That is the $64,000 question left unanswered from last night’s Zocalo Public Square ‘ideas exchange’. For over forty years Moctezuma Esparza has paved the way for successfully producing Mexican American films, and he himself asked the question why there aren’t more producers leading the charge today. The launch of the series, “What it Means to be American” co-sponsored by leading government cultural institute, The Smithsonian was held at the Arclight Cinemas followed by a free cocktail reception – to better create community as Zocalo Public Square founder Gregory Rodriguez aptly joked. Moctezuma Esparza, Maya Cinemas theater chain owner and producer of over 40 movies including Selena, Walk Out and Milagro Beanfield War was joined by the fiery Luis Valdez, renowned playwright and founder of El Teatro Campesino. The two, who have known each other since the 60s, were candid, humorous, and proud of their accomplishments. Throughout the course of the talk, they challenged the audience of content creators to keep going, upwards, strong, and to have the courage of their convictions. Luis was, as expected of a wordsmith, full of passionate statements (“We carry within us the legends of the Americas and those stories are not being told”) while Moctezuma in his own elder statesmanship style gave insightful historical references relevant to today’s climate of Latino representation. Both of them asserted there is no use waiting around for “Pendejos” to greenlight your stories. At times the panel drifted from the What it Takes to Film the Mexican American Story theme, nonetheless, it was always entertaining. I could listen to Luis’s tangential anecdotes all day; the time his Frida movie with Raul Julia got fucked because he cast Laura San Giacomo as Frida and Latinas caused such an uproar causing New Line to ax it, his childhood growing up 5 miles from McFarland Texas and the time he went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still at the ol Mac, which changed his life. We learned that Esparza’s legacy doesn’t stop at the iconic films he’s produced. He is the founder of charter school Los Angeles Academy of Arts & Enterprise in the Pico Union area, and is successfully expanding Maya Cinemas, providing state of the art sound and projection theater experiences to decentralized Latino communities in Salinas, Bakersfield, Pittsburg and now in Fresno. What’s most illuminating about listening to these pioneers is understanding the political context as well as their unique trajectories. By pointing out social precedents that factor into the Hollywood culture, a greater understanding emerges of what led to their glorious era of iconic Mexican American representation’ in films like La Bamba, Mi Familia, Zoot Suit, Stand & Deliver. What isn’t understandable is why these universally appealing yet culturally specific storylines have not reigned since, let alone continue to be seen widely in TV and film. The closest we can gather is the status quo shakeup theory that the sheer size of a remarkably growing population of Latinos threatens, or perhaps is being unconsciously resisted by a media gatekeeper culture scared of changing to reflect the cultural fusion that dominates our reality…..until they figure out how to easily exploit the money making value. What does legalizing interracial marriage have to do with the subject at hand? Luis mentioned the 1967 anti-miscegenation law in response to a woman who asked ‘When will the change of gatekeeper guard happen’. The Supreme Court decision was the result of decades of protest that took place against this reinforcement of segregation. It takes a while but if we identify the problem of disparity and engage in personal and social activism to change it, like financially supporting content that represents us, or petitioning government to put in place a law protecting equality, it will happen. This last comment reminded me of the current ACLU drive to mobilize the government to investigate the studios/networks’ embedded discrimination against women directors through biased hiring practices. Esparza mentioned stars that he looked up to growing up like Ricardo Montalban, Anthony Quinn, Katy Jurado, Jose Ferrer were allowed to emerge as stars because of the national interests during WWII. The U.S. was courting Mexico as an ally, afraid of the tentacle reach of Stalin and Hitler. I never thought about it that way. Esparza noted there is nothing comparable on television today representing heroic Latino culture from the past referencing I Love Lucy, Cisco Kid, Zorro, The High Chapparal. When it came to addressing the distorted representation in the years after WWII and short lived 80s/90s heyday, Moctezuma intelligently observed the ‘aspirational representation’ malady; the persistence of mass media to perpetuate a so called perfect but homogenized image and story stream. Mainstream has long re-appropriated other cultures for the hip factor, and after decades of interracial lovemaking our Millennial generation finally, perhaps unwittingly, disrupts this one perfect image, owning their multicultural identity on a whole new (digital) level. When asked about writing what you know without fear of being criticized by your own community of perpetuating stereotypes, Luis answered to be ready to defend yourself. “You’re not any good if you aren’t being criticized”. Moctezuma referred to the backlash he got for casting a Puerto Rican (J-Lo) as Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, a Mexican American. After months of open call auditions he decided Jennifer Lopez was the best one for the role. Or as to why he chose Robert Young to direct The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, he answered that he wanted Eddie Olmos to star in it, and Eddie wanted to be directed by Young. Makes sense to me. Spreading cultural sensitivity is necessary but lets be wary of firing displaced attacks without considering the context.. We have no right to demand how artists realize their vision. Wanting to work with the best actor, director, cinematographer etc. is valid. But when systemically marginalized minorities don’t have the opportunity to access creative, entrepreneurial mentorship and funding they are at a deficit and hence scarcity. Only thing you can do is invest your time, sacrificing your livelihood at times, to practice your artistic craft. As Luis pointed out he writes plays all the time. That’s how he got into the movies. Plays are scripts for movies. So write. I want to point out here that this advice is for every single filmmaker regardless of color. WATCH: Luis Valdez 1969 short documentary, I am Joaquin, which Moctezuma Esparza credits as being the reason he got into film.
Maybe there aren’t more power producers like Moctezuma Esparza passionately fighting for producing Mexican American stories because the traditional social and business infrastructure that he broke through is kaput. Its the accelerated acculturation and proliferation of new media that makes this defensive and recurring “Why aren’t there more Latino stories in film and TV” conversation an unproductive and tired framework. The real work is developing talent and distribution pipelines. Latino content creators are out there telling their stories on their own terms through multimedia channels they own. In the end, its about confidently voicing your personal perspective, honing your signature craft, and being open to new channels that directly connects with audiences. What hit home for me personally was Luis talking about immigration being two ways. He expressed his honor of having the National Theater Academy of Mexico Bellas Artes perform his play Zoot Suit (noting the hilarity of teaching Chilangos to be Chicanos). For him to be embraced that way by his origin and to know that he can work in Mexico and be appreciated as an uncompromising artist representing his distinct American identity is something he takes great pride in, as he should. To inhabit both worlds completely yet define my own bi-cultural American identity (and nurture storytellers by helping them find a platform) has been my journey, and in the last few years more so as I’ve collaborated with my Mexican colleagues in The Morelia International Film Festival and now Ambulante. Ultimately, I think that’s what being American is all about. #MasAmerican Check out Zocalo’s upcoming events including next week’s “Is LA’s Past Worth Saving”. Free admission but reservation highly recommended.