Filmmaker Dante Alencastre ’83 Found Love and CliffsNotes

Dante Alencastre ’83 is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and LGBTQ community activist based in Los Angeles. His filmmaking and work on the boards of L.A. arts organizations and political groups focuses on the community’s overlapping transgender, Latino/a and gender-non-conforming sub-tribes. In 2018, Alencastre became the executive director of the California LGBT Arts Alliance.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I arrived on campus in the fall of 1979, three years after I immigrated from Lima, Peru; my language skills were good but not that great. I didn’t move to campus until the spring of 1980 because I thought I wanted to commute from my mom’s apartment in the Bronx — a mistake that was easily corrected. I had been a straight-A student in high school, but I was ready to experiment and have fun on campus and down in the Village. Music, movies and theater were my passions but as a pre-med student I was overwhelmed by all the requirements. I changed my major in my junior year after failing to pass basic calculus.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

After living at my mom’s I moved to a dorm on 120th Street; I don’t remember the name. I had a room with 2 beds, but I was the only one there. All the other rooms were occupied by transfer and graduate students. I enjoyed my privacy; for the first time, I had my own place.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

Lit Hum was a favorite, but I was too scared to read the assigned novels all the way through because I still didn’t have 100 percent command of the language, and using a dictionary was so time-consuming. One day a classmate who knew how I was struggling took me to Papyrus for CliffsNotes, and that was a godsend. Later in my life I regretted not having read all those books in their entirety. I read the plays and shorter literary works, but not the longer works. Eventually I changed my major to French, and I had to read long novels again, but now in French. And without CliffsNotes.

Did you have a favorite spot-on campus, and what did you like about it?

I remember hanging out at Ferris Booth Hall and sitting outside The Pantry a lot. The pool and the gym on campus were also favorites spots. But my most memorable place was outside Havemeyer, when in the fall of my sophomore year I dared to kiss a guy from my French class, and I liked it. Never looked back!

What, if anything, about your college experience would you do over?

I have been told that the monthly gay dances [at Earl Hall] were a lot of fun, but I never went to one. I preferred hanging out in the East Village with my friends at the Pyramid Club and Danceteria. There is where I found my tribe.

I have always described my first two years at the College as a laboratory — I was experimenting with my studies, my sexuality, my ideology, and with love and friendships.