Making Films and History

Latino Filmaker Moctesuma Esparza makes Latino films the Hollywood way

By Jim Smith
Published on LatinoLA: April 5, 2004

Making Films and History

Since the early 1970's, his work in the movie industry has led to altering the image of Latino characters in film, from the stereotypes of bandit and gang members to a portrait that is more varied, candid and realistic.

While a pride in the Latino contributions to American history, he might cite the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, with a ship sinking and others hesitating, the Latino Rear Admiral David Farragut called down from the rigging the rallying cry, "Damn the torpedoes-full speed ahead!"

With perhaps less bravado, but with equal enthusiasm, the prominent Latino businessman and filmmaker Moctesuma Esparza, visiting Philadelphia, offered a similarly invigorating message promoting Latino work in television, films and news, during a two hour meeting with two of Philadelphia's most active Latino media, Juvencio Gonzalez, Director of the local Hispanic Media and Tony Leon, a former television news technician and currently on documentary work.

Despite some successes on local television news, and nationally, with such programs as the "George Lopez Show," and the future production by Jimmy Smits of "Dreamers," the paucity of Latino actors, writers and directors on mainstream television and films is described as "shocking," by a UCLA researcher.

While the Latino population in the U.S. has swelled to nearly fourteen percent of the population, the largest minority in the nation, they make up just four percent of the characters on prime-time television, according to a recent UCLA study.

Moreover, as the nation's cities are becoming increasingly diverse and multi-ethnic, just six percent of the characters on Detective/police programs are Latinos, noted a critic, a failing to "reflect current realities."

A former Chairman of the New American Alliance, which promotes the economic advancement of the Latino community, and a founder of the National Association of Latino Independent Film Producers (NALIP), Mr. Esparza was in Philadelphia to deliver the Keynote address for the prestigious 2003 Chief of Staff Retreat of George Mason University's Mercatus Center, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

Widely acclaimed as the producer of such films as "Selena," the portrait of the life and tragic death of the charismatic, Grammy award winning "Tejano,' singer, starring Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos, the producer was lauded by Mr. Gonzalez as a "mentor and role model for all young Latinos."

A deep appreciation of American history led Mr. Esparza to the 1993 production of the civil war epic, "Gettysburg," which included a cast of Tom Berenger, Sam Elliott and Martin Sheen. An earlier film project,

"The Milagro Beanfield War," starring Ruben Blades, Melanie Griffith and Christopher Walken, in what was described as a "magic-realistic" style told of the struggles of poor farmers against wealthy developers. Mr. Esparza conceded the film was vilified by critics who had an aversion to director Robert Redford.

Yet, some critics have praised the uplifting comic/drama as "unheralded" and an "overlooked gem," that remains unavailable in DVD. While making the film Gettysburg, and living in Pennsylvania, Mr. Esparza recalled discovering a small enclave of Mexican-American farm workers, "living in terrible conditions."

"It was a real eye-opener to me," said the producer, adding, that "the conditions were worse than anything I'd ever seen in California." "It was really awful," he continued, noting that the "ramshackle housing" lacked any heat. Mr. Esparza went on to note that it was the actor Martin Sheen who had initially "found the colony," and began to visit them on Sundays, "which was his day off; bringing blankets, jackets and boots, because the folks were freezing."

"Martin (Sheen) was very inspirational," said Mr. Esparza, noting that even after the movie, he continued to make "substantial donations," through a Catholic Church.

After alluding to the absence of Hispanics on network television, Mr. Esparza recommended that Mr. Gonzalez and Tony Leon should promote the most recent addition to television, SiTV.

Beginning February 25th, the SiTV network, founded by Jeff Valdez, the producer of "Brothers Garcia," began offering exclusively Latino programming in English language, with a particular appeal to the rapidly emerging young Latino market, ages 18 to 38.

While noting the numerous Spanish language television stations around the country, Mr. Esparza stressed, that what makes the SiTV network "unique is the all English format."

Because, if you look at who we are, "much of the immigrant population may prefer Spanish language television, but, the Latino youth across the country get their entertainment in English, going to see Hollywood movies, and they really don't like (Spanish language TV.) The Latino youth don't think it's the same quality, and it isn't the same quality," said Mr. Esparza.

"So SiTV will be the first channel to change that. It's not about language, it's about culture." When questioned whether he ever wanted to produce Spanish language films, Mr. Esparza replied, that "My (entire) career has been in Hollywood, as part of the mainstream. In order to change the image of Latinos, you've got to be in Hollywood.

If you are making programs in Venezuela, Puerto Rico or Mexico, that doesn't really impact the image of Latinos in the world. The only thing that impacts on the image of Latinos around the world is Hollywood."

Otherwise, Gregory Nava, a UCLA classmate, "would not have created American Family, or George Lopez the George Lopez Show, that are giving a new image the rest of America and the rest of the world."

The entertainment executive proceeded to diverge briefly on an historical rumination, noting that much of the culture that went into producing the great western movies of John Ford and others, derived from Mexico, specifically citing the language, such as Lasso and Rodeo, as examples of the impact of Hispanic culture.

While acknowledging the importance of Hollywood, Mr. Esparza conversely admitted that technology has changed the nature of the movie business, removing many of the "barriers" to making films.

"The wonderful thing about the digital equipment is that anyone who has talent, with very little money, can now demonstrate that talent with a short film."

Among the many organizations established by the producer, Mr. Esparza is especially fond of the work performed by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP).

With their national Conferences and local educational initiatives, the organization provides Latino producers, directors and writers- from twenty- six states, as well as from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Canada- an opportunity for "networking, showing their work and making friendships," said Mr. Esparza.

"The conferences enable a director to find a writer, or a producer to make contact with a network executive." In urging Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Leon to form a local chapter of NALIP in Philadelphia, Mr. Esparza explained, "This is why we created NALIP, with the focus on getting things done and getting films made."

With NALIP providing tutelage, Mr. Esparza allowed that local filmmakers would have a better grasp of the basic elements of "how to get things done." A recent participant in NALIP's local week of training in Tucson, Arizona, Director, Mirtha Vega praised it, said "I feel inspired and armed with a wealth of knowledge."

"We need to start doing our own thing," Tony Leon agreed. Along with producing, Mr. Esparza is involved in developing multiplex theaters around the nation, that would reserve one screen for Hispanic movies, similar to Latino theaters of the 1930's-60's.

Again, Mr. Esparza turned to the lessons of history, recollecting the pivotal military and financial role of Latinos from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba in supporting the American revolution, asserting, that "The United States would not exist were it not for that economic and military support."

"Our ancestors have as much claim on the creation of this country" as anybody, he said. Adding, "How would our children feel (to learn) that we are responsible for (the birth of) this country?"

About Jim Smith:
Free Lance Writer. Originally published in El Hispano Philadelphia.

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