Alumni, NHI Award Winners
Dallas filmmaker Merced Elizondo named 2021 NHI Person of the Year
In a year where a lot of people needed respite from what the world was dishing out — when even a movie theater didn’t provide the same kind of retreat it did before the COVID-19 pandemic began — an NHI alumnus brought a film into the world that told a beautiful story and showed his potential as a filmmaker.
While Manos de Oro is Merced Elizondo’s current claim to fame, he believes it will serve as a stepping stone to his ultimate dream: a full-length feature film he’ll release by the time he’s 30. But the film is an impressive calling card that’s opening doors for him, and it’s a testament to why he’s being honored as the 2021 NHI Person of the Year.
Though Elizondo, 27, has a life that’s pulling him more and more to Hollywood, and he travels there more regularly now, he still calls Dallas home. As he asserts, “I’m a proud Texas filmmaker, I am a proud Dallas filmmaker even more so, and I want to grow in that way.”
And part of what shaped his experience growing up and developing into the proud Texas filmmaker that he is today is the experience he’s had in what is now NHI-North Texas, starting with the 2009 Texas Great Debate at Austin College, where he was part of the Dallas team.
“It was the idea that I could be better and see growth and become a better public speaker,” he said regarding why he initially came to NHI. “To become a better orator, better communicator, and I could see myself literally just day by day, week by week, meeting by meeting, start to become stronger, more literate, more confident in my level of communication, and just in my confidence as a whole.”
But something else happened along his NHI journey — which included an LDZ experience, a CWS experience, coaching and mentorship with NHI-North Texas in his college years, and involvement that has included a November 2020 North Texas Alliance fundraising event. He came to know the people involved with NHI as friends and mentors, and felt fortunate to be among them.
“They’re the best of the best at what they do, and to have those kinds of examples that I didn’t have before, coming where I come from, was something I had never been exposed to,” he said about the people at NHI. “I have some friends for life that I’ve made in this organization that are still friends of mine,” adding that it’s been a gratifying experience to see NHIers evolve from the young, eager students at Great Debates and LDZs to their present selves.
“It’s a beautiful feeling to be able to foster these relationships at such a young age and watch all of us grow together,” he asserted. “They are mentors, they’re people who are the best of the best at what they do, whether it’s politics, business, the creative arts … they push me to be better.”
He also noticed, when Manos de Oro began to make the rounds at festivals, winning a Lone Star Film Festival award, the Best Short Film award at the Tomorrow’s Filmmakers Today program, and accolades from reviewers, that NHIers were especially supportive. Indeed, they were among the most supportive people to rally film fans to the 33-minute movie — unusually long for entries to the short film category in film festivals. The film tells the story of a former mechanic who attempts to regain his identity as a working man with purpose after dealing with debilitating arthritis.
“It’s been a huge conversation starter for people,” he said of the movie that bolstered his reputation as an up-and-coming filmmaker. “It’s opened up relationships with sons and fathers [talking] about their relationships, and it’s just been a beautiful, beautiful thing to see that this film … is not just a movie, it’s a conversation starter. People want to engage with it, people seek it out. People want me to talk about it because of its themes. That’s been beautiful.”
Directing the movie also tested the leadership abilities that he honed through NHI — something that the film’s star, Julio César Cedillo, noticed from Elizondo’s initial outreach through an Instagram direct message to seek his involvement in the film.
“He has these leadership qualities that I find just amazing,” Cedillo observed. “Having all these great people around him that are working with him on this film, it was amazing to watch him as a leader, because he wasn’t about ego. He was always seeking the truth.”
“He had a vision and he was hoping that they would follow him in that vision,” Cedillo added, “but he did it through respect.”
Elizondo noted that NHIers’ excitement about a talented Latino director and writer in their ranks has helped grow interest in Manos de Oro as it moved from its final edits to the festival circuit.
“The cool thing about the friends and almost family that I’ve made with NHI is that if I’m ever sharing anything work-related or anything about my movies, or just any work that I do at all, they’re usually the first people to share my stuff. They’ll come to set, they’ll come visit me — I’ve had NHIers visit me when we made Manos de Oro. And it’s nice, it helps spread it through word of mouth.”
That’s especially important for Elizondo now that he’s looking toward his next short film — The Mourning Of, a 15 to 20-minute teaser known in the film industry as a “proof of concept” short film, to show potential for overseeing the full-length feature film he knows is in him.
He terms the goal to have that first full-length movie out by the end of 2024 as a “self-imposed deadline,” tied to getting it out before September 4, 2024 — his 30th birthday.
“There’s no rhyme or reason as to why,” he admits to the make-it-by-30 goal. “It is just sort of a milestone that I’m setting for myself, and I think we can. But I’ve seen stories where people take five or six years to get their first feature made. But you know, assuming you make one really good one that does well, the idea is for it to start to get a little easier to get the funding for the next one. It’s just getting that first one off the ground. That is always the most impossible thing to do.”
Like Manos de Oro, The Mourning Of is a from-the-heart exercise in storytelling, though one that he notes “tackles one of my biggest fears — death — and the experience of grief and how grief can manifest for someone after suffering an unimaginable loss.”
It already has an IMDb page announcing its pre-production status, promising to be about a woman who “grieves the loss of her mother by secretly attending the funerals of strangers,” yet whose “inability to move on has finally caught up with her.”
There’s a parallel between NHI’s journey from its milestone year when Elizondo first became involved and where it’s at now, and where he hopes his career goes from the plateau of Manos de Oro to even greater heights.
“I was involved with the organization since year 30 of NHI, the 30th anniversary, NHI Treinta. And that was a big deal; the organization was pretty sizable at the time. And it’s really awesome to see that, effectively over a decade, since first having done my first program, this organization has grown stronger, more robust, and even more committed to the values that have remained consistent throughout the years.”
Reflecting in particular on the fundraiser he was part of more than a year ago in the midst of the pandemic, he added, “That’s a testament to North Texas, and that’s a testament to NHI, that we’re going to persevere no matter what, we’re going to let our voices be heard, we’re going to get these kids the support that they need, we’re going to get them to be involved in these programs.”
“And given the experience that we’ve all been through, because we know how valuable it is, how important that is … it’s an awesome thing to see that we’re still kicking, we’re still vibrant in the community, we’re still getting out there to raise funds, to recruit involvement, and asking alumni such as myself to come back and either donate our time or resources. I think that’s super important.”
He then added, “This organization boasts some of the smartest, if not the smartest people — the most intelligent, creative, unbelievably talented folks I’ve ever come across ever, period.”
Elizondo joins an NHI Person of the Year roster that includes Lina Hidalgo (2020), Arturo Elizondo (2019), Carlos Paz, Jr. (2018), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (2017) and Humberto Saenz (2016).