Moctesuma Esparza grew up in East L.A. in the 1950s — a sometimes-hostile era of limited opportunity for minorities, he said.
“There was a way of being that affected people of Mexican descent in the United States,” said Esparza, 69, whose Maya Cinemas chain is set to open a theater Jan. 10 in North Las Vegas. “It was kind of an accepted notion that people of Mexican descent were going to be workers. Growing up, I saw almost no professionals — no doctors, no lawyers. There was almost no aspiration that one could have that was supported by anything I could see in the world.”
The East Los Angeles native said he was exposed to a different world when he took his father to see Mexican movies at theaters.
“I saw a world where it was possible that I could be the hero, that I could be the one who struggles and overcomes,” he said. “It’s from that that my love of movies and storytelling evolved.”
During his teen years, Esparza joined political efforts to advocate for Mexican-American civil rights. He was one of the organizers of the 1968 Chicano Blowouts in East L.A., a series of youth-led protests in which Mexican-Americans demanded equal educational opportunities.
His father’s influence and his political activism led him toward becoming an award-winning producer, entertainment executive and entrepreneur, always focusing on the needs of minorities, he said. In 2005, he founded Maya Cinemas, which has five theater complexes in the Los Angeles area that are aimed at serving Latino-centric communities. Both Latino and mainstream movies are shown.
“Our entry into Nevada and North Las Vegas is the first time that Maya has left California,” Esparza said. “In Las Vegas, most of the movie theaters and amenities are attached to casinos. So families don’t have a choice about how they get to present this kind of entertainment to their children.”
North Las Vegas Ward 1 Councilman Isaac Barron said he was ecstatic when he learned who had purchased the lot in front of City Hall. He initially believed it would serve as a stadium for a soccer team.
“It was extremely shocking to find out it was Moctesuma,” Barron said. “I’m also a teacher at Rancho High School here in North Las Vegas. One of the classes I teach is Latin American history. Moctesuma comes up in my lessons all the time. When he came to visit me, I couldn’t believe I had this living legend riding around in my car.”
Barron was enthusiastic about the theater’s ability to attract other new businesses downtown, adding that it’s “an amenity we’ve never had.”