Chicago Latino Film Festival founder Pepe Vargas has long dreamed of opening a state-of-the-art center in downtown Chicago dedicated to celebrating Pan-Latino music, dance, movies, poetry and food. "It is in the differences that we find the wealth of the culture," he said. (William DeShazer/Chicago Tribune / August 19, 2011)

As director of the International Latino Cultural Center, Pepe Vargas champions the richness of Latinidad by bringing some of the world's great talents to the heart of the Midwest: a string quartet from Brazil; a ballet company from Guatemala; films from every corner of the Hispano-Latin world, from Spain to Cuba to Paraguay.

So it is fitting that Vargas' own life has the makings of a movie. Take, for example, the moment he realized his life's mission some 30 years ago.

Vargas was working as a busboy at a Gold Coast restaurant when a customer, palling around during happy hour, introduced his family to each member of the restaurant staff — but looked through Vargas as though he were invisible.

"I looked him in the eye, and it was sort of a Fellini scene," Vargas recalls, referencing the Italian director's dream-like sequences. "Everything was sort of frozen."

That invisibility, one example of many, lay the foundation for what would become Vargas' ambition: to change perceptions of Latinos by spreading awareness of the vast diversity and sophistication of their culture.

"They don't know who we are or what we know, what dreams, aspirations we have in life," said Vargas, who at the time was studying English and broadcast journalism at Columbia College while working as a busboy and taxi driver to make ends meet. "People discriminate not because they are bad human beings per se, but lack of awareness, and then they become so used to it."

Vargas' primary vehicle of cultural evangelism has been the Chicago Latino Film Festival, which this spring marked its 27th year. Founded as an initiative of St. Augustine College in 1985, when it consisted of 14 films projected onto a concrete wall and viewed by some 500 audience members, the festival has grown under Vargas' leadership to a $1.2 million project with 120 films, 35,000 attendees and galas at premier Chicago institutions.

From his modest four-person office in River North, Vargas, a soft-spoken 59-year-old with a wreath of graying hair, also organizes the fall Chicago Latino Music Festival (think Mexican cellists, not mariachis) and brings Spanish-language films to the Movies in the Park summer program.

Born poor in the Colombian town of La Mesa to uneducated parents, Vargas said he was inspired to a life of culture after befriending a wandering "gypsy" family in the town plaza, who were materially destitute but well-read.

Other plot twists of his life have a similar made-for-movie aura.

He ran away from home at 11, enrolling in school thanks to kindly adults and his own wits while he worked the night shift as a hotel doorman. He got his law degree in Argentina, but his leftist leanings made it too dangerous for him to stay as the Dirty War got under way. With the help of the Panamanian Embassy, he escaped on a cargo ship.

After teaching law in Colombia and living for a stint in Mexico, Vargas, eager to learn English, made it to the U.S. on a six-month tourist visa, which he long overstayed. He was among the thousands of illegal immigrants granted amnesty in 1987.

For almost a decade, Vargas has dreamed of opening a state-of-the-art center in downtown Chicago dedicated to celebrating Pan-Latino music, dance, movies, poetry and food.

"It is in the differences that we find the wealth of the culture," Vargas said.

Q: What do you consider your biggest mistake?

A: I have trusted people who have betrayed me. I was not able to read behind the appearance to the meaning of their actions.

Q: What is the one secret to your success?

A: I don't have any personal interest in what I do. What I do makes me happy, but I don't have a personal stake on this. I am selflessly doing what I do.

Q: What would you say is your greatest attribute?