Moctesuma Esparza: A life of film dedicated to Latinos
AL DÍA News spoke with Moctesuma Esparza, the well-known film producer and entrepreneur of Mexican descent who founded the Maya Cinemas chain, about the challenges of being Latino in the United States.
Moctesuma Esparza, born in East Los Angeles in 1949, speaks exquisite Spanish, fluid though slow and deliberate, with a light Mexican accent — it’s difficult to believe that he was born and has lived nearly all of his life in California’s biggest city.
“What happened was that one day when I was 7 years old, returning home from school, I began to talk to my aunt in English. She then slapped me and told me: ‘Speak to me in Christian.’ And that’s why I still speak Spanish well,” the recognized Mexican-American filmmaker recalled during a phone interview with AL DÍA to discuss his life and professional achievements.
His days spent growing up in a humble home in Los Angeles are now far behind him. Today, Esparza is one of the most respected Hispanic audiovisual producers in the United States and the founder of Maya Cinemas, a chain of multiplex cinemas designed for the Latino community that opened its fifth movie theater in Delano, California, in May.
“Latino communities have been left without movie theaters. And that can’t be,” Esparza explained. “The tradition of going to the movies with the whole family is very rooted in our culture.”
Since its founding in 2000, Maya Cinemas has focused on opening multiplex cinemas in cities throughout California that have high Latino populations, like Delano, an important center for grape growing with more than 70 percent of the population identifying as Latino/Hispanic. The inauguration of a Maya Cinemas location in Delano — a project that cost $20 million— is especially significant, because the town happens to be the birthplace of Cesar Chavez, the famous agricultural activist and advocate for civil and labor rights for immigrant workers.
In 1944, just before he was forced to enlist in the Marines and fight in World War II, Cesar was arrested in a movie theater for having sat in the section reserved “for whites” and refusing to move to the section designated for Mexicans, Filipinos, and African Americans. His act of resistance ultimately achieved an end to segregation in the city’s movie theater. After returning from his Marine service, Cesar and the Mexican-American activist Dolores Huerta formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later became United Farm Workers (UFW).
“The commitment to civil rights and [fighting] social injustice for Latinos in the United States was something I inherited from my father,” Esparza said. His father was a Mexican immigrant who arrived in California in 1918, fleeing the revolution occurring in his country.
“My father taught me to be proud of my Mexican identity, a culture rooted in the United States from ancestral times,” he continued. “Many territories in the U.S. Southwest were at one time part of Mexico — something that many U.S. citizens ignore — and he told me that it was intolerable that we were treated like foreigners,” adding that “he taught me to be proud of my heritage.”
Esparza’s father also passed on his entrepreneurial spirit to his son. After arriving in Los Angeles, his father, who in Mexico had been a farmer, started out with a job as a dishwasher and eventually worked his way up to be a chef.
“He came here fleeing the war, looking for a new life — everything that has attracted people throughout the world to this country, now and 100 years ago,” said Esparza, who was left without a mother when he was very young and was raised by his father and his Mexican aunt, “she of the slap,” who didn’t speak a word of English.
Spanish was always the language spoken in Esparza’s home, different from generations to come, in which “many parents decided to change to English with their children to avoid the prejudice and discrimination that they themselves had been victims of,” recounted Esparza.
“That would explain why many young Latinos in the United States today do not speak Spanish well,” he said.
Esparza remembers that in his free time, his father would take him to wander through the center of Los Angeles, looking for movie theaters showing films in Spanish.
“Monday was his day off, and we spent all day watching Argentinian movies, films from the golden age of Mexican cinema,” Esparza said. “Through film, I got to know the Mexico in which my father grew up. And so began my passion for cinema. First as a filmmaker, and now as a businessman who brings film to the Latino communities in the United States.”
Moctesuma was the first in his family to go to college. He studied film and performing arts at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) and while there he became involved in the Chicano student movement of 1968, inspired by the philosophy of his father to be proud of his Chicano and Mexican roots.
After graduating from UCLA, he worked for a time writing bilingual scripts for the popular children’s show “Sesame Street,” and later began to produce his own shows and movies, from the successful “Villa Alegre” (PBS), to films like “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988) with Robert Redford, or the well-known musical “Selena” (1997) featuring Jennifer Lopez.
It was while he was preparing a marketing campaign to promote the Robert Redford film (co-produced with Universal) that Esparza realized that there were no quality movie theaters for Latino communities, “not just in Los Angeles, but in any large city in the United States, like New York or Chicago.”
“That opened my eyes,” he said, recalling how he began to incubate the idea for Maya Cinemas 30 years ago. According to Esparza, in the ‘80s and ‘90s many movie theaters in the center of the city began to close with new movie theaters opening in shopping malls, usually situated in the wealthy suburbs of the cities and thus farther removed from Latino neighborhoods.
“When I was a child in Los Angeles, I could walk to three movie theaters from my home. In the ‘90s they were all closed,” recalled the filmmaker.
In 2000, Esparza decided to make his business idea a reality. After four years of searching for the necessary support and a suitable location, and contending with bankers to convince them that it was a viable business venture, in 2005 Esparza opened the first Maya Cinema in Salinas, California, “famous for being the birthplace of Steinbeck, but also for being an agricultural center with a large community of Mexican immigrants who come to work in the fields,” he explained. “It was a success,” he added proudly.
