The United States is dominated by box office hits played at megaplexes with sometimes as many as 21 plus screens, but no more than a few decades ago film venues looked very different especially for the Latino community. But today in Fresno, one young woman has taken on the task to reopen the region’s only Spanish language theater.
Thirty years ago, the main hall of Teatro Azteca in Fresno’s Chinatown was filled with the sounds of famous Spanish language actors, singers and comedians.
Think Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin.
Javier Soliz, a popular Mexican Singer in the 50's and 60's.
And the list goes on and on. How do I know? Here on the dressing room walls of the long shuttered theater are the signatures of stars dating from the 40's to the early 90's.
"This is the famous people that were here. What are their names? Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Alysia Juarez, Belen Del Campo, Hector Montemayor, Julio Aleman . . ."
That’s 28-year-old Laura Barboza. For years, she’s dreamed of operating a Spanish language theater.
"My dream was to be an actress since I was five," Barboza says. "So I always thought maybe I can have my own place and I can do whatever I want to do either cabaret or acting.”
About a year ago, Barboza and her business partner found the Azteca. It didn’t have seats and hadn’t shown a movie in years. But after signing a lease, and a lot of hard work the two reopened the theater’s doors in late September with dancers, actors and music.
Barboza hopes this old theater in a rough part of Fresno will become what it was once was: A cultural meeting place for Latinos where Hispanic art, folklore and community are fostered. Armando Hindman now 51 years old remembers visiting Teatro Azteca when he was just six.
"We used to come and watch all the great Mexican movies here. I remember going upstairs to the bathroom and looking out the window last time I was here," Hindman says."I didn’t come back down because I was peeking out the window and the next thing I know I got somebody pulling my ear. Vente muchacho. Come what are you doing."
Hindman remembers the theater as a place that unified Latinos in the region.
“Families came here from all over the San Joaquin Valley," Hindman says. "They’d come do their shopping, come do their eating. Vamos a ver una pelicula. Let’s go see a movie."
And it’s that type of community that Barboza wants to see come alive again in a region where over 50 percent of the population is Latino.
“When I was first doing the remodeling it was my dream, my personal dream, but then after hearing so many stories form other people now it’s like I got to do this," Barboza says. "I’ve got to bring this back.”
Barboza says it’s really important to bring Spanish language theater to life in California because in the San Joaquin Valley, Latino culture is scattered. She wants to see a regional reinvestment in Spanish language arts and cinema.
Alma Martinez knows a bit about this. “Remember Mexico has been doing theatre 500 years longer than we have," Martinez says.
She’s an assistant professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. and an acclaimed actor who got a break in her career in the 80's with the classic film Zoot Suit. Martinez says theaters like the Azteca began over 100 years ago, with traveling groups called carperos from Mexico who performed in tents.
The groups eventually established brick and mortar theaters, but they were dealt a major blow with the advent of film. The theaters adapted by becoming cinemas, creating a space for Spanish language film.
“Latinos couldn’t go into a white movie theater and be treated with respect," Martinez says.
"They sat them in the back. So consequently these places became really important places for socialization. They could bring their girlfriend. They could bring their families because they were just for Latinos.”
But it wasn’t all good for Spanish language cinema. Martinez says when television came into play the theaters saw a major decline in the 80’s and 90’s.
"People started getting T.V.’s and stopped going to the movies," Martinez says. "So that died again and that’s what killed off the economic social impact , cultural impact with the advent of television.”
And just like that Spanish language theaters in the U.S. sat dormant, empty and robbed for decades. At the same time technology keeps advancing and the way we view films is changing. But despite those odds Martinez says reopening a theater like Teatro Azteca is worth it and needed for a generation that could easily drift from their Hispanic heritage.
That’s where Laura Barboza with Teatro Azteca comes in. She’s booked dancers, comedians and an acting troop through the New Year, and hopes to have enough funding to begin screening films by next fall. She’s determined to create a space for young people figuring out what it means to be Chicano and for those who remember what the Azteca once was.
“They loved calling Teatro Azteca because there was a pretty lady that answered the phone and she would say Teatro Azteca Buenos Tardes.""So are you that pretty lady now that answers the phone and says Teatro Azteca?" Romero. "Of course . . ."
She has Teatro Azteca. It’s freshly painted and seating is installed. She has a vision, but she still needs the resources and the right connections to bring her lifelong dream to fruition.