‘Selena’ producer Moctesuma Esparza opens fifth movie theater for underserved Latino communities ‘That Magic Johnson had done this was an inspiration to me,’ says Esparza, who also produced ‘Introducing Dorothy Dandridge’
Growing up in the Laurel Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, award-winning Mexican-American filmmaker, producer, entrepreneur and activist Moctesuma Esparza could walk to three movie theaters.
“Every neighborhood in the country had a great theater. … All died in the ’90s and closed,” he said. “It left many communities without any nearby entertainment venues at all, because the multiplexes went to the suburbs and then the megaplexes went to power centers and huge power malls, and the inner cities and the working-class communities and rural communities were left pretty much without any first-class entertainment.”
So it’s no surprise that was the motivation behind Esparza opening his fifth theater in Delano, California, as part of his Maya Cinemas chain. Now having produced some of the most prolific Latino and black films of society’s culture, he’s preserving a home for those moments. Maya Cinemas was chartered in 2000 to develop, build, own and operate modern, first-run megaplex movie theaters in underserved, family-oriented, Latino-dominant communities.
“Seeing that Magic Johnson had done this was an inspiration to me. The fact that he did it also encouraged me that I could do it,” Esparza said. “I’m honored that I’m able to bring a quality, beautiful, state-of-the-art cinema to a working-class family community like Delano, California. We’ve got theaters in Bakersfield, Fresno, Salinas, Pittsburg, now Delano. We have another theater under construction in north Las Vegas, Nevada, and we’ll soon be in Texas and Arizona. Our goal is to be everywhere that’s underserved.”
The grand opening event included more than 500 attendees, activists Dolores Huerta and Paul Chavez, United Farm Worker leaders and community leaders. It’s been 10 years since Delano residents have seen a theater in the area. The new development provides a $20 million real estate investment, as well as jobs for the community and, of course, first-run, quality movies for the whole family, a mission that’s dear to Esparza.
Esparza is revered for his contributions to the movie industry and his commitment to uplifting and preserving Latino communities. He has been nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award and Emmy Award and has received more than 200 honors and awards, including a Clio, the John F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Ohio State Award and a Cine Golden Eagle.
He was one of the 13 indicted students who organized the successful 1968 student walkout in East Los Angeles aimed at improving substandard public education for Latinos that focused on training them to be manual workers, not professionals — the premise for the 2006 HBO movie Walkout.
Before producing iconic films such as Selena starring Jennifer Lopez, HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry, The Milagro Beanfield War, Gettysburg and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, he was a community organizer and a student at UCLA in the 1960s. Deeply engaged in civil rights, he helped found a campus organization called M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán) while focusing on establishing diversity in the university’s education, history, Spanish and social work departments.
“Somebody in the group [M.E.Ch.A.] said, ‘Why don’t you go look at the film school [in the] theater arts department?’ There was an African-American professor there who recruited me onto a campuswide research study on the images of minorities in media back then, and of course, the report came back that there were very few images and the few that existed were all negative.”
Unimpressed by the numbers, he wrote a proposal to create a program called Ethno-communications and submitted it to the film department. He recruited a diverse array of students (four African-Americans, four Asian-Americans, four Native Americans and four Latinos) and staged a sit-in in the dean’s office until it was approved.
“Happily, we didn’t have to sit in too long,” Esparaza said. “The dean was very progressive, and we created this program Ethno-communications.”
Esparza spoke to The Undefeated about his iconic career, his role in civil rights, his Maya Cinemas and the lack of minority, especially Latino, representation in the film industry.
What inspired you to open your very first cinema?
About back in 1987, I was doing a premiere for my movie, The Milagro Beanfield War, that Bob Redford directed, and we did premieres in 20 cities across the United States, and I had convinced Universal that we should do benefit premieres that would be for education for scholarships in the Latino community. I went all over the country and I discovered that there were no quality, first-run venues in any Latino community of the United States, which was really amazing. Ten years later when I did the same thing with Selena, we did 50 premieres, and this is now in 1997. I saw that even the second-run theaters had closed. I saw that there was an opportunity to bring back entertainment to these communities that love movies.