Maya Cinemas opened its second multiplex cinema in 2009 in Bakersfield, another well-known agricultural and oil center in California’s Kern County with a sizable immigrant population; a third in Pittsburg, close to Oakland, in 2012; and the fourth in Fresno in 2015.
The movie complex in Delano, opened just two months ago, has a sentimental significance for Esparza because when he was a student he had “the privilege” to participate in one of Cesar Chavez’s advocacy campaigns for farm workers in 1966.
“Cesar Chavez denounced the lack of housing, the low salaries, the lack of protection for women…” Esparza recalled. “He denounced all of the deplorable conditions in the fields of the most powerful country in the world.”
In November, Maya Cinemas plans to open its first cinema complex outside of California in Las Vegas. Its expansion plan also includes the possibility of opening locations in Dallas, Texas, and the company is also searching for sites in New York, Chicago, and other cities throughout the country.
Although the original idea was to create a movie theater chain for Latino communities, Esparza is happy to be able to say that the movie theaters “have become the favorite of everyone that lives nearby, whether they are Latino or not, because they are the highest quality, the most luxurious ones,” the entrepreneur affirmed, admitting that everything that makes his movie theaters “special” is not so much their specific billboard featuring Latino movies and/or movies in Spanish as it is the quality and service.
“Many people - due to political propaganda and Hollywood - think that all Latinos in this country are immigrants. But in reality, about two-thirds of Latinos were born in the United States. They speak English and they want to see everything that they offer in Hollywood in English,” he said. “Because, in truth, Hollywood is the most powerful cultural force in the country.”
In the Maya Cinemas locations, there usually are always one or two theaters showing Latin American films in Spanish with English subtitles. In the rest of the rooms, they show North American productions.
“The tragedy is that there is very little Spanish-language cinema that is distributed in the United States,” Esparza said. “But what makes it here, we put on the program.”
Esparza understands that an immigrant recently arrived to the United States, whether they are from Venezuela, Mexico, or the Dominican Republic, “who still conserves the culture, tradition, and gastronomy of their countries for a while and wants to watch movies from their country or in their language, for example,” is very different from Latinos who were born in the United States.
“The American culture of the masses unites the sons and daughters of different Latin American countries under one identity: Latino/a,” he said.
And so begins this new identity, that has been solidifying within the last 25 years, “growing and uniting the children of immigrants in one [identity],” Esparza said. “It’s a sociological and cultural phenomenon of great force.”
Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia, Cubans in Florida, Dominicans in New York, Latinos of Central American heritage… “all identify themselves with one another, they have something in common, beyond daily life in English,” Esparza said. “It’s clear that being a Latino is a North American identity - not Mexican, not Puerto Rican. It’s understood only in the U.S.”
To make it more clear, Esparza draws on the example of having chosen an actress like Jennifer Lopez - Chicana, born in the United States - to portray the singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez in his film.
“An actress from Mexico or another Latin American country wouldn’t have known how to capture the experience of being North American,” he said. “Latinos are distinctly from here, we aren’t foreigners. To be from the United States isn’t one single identity: it’s not the same, being Texan, or from Mississippi, or from California, or Latino.”
According to Esparza, a government like that of Donald Trump, with its discourse of discrimination towards Latinos, “only does us a service, because it helps us unite,” he said. “Trump is a man of prejudices, and is ignorant, without knowledge of history… he is the foreigner, for me.”
Esparza himself, born and raised in the U.S., admits that the struggle for Latino rights is far from over. “As a filmmaker, as a businessman, I have had to struggle all of my life against these prejudices, to pave the way for myself,” he said.
Esparza also acknowledges that California is more advanced than other states in this sense, taking into account the fact that Los Angeles has already had two Latino mayors and there are generally Latino political candidates represented in elected positions at all levels.
“But there is still much to do, above all in the film industry,” he noted. “Sixty years ago, we Latinos were 4 or 5 percent of the population, and we represented about 2 percent of roles in Hollywood and on television… Ironically, we now make up 18 percent of the population, and we still are represented by the same percentage [on the screen].”
His commitment to the Latino community led Esparza to open the Los Angeles Academy of Arts and Enterprise Charter School two years ago to promote the study of art and business for youth growing up in the city with few resources. He also serves in diverse public institutions and social organizations focused on helping the Hispanic community. Apart from that, there are the Maya Cinemas, which have brought cinema closer to the Latino community.
“My movie theaters are successful because they provide an opportunity to continue a very Latino tradition of going out as a family to enjoy, to find enjoyment of life together,” said Esparza, who doesn’t see going to the movies as being in competition with platforms such as Netflix and HBO. “On the contrary, I think that [those platforms] do us a favor, because they promote entertainment and the desire to keep up with the latest news and trends.”
The entrepreneur laughs heartily when asked if his movie theaters offer special snacks for Latino families. “Popcorn, nachos, and Coca-Cola,” he said. “And where do you think popcorn and nachos come from? From Mexico, just like chocolate.”
Before saying goodbye, Esparza gives one more message: “As Latinos, we have to support one another. When a film comes out about us, we have to support it. When someone goes into politics, we have to support them. And it’s important to enjoy life, apart from just surviving. That’s why I create movie theaters. For me, enjoying life is also a civil right.”