What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


Imagine the Producer of Selena Belting Songs from Damn Yankees

Moctesuma Esparza Considers His Life One Outrageous Occurrence After Another

August 21, 2015

Moctesuma Esparza, a filmmaker and entrepreneur, has produced movies including Selena, Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and Gettysburg. In 2005, he established Maya Cinemas, a chain of movie theater complexes dedicated to the U.S. Latino market. He also founded the Los Angeles Academy of Arts and Enterprise Charter School. Before participating in a discussion about how to film the Mexican-American story, he talked about reading Russian novels in 9th grade, the movie theaters he frequented as a youngster in L.A., and an extraordinary filet of sole that his father once cooked for him.

Q: What teacher or professor changed your life, if any?

A: My drama, English, and speech teacher at Lincoln High School changed my life. His name is Tom Telly. The first day of school in ninth grade, in the English honors class, he brutalized my name and somewhere I got the gumption to correct him. I got up and pronounced my name correctly. He said, “I want to see you after school.” Immediately, I thought I had made a mistake. He enrolled me in three classes with him a day. All of a sudden, I was taking English, speech, and drama with him every day. And as a consequence, I ended up reading all of the books of the Russian authors. I was reading The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace. I read all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays. I was comparing Petrarchan sonnets to Shakespearean sonnets. A deep connection to literature and storytelling came from my experience with him. I discovered I had a voice. I loved acting and was in plays. He recommended me for a summer stock program, where I was in a whole bunch of musicals. I became a song-and-dance man.

Q: Which was your favorite musical to perform in?

A: Damn Yankees, because I had supporting role: Smokey. I got to sing, “You Gotta Have Heart.” The worst one—that also changed my life—was Paint Your Wagon. My role was in the first act, the first scene. I was dragged across the stage. My line was, “It wasn’t me. It was that dirty Mexican across the hill!” And then they hanged me.

It confirmed for me that it was not possible to have an acting career at that point and there was a certain stereotyped view of Mexicans that I had never had to confront quite so starkly. And so the irony that I was given that line and had that moment was profound.

Q: What’s your favorite holiday?

A: The most challenging holiday, as well as most fulfilling, is Christmas Eve, because my wife and I have an open house and hundreds of people have been coming to our home for 40 years. We have an extraordinary spread of extraordinary Mexican food. It pulls us together as a family and it connects us to the community.

Q: What movie made you want to get into the movie business?

A: I think that The Battle of Algiers profoundly influenced me because it showed me how powerful a movie could be in affecting people’s commitment to action and in documenting a struggle in a way that made people human. I could feel compassion and sorrow and anger and have this deep sense of emotional commitment to, and experience with, these shadows dancing on the screen.

Q: How do you like your steak?

A: Alive and walking around. I am a vegetarian.

Q: What was your favorite movie theater growing up in L.A.?

A: I had two. The Million Dollar and the Los Angeles. The Los Angeles because it’s so gorgeous and so beautiful. The Million Dollar because I got to go backstage and sit on the lap of “Tongolele” [the stage name of Yolanda Montes], an extraordinary exotic dancer. Of course, I was only 6 years old then.

Q: What’s your least favorite freeway?

A: I don’t have adversarial relationship to Los Angeles traffic. I’ve surrendered. I’m at peace. Traffic does not get an emotional reaction from me.

Q: Your dad became executive chef at the famous La Scala Restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1950. What was your favorite dish he made?

A: I really didn’t get to experience that much of his cooking. But there was this beautiful sole that he prepared once for me that I still remember: It was lightly floured and then cooked in a little bit of butter and wine with a few capers. It was extraordinary.

Q: What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?

A: My whole life seems like one outrageous occurrence after another. It’s strange I’m a movie producer and a movie mogul of sorts and I owned cable TV system and movie theaters and grew up as poor as a mouse. Executive chefs were not recognized in the ’50s—they don’t have the notoriety they have today. [My father] was a guy in the kitchen.

Q: Do you prefer making movies or watching movies?

A: I love movies. I love watching them. I love the experience of being able to create them. I am also wary of them because they’re so powerful in affecting the subconscious. This morning I was thinking about a character in Game of Thrones almost like he was someone real that I knew. And I caught myself—what’s the matter with you? This is a fictitious symbol of a make-believe process that is three times removed from reality and I’m treating it like it’s real.

*Photo by Aaron Salcido.