereotype of Latinx representation like writers before her, such as Nicholasa Mohr and Cherrie Moraga. One of her artistic goals in her storytelling praxis is to recover and decolonize the true legacy of her culture.
Part of her visual activism stemmed from reading Devorah Major’s community-inspired poems and watching Halie Gerima’s films in her early years. “We’re talking about BLM right now. I’m such a proponent. A lot of the films I look at like The Watermelon Woman and Daughters of the Dust are about Black people in all their diversity. They have led movements that other people of color have benefited from,” Miranda says.
Through her leadership in the Film and Theatre Department, she’s working on generating more buzz and visibility around student productions. Having done a theater project like Dreamers for DACA students, Miranda says the department is now looking to do some devised theater for Asian, African American and Black students. “Our Spartan Film Studios is the best kept secret, and there’s only one other film school in the United States with its own non-profit film entity that has produced feature films,” says Miranda.
Miranda plans to develop a higher-ed streamer channel like Netflix to help establish an online presence for student films. “One of the things I’m looking at doing is creating this master series of different artists across race, gender, sexuality, religion and immigration that I’m going to be bringing in via Zoom,” she says.
Going forward, Miranda is also planning to launch a podcast called The Choose Love Podcast: Dismantling Anti-Blackness Within Latinx Communities and a television series called The Chronicles of Eva. The latter is about an undocumented teen who discovers her superpower while living in an anti-immigrant world.