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VIDEO STORYTELLER MARIO Custodio’s childhood was at times terrifying. Yet through the angst of his upbringing, Custodio discovered his future.

Custodio’s parents immigrated from the Phillipines to the United States. When Custodio was five, his father left. When he was in second grade, the family became homeless. His mother, who had suffered years of spousal abuse, found herself alone with four sons, including five-year-old Marlo, and nowhere to turn.

“That was my childhood,” Custodio said. “This not knowing where we’re going to be, are we going to be okay. That was the trauma I dealt with and what I would later channel as a way for me to have empathy, work hard and have a work ethic.”

Custodio turned his struggles into strengths, sharing stories about those who have contributed to San Jose’s rich multicultural history as a way to build bridges between communities.

From a Filipino tattoo artist to a Vietnamese eatery owner, the 32-year-old brings the people and cultures portrayed in his video documentary series “This is San Jose” to life. In sharing these untold stories, he strives to educate as well as entertain.

“Having people who have been through struggles themselves and faced the hardships of inequity … for them to share the beauty of their community, that’s what is really powerful.”

Mario Custodio

“I believe storytelling can change the world,” Custodio told San José Spotlight. “If I can increase empathy, maybe people wouldn’t see us as others, but as their neighbors.”

Custodio considers it his responsibility to teach others about the contributions of Asian Americans and other ethnicities in San Jose, as well as the racism and discrimination they’ve experienced, especially after COVID and the rise of Asian American hate crimes.

Raj Jayadev, founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, sees Custodio as a change-agent with a vision to uplift the community.

“Having people who have been through struggles themselves and faced the hardships of inequity… for them to share the beauty of their community, that’s what is really powerful,” Jayadev said. “It’s not only the story he tells, but that he’s born from these stories. What he’s been through with his life and family gives him an inside perspective in communities that are struggling and whose stories need to be told.”

Overlaid with music and dynamic editing, each episode of “This is San Jose” focuses on a local business owner or leader. The viewer learns about Humble Beginnings Tattoo owner Orly Locquiao, who immigrated with his family to the United States from the Philippines when he was two years old. Locquiao grew up in East San Jose and named his tattoo business Humble Beginnings because he never wants to forget where he came from. Another video features Victor Le, owner of On a Roll, who has a passion for Vietnamese cooking and a desire to continue the traditions his mother taught him.

Marlo Custodio filming his wife Joanlia and their son Nehemiah Rome. Marlo said he wants to leave behind a legacy of empathy. (Photo by Lorraine Gabbert/San Jose Spotlight)

Real life behind the lens

Custodio’s video journalism first ignited in 2003 as a freshman at Evergreen Valley High School when he took an international relations class. Although it was a stressful time with the absence of a father, his family’s financial hardships and a growing awareness of discrimination and injustice, he discovered a way to express himself through his teacher’s video camera.

At age 16, he connected with Silicon Valley De-Bug and learned the power video can have on educating the community about social inequalities. He explored the disparity of resources in the Bay Area and tried to bring attention and accountability to local injustices.

“Living in the shadows of Silicon Valley gave me this fire,” Custodio said.

It was after a statement by San Jose Councilmember Nancy Pyle during a June 2007 meeting where Custodio truly found his calling. After residents testified about police brutality, Pyle said, “Don’t look like a gangbanger if you don’t want to be picked up for being connected with a gang.”

In response, Silicon Valley De-Bug held a protest in front of City Hall the following week and staged a fashion show featuring street clothes as part of “the Nancy Pyle Collection.”

That was Custodio’s first introduction to community activism and the experience set the tone for his storytelling.

Marlo Custodio enjoys sharing stories about those who have contributed to San Jose’s rich multicultural history as a way to build bridges between communities. (Photo by Lorraine Gabbert/San Jose Spotlight)

People were mistreated because of who they were, he said, adding this was way before the Black Lives Matter movement and smartphones recording everything on social media. Back then, the police tased first and asked questions later, he said.

Custodio experienced this firsthand as an 18-year-old high school student. After a string of robberies hit Evergreen, he was eating fast food in a vehicle with his girlfriend when a police officer arrived on the scene. The officer told him to get out, but being scared and confused, he didn’t comply immediately. Custodio said the policeman became angry, grabbed him and threw him out of the truck.

“What’s going on? I know my rights,” Custodio said, but the officer tased his chest and hit him in the neck. Custodio’s mother and brother arrived shortly afterward and tried to go to him, but were restrained by the police. After it was all over, the family faced charges and ended up in court.

“It was very traumatizing,” Custodio said. “It broke my family apart during those years. The best way to deal with what happened to us was to channel that energy to support others.”

Videographer Marlo Custodio takes his work to heart, fighting for social justice through storytelling. (Photo by Lorraine Gabbert/San Jose Spotlight)

The path forward

Custodio learned oral storytelling at De Anza Community College through the Vasconcellos Institute for Democracy in Action and studied film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz. After school, he continued making video documentaries, including a music video dedicated to a family whose child was killed in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting.

It took first place at Adobe Youth Voices and its success secured Custodio a full-time video job with city-funded Underserved and Gifted, which became SJ Digital Arts. He later collaborated on the “This is San Jose” video series in conjunction with the city’s economic development department. The promotional piece celebrates the city’s diverse ethnicity.

As his storyteller talents grew, so did his ambitions. He started a video production agency, NEEBA — Needs Emotion and Empathy for Beliefs to Awaken—and through it is creating a new series, “San Jose Narratives.” In one video, an elderly couple stays young by working with youth at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. At Quimby Oak Middle School, two girls become captain of the school’s wrestling team, with one winning the county championship. And in a third, a boxing coach trains top fighters to win titles.

To date, Custodio has produced 100 music videos and 50 commercials. He wants to leave a legacy of San Jose’s rich history and culture, and said he is just getting started.

“I’m in love with the craft,” he said. “There are still so many stories I want to tell.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at lorrainegabbertsjspotlight@gmail.com.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.