Moctesuma Esparza’s Road to Empowerment Activism, Education and Hollywood

By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

It was the 1960s, when the Vietnam War and the movement for civil rights had turned the country upside down. Moctesuma Esparza, now owner of Maya Cinemas, belonged to a group of high-performing students who gathered regularly in the basement of the Church of the Epiphany in East Los Angeles to discuss literature and social justice.

It was in this church, led by Rev. John Luce, that some of the most important organizing in the Chicano movement was born. It was the cradle of the Brown Berets, a group of young Mexican Americans who came together to address a plethora of issues that included the farmworkers’ struggle, police brutality, a dearth of jobs for young people, and poor quality education. It was the newsroom of La Raza Newspaper, a bilingual publication that provided a platform for the Chicano movement. It was where the 1968 student walkouts were hashed out. 

It would take Esparza almost 40 years to make a movie from of those experiences, he told a group of Salinas educators who gathered in his movie theater in Salinas last month. But his road to empowerment began with education, and the theater’s scholarship program is one way to continue promoting that empowerment, he said.

“Our goal is to promote education,” he said. “I got a career in Hollywood and so did Gregory Nava, Luis Valdez; we got an education that gave us the training and the tools to break through.”

In an address to a local chapter of the California Association of Latino School Administrators, Esparza wove not just his story into this history, but that of several other prominent Californians whose careers were also catapulted by the Chicano movement of East Los Angeles. 

Under the tutelage of Rev. Luce, Esparza and his peers came to understand that all the accolades they were getting for their academic accomplishments would mean nothing if economic and educational opportunities were not extended to more students like them.

'We were being favored at the expense of everyone else, and I could not live with that'

‘The more we were acknowledged, the more we discovered we were window dressing and that we were being favored at the expense of everyone else, and I could not live with that,” Esparza said. “

This small group all became extraordinary people, but what we all understood was that although we may have had some exceptional opportunities, that they were meaningless unless all our community had access. That I could not achieve in life unless Chicanos and Chicanas had dignity and respect, and that was one of the things that moved me and why we organized the walkouts and risked our lives.” 

Esparza was charged with conspiracy for his participation in the 1968 student walkouts as one of the “East L.A. 13.”  His involvement made him persona non grata in certain educational circles, and when he tried to apply to graduate school in political science — he thought he was going to lead a life of organizing — he was turned down. 

But by then, Esparza had helped transform several education departments at UCLA to make them more accessible to Chicanos. A professor in the film department told him, “You have it all wrong. You’re a producer.” And that’s how he ended up with a film degree. 

During his 40-year career, Esparza produced such films as “Selena” with Jennifer Lopez, “The Cisco Kid” with Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin, “Gods and Generals” with Jeff Daniels and Robert Duval, and “Gettysburg” with Tom Berenger and Martin Sheen. Robert Redford called him up when the legendary actor realized Esparza had the rights to a book he wanted to make into a film. Esparza and Redford teamed up to make “The Milagro Beanfield War,” which Redford directed and Esparza produced. 

After nearly three decades of making films, Esparza realized “it was going to be difficult to continue to have kids that were 20, 25-year-olds say ‘yes’ to me to make movies. I decided I needed to find a new way to empower the community and the next generation of filmmakers, and you’re sitting in it,” he told the audience. The way he saw it, being a cinema empresario would be another vehicle to improve Latino representation in films. 

Salinas, as it happened, was in dire need of being rebuilt. When Esparza brought his idea of opening a movie theater in Oldtown Salinas, the 100 block of downtown was a barren landscape of shuttered storefronts and empty lots. The area was still reeling from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and it was hard to attract investment. But Esparza was ready to start his chain, and Salinas needed new energy in downtown.

“I saw possibility, I saw the city was willing to commit their resources to put in a parking structure,” he said after the presentation. “I was looking for a place to invest. I had no track record to build, this one was the first one.”

Salinas was the first of six movie houses he built throughout California and the Southwest that altogether have 80 screens, and the company is still growing, he said. His goal now, as it was when the first Maya Theaters opened in 2005, is to have a chain of movie houses where independent Latino films are played. And truly, where else could you have seen “A Day Without a Mexican,” “Instructions Not Included,” and “Under the Same Moon” on the big screen?

“I’m going to need you to create a film club here, so if I book a young filmmakers’ movie that no distributor wants, you show up so it can make a little bit of money, so that those filmmakers can be the next generation,” said Esparza. “Because the tragedy is, I’m still the only one. There’s no other Chicano producer in Hollywood even today, no one who’s had a career or looks like they’re going to have a career like I do, and that can’t be. I’m still a prisoner unless that changes.”

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.