Salvadoran-American explores cultural identity in short film Hyphen

Living with multiple identities, whether it’s race, gender, religion, culture, or sexual orientation, can be complicated, says Maria Servellón, who is an adjunct professor in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern. Through her latest fictional short film, Hyphen, she explores what it means to juggle different identities as a Latina artist in Boston. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Maria Servellón describes it as “living in the hyphen”: Having multiple identities, whether it’s race, gender, religion, culture, or sexual orientation.

Servellón, who teaches digital media at Northeastern, is a first-generation, Salvadoran-American from Boston. She says hyphens are something she has become accustomed to; she moves through the world as both a Latina woman and a first-generation every day. Over time, it became the center of her fascination.

“What were other people’s experiences living in the hyphen?” she recalls wondering. 

While she was a graduate student at Emerson College, Servellón began asking others about their experiences juggling their identities. Soon, the stories people told her grew into a small collection and she had an idea: She would fuse their stories together into a narrative that focused on the shared experience of growing up in Boston as a Latino artist.

About 10 months later, she had something: Hyphen, a realistic short film with fantastic elements woven in. It follows four fictional characters, Mimi, Maia, Mia, and Ria as they embark on a journey of self discovery that transcends cultural and gender expectations, Servellón says. 

“They’re all going through life’s up and down, but they all just happen to be Latina,” she says. “They’re not the sidekick, best friend, or any of the tropes that we usually see. The universal message of the film is, besides all the ‘hyphens’ that you carry with you, who are you at your core.”

Since Hyphen made its public debut at the Central American International Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2018, it has taken the screens at seven other film festivals, from New York and Boston to Manchester, United Kingdom and most recently, Oaxaca Film Fest in Mexico. It even garnered attention from celebrities such as America Ferrara, Anjelah Johnson, and Perez Hilton. 

“This film became bigger than I thought,” Servellón says. “After the film was done, seeing the film with my best friend and my mom in the private premiere was like a ‘Whoa’ moment.”

Through Hyphen, Servellón also earned recognition from local publications, such as winning the El Mundo Boston’s 2018 Latino 30 Under 30 award and being a finalist for the New England Film Star award. Yet, she says the awards aren’t nearly as validating as the storytelling process.

“As a creative, it’s motivated me to keep doing what I’m doing,” Servellón says. “While it’s great to be noticed, I became an archivist of stories in a way while working on Hyphen. This lit a fire under me to continue working in filmmaking.”

While Servellón works primarily as a lecturer in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern, she has been laying the groundwork for her next film, Phantasma, which will be a fictional short film centered around the themes of escapism and identity. Yet, as her filmmaking career continues, she still vividly recalls the first time she owned a video camera and the call to action her dad gave her.

“One day, my dad gave me a video camera for my quinceañera and told me to go make something with it,” Servellón says with a chuckle.

And that, she has.

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