Five years ago last month, Joseph Vasquez, the son of two heroin addicts from the South Bronx, won honors at the Sundance Film Festival for Hangin' With the Homeboys, a comic coming-of-age movie that he wrote and directed. ''We were hugging and dancing with each other in a circle at the celebratory party afterward,'' recalls Janet Grillo, a former executive at New Line Cinema who helped the movie get made. ''It was like the world was Joe's oyster.''
It was not. Hollywood's infatuation with inner-city chic was about to collide with a damaged soul someone for whom mean streets were not just a movie but real life. In December, Vasquez died of AIDS-related complications in San Diego at age 33, penniless and in the throes of severe mental illness his dream of becoming a major movie director and screenwriter in ruins.
Vasquez began his downward spiral shortly after the release of Homeboys, which many thought would be his springboard to bigger movies. Instead, he made only one more film, 1994's little-seen Manhattan Merengue (it has only been shown in festivals). He turned down more commercial Hollywood projects and began suffering from severe manic depression, which had apparently dogged him in milder form for years. He started to believe he was Jesus Christ and was hospitalized several times.
After Vasquez died, some of his associates mourned him as a casualty of fast-track, big-time filmmaking, victimized for his refusal to sell out. Others, who had hoped Vasquez would be the next Spike Lee, say he seemed determined to alienate the people who could help him get ahead. Did Hollywood hang the homeboy, or did Joseph Vasquez, a troubled man with a tough background, simply self-destruct?
''I remember the day they were brought to me it was two days before Kennedy died,'' says Bertha Vazquez, 79, seated on a plastic-covered couch in her small apartment in East Harlem, surrounded by framed photographs of her grandson Joseph and his two older brothers. ''Tito and Tony were 6 and 4, but Joe... Joe was barely 10 months old.''
Joseph Vasquez and his brothers were given to Bertha on a cold November day in the South Bronx by a friend of Dolores Vasquez, their mother. They came with hardly any clothes; Joseph was covered with just a blanket. Both Dolores and Joseph's father, Fermin, were using heroin. ''I went there once and the older boys were in the street unsupervised,'' says Mrs. Vazquez. ''Joe was in his crib with a soiled diaper while his mother and her friends sat around in the living room.''
Dolores Vasquez disappeared not long after Bertha, Joseph's paternal grandmother, began caring for the boys. She moved to San Diego with another man and had two more sons. Dolores saw Joseph only rarely after that. (Joseph's father, who saw his sons occasionally, died of a drug overdose in 1985.)
Despite such a bleak beginning, Vasquez thrived in his grandmother's home. When he was 12, he got hold of a relative's Super-8 camera and began what would become a lifelong obsession. ''He used himself and his little friends as actors,'' says Mrs. Vazquez. ''I brought him a projector one Christmas. Every Saturday he'd show his movies to the other kids. He always said he wanted to be a director.''