The road to becoming a movie producer was not clear nor simple for Moctesuma Esparza.
The award-winning producer, entertainment executive, entrepreneur, and community activist spoke recently with Fresno State students about his life and the road to becoming the person he is today.
Esparza was honored on Oct. 25 by Fresno State University on the 20th anniversary of his film ‘Selena.’
“I come from a very modest, working-class family,” Esparza told students during a morning Q &A session last week at the university’s North Gym.
Esparza’s father was a farmworker who came to the United States in 1918, who worked on the railroads, and ended up being a dishwasher, and then a cook, Esparza said, adding that he grew up in the barrio of Boyle Heights in Los Ángeles.
“My family has been on both sides of the border for hundreds of years and I identify with Dreamers,” Esparza said. “I got cousins that might come cross the border without documents tomorrow, and I got cousins that have been here for a hundreds of years.”
“For me is a one large area – North America, that is home to all of us,” Esparza said.
How did he became a movie producer
During high school, Esparza was an actor, a singer, a musician, and he was also part of the school’s student government. Those were part of the skill sets that have been important to him as a movie producer.
“As a movie producer, I have the roll of being an initiator,” Esparza said of creating a project, organizing it, and raising the money and making it happen. “That is leadership role.”
“It is also a role that requires a sophisticated and refine judgment about aesthetics,” Esparza said. “So I am constantly making judgments about what I like and what I don’t like and being able to understand and talk about it, not just feel it.”
Making choices about casting, like who is going to act in a role, who should write the scrip, who should be the director, who should be the art director, who should be the set designer, all of those are choices “that have a fundamental aesthetic that has to be spoken to and realized,” Esparza said. “That is the job of the producer to make those selections and bring that team together to then realize the movie.”
“So I have the initial training. But it wasn’t what I thought I was going to do with my life,” Esparza said. “I thought I was going to be a political organizer, a union organizer in some community group.”
Esparza spent his teenage years doing that – being an organizer.
In 1968, he helped organize the student strike in the Los Ángeles Unified School District. As a consequence, Esparza was indicted and faced life in jail. He was on trial for a couple of years on 15 counts of conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor, which is a felony. Ultimately, his case was thrown out on appeal.
However, a year later Esparza was indicted again for organizing a protest. This time Esparza was facing 20 years to life in prison. He had protested a speech that Gov. Ronald Regan was giving by clapping inappropriately with the ‘farmworker clap’ which starts slow and builds up disrupting Regan’s speech on why he was cutting state funding for education.
Reagan had Esparza and others arrested. Esparza was on trial his entire undergraduate career at UCLA where he was a history major.
“I did not expect I was going to be a movie producer,” Esparza said, adding that during that time MEChA, a student organization that he helped found, decided to create diversity in various departments in the university and someone suggested the film school. He was a sophomore at that time and recruited African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos.
He got 12 additional students into the program, and wrote the proposal for and created the curriculum at the film school.
Esparza said when he got kicked out of the history department at UCLA for not quoting the book that the professor wrote on California history in the final exam, he retreated to the film school just to graduate.
“And I got my degree in film,” Esparza said, adding that he was still facing life in jail and was still an organizer. He later applied to grad school in political science and government affairs and was turned down everywhere.
“I was depressed,” Esparza said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I was a good candidate. I had a 3.7 grade point average, I had training as a student leader, I gave good interview but I got turned down.”
However the film school wanted Esparza back.
“And I didn’t really understand what I could do there,” he said. “Why I would go to graduate film school.”
A film professor told Esparza that he was a producer – someone who get people to do things and that he could commit himself to making a difference in this field and be able to continue to work as a community organizer.
“When I understood that, I decided to go to film school and got my graduate degree in film,” said Esparza, who is well known for his contributions in the music industry and commitment to creating opportunities for Latinos everywhere.
Esparza’s graduate thesis documentary film won an Emmy. He spent the following year after graduating trying to get a job in Hollywood.
“It didn’t happen,” Esparza said, adding that he was fortunate that another Chicano that had started a children’s program ‘Villa Alegre’ on PBS, and Esparza got hired as producer, producing all the film segments for 65 half-hours for that series.
“And it was in that process I actually learned my profession,” Esparza said of the opportunity and the experience working for that program.
After that Esparza started his own company, and committed himself to continuing to make a difference. He made documentaries for about 10 years and almost went bankrupt when he did his first feature film ‘Only Once in a Lifetime’ in 1979. He learned a lesson about having to be fiscally responsible and making movies for an audience and having a plan of how to get his money back.
“That was my post graduate degree, avoiding bankruptcy,” said Esparza
His film ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’ was the first movie he made that gain national attention and made Edward James Olmos a movie start, said Esparza, who is best known for his films ‘The Milagro Beanfield War’ in 1988 and ‘Gettysburg’ in 1993.
“So that is how I became a movie producer,” he said, adding that “this is not the normal road. This is not the typical road.”
“My commitment was to make movies that make Latinos human portraits, three dimensional, and to explore what it is to be human,” Esparza said, adding that if you look at his filmography, and those two stands that he took when he graduated from film school have been guiding him through today.