Since the 1960s, he has been producing
cultural programs for radio, television, films -- a catalyst for positive change
Interview with Moctesuma Esparza
From the L.A. High School Walkouts to "Selena"
and "The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca"
Interview by Victor Payan
Los Angeles / San Diego, California
The San Diego-Baja California Latino Film Festival /Cine '98 presented award-winning producer and community activist, Moctesuma Esparza the "Cine '98 Award". "Mr. Esparza's exemplary career not only advances this genre of filmmaking, but serves as a model for rising Latino filmmakers."
Moctesuma Esparza, a native of Los Angeles, has worked diligently to recruit minority students to enroll in film and television departments at area universities, and has taken special interest in teaching motion picture and television production techniques to Chicanos and Chicanas. He was guest lecturer for "The Use of Media" at the University of California, San Diego, and a media and film consultant to the Chicano Studies Department, University of California. Since the 1960s, he has been producing Chicano cultural programs for radio and television, films for Infinity Factory, Bilingual Children's Television and Sesame Street. Esparza's inspiring work has been a catalyst for positive change.
His films have garnered more than 100 awards and some of these include: Cinco Vidas, Emmy Award winner; Survival, Ohio State Award; Drunk Drivers Get Carried Away, The Clio Award; and Agueda Martinez, Academy Award Nomination. The highly successful Esparza-Katz Productions produced the film Selena, The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca and The Rough Riders, a four hour mini-series for TNT.
Other film credits include: The Cisco Kid, Gettysburg, A Bowl of Beings, Caliente y Picante, The Ambulance, The Milagro Beanfield War, The Telephone, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, Radioactive Dreams, Borderlands, La Raza Series, Celebracion, A Working People, The Alien Game, A Political Renaissance, The Future Is Now, Celebration of Love: The Venegas Family, Only Once In A Lifetime, Infinity Factory and Villa Alegre. Mr. Esparza's next projects include: The Cesar Chavez Story, The Dorothy Dandridge Story, A Piece of the Sky, Hopalong Cassidy and The Way Things Are.
On March 3, 1968, Mr. Esparza was a key figure in the organization of the historic and highly visible Los Angeles high school walkouts. Twenty thousand Chicano students protested educational injustice with peaceful resistance, and walked out of class. Mr. Esparza has since dedicated his career to providing access and opportunities for Latinos in Hollywood.
Victor Payan: Tell me about your background and how you came to be involved in the L.A. high school walkouts.
Moctesuma Esparza: I'm a first generation Chicano and my dad came to the United States in 1918, basically out of the mass migration of Mexicanos coming out of the Mexican Revolution. I grew up with a strong sense of social justice and the reasons for the Revolution, along with a history of the United States and of Mexico. During the period that Pershing was invading Mexico, my father experienced the occupation of Veracruz by U.S. Marines, and the hunger and dislocation this caused. So that was a background to my social formation. As I was going to school here in the United States, the contradictions of what I learned at school and what I learned at home, created tremendous tension in my life. I was blessed with a father who engaged me in political conversations, and because of my father's acute political education and understanding of historical forces, I was cognizant very early of the contradictions that existed in this country. At the same time, I was an admirer of the Bill of Rights and what this country's Constitution represented. It created a tremendous conflict in me, and I grew to be a very angry young man; angry at the injustices that existed for our people here in this country.
Victor Payan: And I'm sure you saw this anger brewing in your peers.
Moctesuma Esparza: There was a very small group of people who organized the walkouts and created the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. But we ignited a firestorm that was ready, because that anger was below the surface of thousands and thousands of students.
Victor Payan: What were some injustices you remember from going to school in the late sixties as a young Chicano.
Moctesuma Esparza The contradictions, hypocrisies and lies of the history of the nation provoked a certain anger. There was the obvious social injustice of living in the country as Chicanos and Mexicanos, all being programmed to become laborers. None of us were being programmed to enter college. There was a realization that the drop-out rate was not our own failure, but that of the system which preprogrammed us. The failure on our part was we bought into it, and we accepted that was all we could do.
Victor Payan: At this time there were student conferences being organized to address these issues in which you played a role.
Moctesuma Esparza: Our goals were to reform the schools so they would no longer push out our classmates, and would provide us an equal education and true history of our contributions to the country. That led to an effort in communicating with the school districts which proved futile. They just patted us on the head and told us to go on our way. So we needed to take a radical step and decided, a very small group of us, to organize the walkouts of March 1968, which were in the planning stage for about a year. Those walkouts resulted in 20,000 students going out on strike for a week in Los Angeles, and had echoes in the Southwest and throughout the United States. The outgrowth of course was repressive reaction from the school authorities and the government. Thirteen of us were indicted and I faced forty-five years to life in jail, on charges of conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor. Charging us with a conspiracy, made it a felony. I was eighteen at the time.