What was behind your decision to bring the story of Selena to the world?
When she, tragically, was killed, I was thinking about, should this be a movie? For a while, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see how to tell the story in a constructive way, and I was afraid that Hollywood would want to get into the tragic gore, the crime. I shied away from it, but it was my daughter, who was a big fan of Selena, who insisted that I needed to go after this story and produce the movie. She kept giving me the music and gave me a documentary about her and gave me a couple books that were written about her, and I finally had an inspiration. But I must credit my daughter, which is that I saw that a movie could be made about the struggle for the American dream of a family. The Selena story was a family story, and when I saw that, then I saw, ‘Oh, this is how we can tell the story. This is how we can make it inspirational and turn this tragedy into something that can inspire people.’ My UCLA classmate, Gregory Nava, saw it as well, and so his script and directing completed the mission.
How did you ignite the idea for Introducing Dorothy Dandridge?
I had focused on doing important documentaries, historical pieces, on people of color, and there was a period there where it was, frankly, easier for me to get a movie about African-Americans made than about Latinos.
I had already done a movie called Selma, Lord, Selma and I did another movie called The Sweetest Gift with Diahann Carroll, and I’d done another movie called Butter, and so when the opportunity came up to do a movie about Dorothy Dandridge — who I had loved as a teenager, she had just such an incredible presence, and her film career had been so inspiring for everybody who was a person of color — I jumped on it. My partner and I went after putting the project together and happily, we were able to get HBO to step up and finance it with Halle Berry, and Halle was very, very important. Her saying yes made the project go.
How was it to executive produce a movie that you were actually a part of history for?
I had worked on it [Walkout] for 20 years, and it was one of my early goals with the document the Chicano civil rights movement, which is very little known yet profoundly impactful to all of the 60 million Latinos in the United States because that one moment back in March of ’68, when 20,000 high school kids went out on strike, really did transform the possibility for education for Latinos. We had tremendous support from all the folks that were engaged in a struggle for civil rights. I got arrested, I faced my jail, indicted by the grand jury, and I remember being in the jail at downtown Los Angeles, Parker Center, and hearing all the people marching around Parker Center at City Hall, chanting.
It was inspiring to us because we knew that we were sacrificing and fighting for something that was worthwhile. Later, I saw news footage and photographs and I saw all the folks that we had historically been working with had come out and were supporting us. Black Panthers were there in force, and people from all the various civil rights organizations were there supporting us, the ACLU, and so it was inspiring. There was a moment where we all came together to support each other.
What message would you like to send to young Latino Americans?
We all have a common struggle for human dignity and human rights and we’ll succeed together, not separately, so we all need to work together and recognize that it’s a human struggle, and that’s what I’m committed to.
What inspires you now, and how has that changed from what inspired you 20 years ago?
It’s the same thing. I made a commitment when I chose this as a career that my goal was to transform the image of Latinos and to explore what it is to be human, and so I’m still doing that. In doing that, I’m also looking to inspire and support the next generation of filmmakers. We’re launching a program at our movie theaters that independent filmmakers who haven’t been able to get a theatrical distribution, as long as they have a film that’s watchable, we’re going to play it.
We’re going to support them, and we’re starting that program because it’s very difficult for people of color, Latinos in particular, to make a movie. And if they do make one, because I see about a dozen independent movies a year, it’s very difficult for them to get distribution.
When will you launch this program?
We already have. We have a little comedy called Taco Shop that we just played in our theaters, and it’s available at home video, so if you’re audience out there, it’s an urban comedy. If you love Cheech & Chong, you’ll love this. It’s got a multicultural cast, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s the story of a taco truck and a taco restaurant who are having their little war.