Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 | 2 a.m.
For more than 50 years, Moctesuma Esparza has watched the progress of racial equality from a front-line position.
In 1968, he played a leading role in organizing a series of student walkouts at East Los Angeles high schools to demand equality for Hispanics in Southern California’s public education system. The protests have been credited for helping launch efforts nationwide to achieve social justice for Hispanic Americans.
Five decades later, Esparza remains involved in activism and community service as the head of Maya Cinemas, which builds movie theaters in low-income areas. His company’s $75 million, 14-screen cinema in North Las Vegas is under construction and is scheduled to open late this year.
Esparza also is a movie producer whose credits include the popular films “Selena” and “Gettysburg,” along with a 2006 HBO documentary about the 1968 protests. In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Esparza will present a screening of the documentary, titled “Walkout,” at 6 p.m. Tuesday at North Las Vegas City Hall.
During a recent interview with the Sun, Esparza discussed his local project, his personal history and offered an optimistic message about the future of American social justice. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow.
What interested you in Southern Nevada?
I’ve been looking for communities that are underserved from an entertainment point of view, where people have to drive outside of their community to go see a movie or to have a quality, sit-down family dinner. I found that there, communities in virtually every population center had been bypassed, where development had gone to the suburbs and the inner cores of these cities were now underserved.
I saw that as both an opportunity from a business point of view, and as an opportunity for public service.
You’ll have a lot of competition for movie-goers. What makes your theater a good fit?
A lot of it is location, because there aren’t any movie theaters nearby. And we offer quality and value — our movie theaters would be comfortable in the most affluent part of your valley, without a doubt. We show everything everybody else shows, and we do it first-run. We compete with (the major cinema companies) and we do very well.
Let’s discuss your history of social activism. How did it begin and how did it evolve?
My dad was 49 when I was born, so I grew up being treated almost like an adult. He had conversations with me that were substantive, so I got his view of the world and an understanding of what social injustices had occurred. So his heroes became my heroes, which included Francisco Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, the architects of the Mexican Revolution. These were all people who were powerful in transforming the world and who had a social conscience.
What were some early examples of your activism?
I was blessed in that I came under the tutelage of a priest named Father John Luce, who was an exceptional man and had dedicated himself to public service. He introduced me to the United Farm Worker Union and Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and he drove a group of us to Delano (Calif.), where I participated in the historic march in 1965 from there to Sacramento. I also participated in the picketing of Safeway stores when they were carrying grapes that were non-union.
What was your progression from there?
I graduated from high school in 1967. There were 300 students in my school when we started. One hundred fifty graduated. Only four went to a four-year college, and that was the highest number at that time at my school.
There were simply no people who were university-educated professionals to speak of as role models to Mexican-American students in the 1950s and 1960s. I learned that only 2 percent of Latinos went to college at that time, while the number for Anglo-Americans was about 40.
So I set about joining with others to find out what our community thought about it.
We found that people knew what was happening to them, but they accepted it because they didn’t think there was an alternative.
Which led to the walkouts.
The students would take their grievances to their principals and their principals would ignore them, and they would go to the school board and they would ignore them.
The students this time said, “No, we’re going to shut down the schools.”
What have been the biggest strides since then?
In many ways, they’ve come straight out of access to education. When I went to UCLA, there were 30,000 students, and I and a group of six or seven others who formed the first Mexican-American student group there counted every registration card. And we identified 40 Mexican-Americans.
Today, there are about 38,000 students at UCLA and about 9,000 Mexican-Americans and Latinos. There’s also a professional Latino class, which did not exist 50 years ago. There are elected officials, including senators — something we never would have dreamed of.
Why have you maintained your commitment to activism as part of your business model?
It’s good business. If people have a good experience and are respected, they go where they feel good. And that’s our goal: For everyone, no matter what their background, to have a good experience.
How are you feeling about the social climate today and the divisive rhetoric and policies coming from the Trump administration?
I have a perspective of having lived through this before, and I take solace from the fact that the country and its institutions are strong and will survive this.
It’s the arc of history that I rely on — that Native Americans are no longer being exterminated, that African-Americans are no longer being enslaved, that Mexican-Americans are no longer being killed for their land, that we are no longer segregated and everyone gets to vote. It may take a long time, but the arc of history is forward, toward the realization of human values.