Victor Payan: So you knew the issue was not the fact you had walked out. There was something bigger at stake. Given the paranoia in the country during this period, how were issues like the walkouts, the death of Rubén Salazar and Oscar Acosta's run for Sheriff viewed by the press?
Moctesuma Esparza: Well, of course, that we were un-American. That we were outside agitators in our own community. That we were ungrateful, and that "they" were doing the best they could for a population that really didn't have (what it took) to succeed. My actual role in the walkouts was as a liaison to the press, calling press conferences, organizing them and giving interviews. That led me to become much more involved in media.
Victor Payan: What was your career goal at the time?
Moctesuma Esparza: My career goal was to become a community organizer and a political activist.
Victor Payan: Well, I think you kind of are, in a different setting you're organizing films.
Moctesuma Esparza: Yes, that's what I later realized. In college I was asked to organize a conference on the role of media in the lives of minority communities. We organized the Media Urban Crisis Committee, and made the recommendation that there should be minorities in film school, third world people in film school. From a history major I went into film school, deciding it was an expedient way to get my degree. I really had no intentions of being involved in the film industry. Once there, however, I was convinced that I could become a film producer because that's what I did in life was organize. I organized the filming of a speech by Reyes Lopez Tijerina at UCLA, and a symposium where he, "Corky" Gonzalez, Luis Valdez and Dolores Huerta were brought in. Then I organized a student cooperative to film the Moratorium March of August 29th, 1970. That of course became a police riot in which Rubén Salazar was killed, and that became my first documentary which I produced, Requiem 29.
Victor Payan: Those must have been very exciting years.
Moctesuma Esparza: Well, they were truly a gift in many ways because they allowed us something to struggle against, and when you struggle against something, you grow. You define and know who you are, and you know what your goals in life are. The life of luxury, although certainly very attractive, does not generally provide one a context for struggle or growth. I believe today we have many parallels to thirty years ago with the xenophobia surrounding (propositions) 187 and 209 here in California, and the anti-immigrant bashing going on all the time. There is a new generation of first generation Chicanos and Latinos here in the country experiencing pretty much the same sort of things we did thirty years ago, that our parents and grandparents experienced before us.
Victor Payan: And that includes struggling against an industry which demeans and keeps us invisible.
Moctesuma Esparza: When I finally decided this was going to be my career, I chose to take on the role to transform our image, not just in the United States, but in the world; to transform an image Hollywood had created which was stereotypical and demeaning, into an image of us as a people, as human beings of this land, who have something special to offer this country and the world, along with the rest of the native people of this continent.
Victor Payan: After UCLA, you worked on Sesame Street.
Moctesuma Esparza: I was very fortunate. Sesame Street wanted to include some bilingual segments in their programming, and I was asked to consult and help design that. I made some short films and that led to my having some experience in early childhood and bilingual education. Upon graduating from film school, I was fortunate to become the producer for the very first pilot and season of Villa Alegre. That set the pace and tone for what it was going to be. The series was nominated and won many awards, including the Peabody. I went on as an independent film producer of documentaries for about ten years.
Victor Payan: You produced a documentary (Agueda Martinez) which was nominated for an Academy Award.
Moctesuma Esparza: Yes, I knew that to get into the feature film business I would have to penetrate Hollywood. Since I had no role model and there was no such thing as a "Chicano producer" in Hollywood, I had to establish a track record of quality. The fields I was able to get into were children's programming and later documentaries. So I knew these had to be of a standard and quality that would win awards. I also learned that a movie has to be made for a market, and film is truly the marriage of art and commerce. There has to be a recognition and nod to both sides in order to succeed, to have people see your film and to have any impact on consciousness. I chose to make a movie with a genre that could support that, a western, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez. It took me three, four years to recover from the first film and be able to do it. I got a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the sale to American Playhouse.
Victor Payan: From your work with PBS, you learned the model and language for writing a project grant to be funded by the NEH or the NEA.
Moctesuma Esparza: Yes, one of the things I learned early in life was that to establish rapport or communication with any segment of life, you have to understand the language. You have to understand how people hear, how they listen and what particular vocabulary exists in that world. In essence, that has been one of the keys to progress in my career and in the work I've done. I've been very careful to learn the language of commerce, the language of the studios and the language of PBS.
