CHICAGO — Pepe Vargas, from Colombia, was working a job, going to ESL classes and taking college courses when he put the Latino Film Festival on the Chicago map.

Twenty-one years later, it is the nation’s largest and oldest film festival. Below is an interview with Vargas conducted by Curly Cohen. The festival runs through April 20. For information, call (312) 409-1757.

PWW: Congratulations, wow, the 21st anniversary! What is significant about that?

PV: It’s a good feeling. We’ve matured, we have longevity. The festival is here to stay and stay forever. It’s grown and grown, which show’s there’s a need. Since it’s not Hollywood films people are watching, they must be connecting to the stories they’re seeing.

PWW: From the very beginning, the film festival seemed like it was a way to attack the dominant culture, where racism is so abundant and stereotypes were so easy and plentiful.

PV: Definitely. There’s so much power in film. We could use it to break the stereotypes and social separation. People learn and discover that Latinos are human beings. They hear the music, see the food, the way we dress. They see we’re black, we’re brown, we’re Indian, we’re white and blonde. The separation, the discrimination and the isolation, it gets broken down. We get a respect and admiration of who we are.

PWW: Your organization has been leading a fight to build a center downtown. What’s happening with that?

PV: Every day it becomes clear we need a majestic place to offer our culture, not just two weeks out of the year for a film festival — 365 days, 24 hours a day: poetry workshops, dance, music, so we can connect with people. They can stop by, have coffee, a meal. What a great addition to a city that has so much culturally to offer.

We want all people to write the mayor, the governor, and their representatives, become a member. When they say to us, “Start small,” we’ve already started small — 21 years ago. We didn’t even have a screen; we projected the films on a wall.

PWW: Then when will the groundbreaking take place?

PV: We will break ground in the next five years. We want the workers to bring small money, and we want the millionaires to bring very big money, because we must make this big, beautiful, majestic space a reality.