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A group photo of the Vargas family with the filmmaking team on the front porch of the Vargas home
A pre-Sunday supper family photo with the Vargas crew at their house in Essex, Maryland. Andy Dahl (kneeling, center), Sarah Fouts (standing, right), and Fernando López (lower right) happily join in after a long weekend of shoots. Courtesy of Andy Dahl.

Homegrown Foodways Film Premiere: El Camino del Pan a Baltimore

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The following is a guest post by Professor Sarah Fouts, American Studies, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, sharing the online premiere of El Camino del Pan a Baltimore, which you can watch below! The film is the first in this year’s Homegrown Foodways Film Series: Baltimore and New Orleans, a collaboration with Dr. Fouts, Andy Dahl of Nutria Productions, and documentarian Fernando López. 

A portrait photo of Jose Vargas in front of his bakery in Baltimore
José Vargas in front of his bakery on S. Highland Avenue, East Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Andy Dahl.

El Camino del Pan a Baltimore chronicles the life of José Vargas, the owner of a bakery and taqueria in Highlandtown, an East Baltimore neighborhood. We first met José when working on the Sabor de Highlandtown mapping and storytelling project conducted with the Southeast Community Development Corporation and University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) American Studies students in spring 2022. During the Sabor de Highlandtown project, UMBC student Jes Godinez edited audio to create a short clip of José’s story from an interview we conducted and, like Andy and I, Jes was moved by José’s heartfelt storytelling. In particular, José’s popsicle stand story really stuck out to us (you’ll have to watch the film—no spoilers!). We all shed tears as José, a gruff and tough Mexican man, told of a moment of reckoning he had that sent him down his current path. We knew at that moment that José’s way of sharing his life experiences with so much openness would resonate with others, and so we wanted to go deeper. And he was so excited to share, so click below to watch!

Click here for the film’s transcript.

Originally from Huaquechula, Mexico, José continued his family’s baking tradition upon arriving in Baltimore. His journey began in Mexico, where he worked in his grandparents’ bakery. That work eventually evolved into selling bread from a pushcart in Baltimore’s Patterson Park. He later established his first brick-and-mortar bakery in Greektown, amidst a declining and dubious Greek immigrant community. With the support of family and friends, José’s vision expanded into a four-business enterprise that includes a bakery, taqueria, bar, and a restaurant.

Fernando, Andy, and I conducted the interviews with José and his family in April 2023. Andy collected B-Roll over the course of the late spring and early summer. While we did 6 total interviews—José, José’s wife, two sons, and two brothers, the film is told through José’s narration as he shares his rich and complex history from Mexico to Baltimore. Andy captured B-roll from the wee hours at the Vargas bakery on Highland Avenue, to José’s early morning wake-up routine at the family home, to the bulk shopping trip with his baking team, picking up ingredients for the daily preparations, and finally landing back at the bakery for unloading and payment to the crew.   

During the shoot in April, when the cameras turned off, the back-to-back evenings turned into delicious meals—pastas, chicken moles, chapulín (grasshopper) tacos, dragon fruit desserts–that fed even more stories accented by countless pours of smoky mezcal, sliced oranges, and chili salt. The unscripted insights gained in these afterhours merit their own short film, perhaps for a future sequel.

Still from the film showing Jose Vargas working in his bakery
A still from the film showing José Vargas (right) in his bakery. Courtesy of Andy Dahl.

El Camino del Pan a Baltimore is the first of two films in the AFC’s 2023 Homegrown Foodways Film Series. The films also have support from Maryland Traditions and the Department of American studies and Public Humanities program at UMBC. The films will screen for the first time together on Thursday, November 9, 2023 from 6-8 pm at the Creative Alliance in East Baltimore, featuring a panel discussion with José Vargas and Ivan Castillo (star of the second film in this series, El Camino del Mole a New Orleans), along with a mariachi band, drag show performance, and typical folkloric dance by the Jovenes in Action. The event is free and open to the public, and you can register here.

And don’t forget: stay tuned for the online premiere of El Camino del Mole a New Orleans on Tuesday November 14th at noon ET on the Folklife Today blog, and the Library’s YouTube channel, where the films are also made available. Read more about the 2023 series here, and past AFC Homegrown Foodways Films here.

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