Victor Payan: Right, which doesn't necessarily change your vision but just provides a bridge.
Moctesuma Esparza: That's correct. I'm able to communicate what I care about in a way they'll hear me. For example, the protest movement was the only language that could succeed when we started, because we wouldn't be heard no matter what. But this is a different time and circumstance, so different tools are required. The protest movements existing today, exist in a particular situation where that's the only thing that'll get heard. It's a question of understanding what's appropriate to each moment.
Victor Payan: And speaking those multiple vocabularies, because in Hollywood the pitch is everything. If you can't get past that hurdle there's nothing.
Moctesuma Esparza: When Gregorio Cortez was made, I took a completely different path. I didn't go to Hollywood but to the National Council de la Raza, an organization that would obviously hear the importance of creating positive images of us. I enlisted them in a partnership to develop a series of films. With a grant from the Endowment of the Humanities we acquired five properties and actually made two of them, With a Pistol in His Hand by Americo Paredes, which became Gregorio Cortez and The Milagro Beanfield War, acquired in '79. Gregorio Cortez was finished in '81 and Milagro Beanfield War went into production in '86. It took a while, and that was the function of getting to amscreenplay (director) Robert Redford, the studio and I were all happy with. Redford was an incredibly talented filmmaker, and had a heart and feeling for this material. So I made a decision to stay with him, and I'm very pleased with the movie.
Victor Payan: The whole issue as a producer, I think, is bringing the right people together at the right time for the right project.
Moctesuma Esparza: Absolutely!
Victor Payan: The Milagro Beanfield War was a major departure from your work in public television.
Moctesuma Esparza: Yes, I've done three important projects with PBS, Villa Alegre, The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez and Culture Clash's Bowl of Beings for Great Performances. Primarily, I've focused on and found it easier to work in a commercial world. Decisions were reached more quickly and motivations and behavior patterns, in many cases, were more direct and on the surface. If one could figure out what people wanted to buy and what their motivations were, it was a lot easier to achieve one's goals of getting something sold.
Victor Payan: Were the '80s, the so-called "Decade of the Hispanic", a good decade for Latino film in your opinion?
Moctesuma Esparza: In the '80s Luis Valdez wrote and directed La Bamba, I did The Milagro Beanfield War, Cheech Marin did Born in East L.A. and Edward James Olmos did Stand and Deliver with Ramón Melendez. Those were important films with economic success, and they had a certain promise of change in the marketplace. La Bamba is still number one, the highest grossing Latino feature film. Not even A Walk in the Clouds has grossed more. Born in East L.A. was very profitable for the price it was made. Earlier in the decade you had El Norte which also was profitable. But what happened was all these filmmakers did not get a second opportunity, right away. I'm not quite clear why that happened, and I don't believe that is true now. From Fools Rush In on one end, to Mi Familia and Selena on the other and Desperado somewhere in the middle, all these films were economically successful. All had a Latino family or story at the core, and all of those filmmakers are moving forward with their careers in important ways. There's a whole new generation of filmmakers coming up, and I believe they'll multiply very quickly. We'll no longer have a situation where there's only one, two or three Chicano filmmakers that I, as a producer, could go talk to. Soon there's going to be a dozen, just like the growth pattern that occurred with African-American filmmakers. Now there is undeniable acceptance in Hollywood of the market for Latino-themed films. Selena, I think, finally finished that argument. In the late '90s, there is now a real opening.
Victor Payan: The first day of the film festival is March 3, the 30th anniversary of the walkouts. Looking back at your career in the thirty years since then, what is your proudest accomplishment?
Moctesuma Esparza: I feel very fortunate to have achieved a significant number of my goals in life. I'm now having to invent new goals and am doing just that. This is a time of acceleration in technology, in world politics and socially, as well. To think that in one generation we could bust down the barriers of access to education, politics, economics and market power and participate in a completely different way, is from an historical point of view, quite amazing. Thirty years ago we thought thirty years would take far too long to achieve anything. We wanted to do things immediately, and thank God for the energy that naiveté of youth gives one. I feel extraordinary achievements have been made by my generation in thirty years, because it's now truly possible for people to achieve their dreams, and not feel they are pipe dreams; but apply themselves and achieve them. I certainly have done that in my own life and I see it as a reality, not just for exceptions, but for the depth and breadth of our community.
Victor Payan is an award-wining writer and humorist whose work has appeared in El Sol de San Diego, the San Diego Union Tribune and Pocho Magazine. He recently served as associate producer for the upcoming PBS series The US-Mexican War: 1846-1848. You can usually reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in In Motion Magazine - May 21, 1998
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