What happened to Spanish-language films in Santa Barbara?

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Raul Gill (center) and his friends at the Granada Theater’s Epoca de Oro Mexican Film Series. Photo: Kathryn Barnes

Santa Barbara’s Granada Theater isn’t known for playing movies. Most of its audience comes to see operas, ballets and symphony orchestras.

But, on occasional Sunday afternoons Latino families and friends sprinkle into the foyer to watch classic Mexican films, as part of the Granada’s new Epoca de Oro Mexican Film Series.

downloadOn one such Sunday in December, Raul Gill grabs popcorn for himself and his five friends. They’re excited to see Santo el Enmascarado de Plata vs ‘La invasión de los marcianos,’ a 1967 Mexican film about a masked wrestler who battles Martians trying to take over the Earth.

Gill’s friend, Carmen Martin Bellcampo, hasn’t seen a classic Mexican film on a big screen since she moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1971.

“This is very special for us,” she said.

The film series was born out of a desire by the theater’s board to broaden the audience demographic. The board members were concerned the Granada was not drawing in the entire Santa Barbara community. Research found the audience tended to be white, older, and affluent, with more than 70 percent over 40 and a majority living in households that earn more than $125,000 a year.

The board of the theater wanted the Granada to be seen as a community arts center, not just a venue for the upper crust.

“We started looking at the groups that weren’t coming to the theater, which were youth groups, low income seniors, veterans and Latino families,” said Anais Pellegrini, the associate director of development at the Granada.

Pellegrini helped to form a community engagement committee within the Granada. Carrie Ohly-Cusack, the chair of the committee, said they started asking leaders of these four groups one basic question.

“What are the barriers? Why don’t we see you walk through our doors? And that’s where we found out it’s a combination of programming, and comfort, and price,” said Ohly-Cusack.

IMG_20150927_154913075The theater wasn’t offering shows those audiences were interested in; the prices were out of range; and they were afraid they’d feel out of place if they did go.

From there, the committee learned a lot more. They learned that family is central to how many Latinos choose to spend their free time. And they found out some Latinos believed they would not be welcome to attend performances.

They also found that the Latinos they surveyed wanted movies – classic Mexican films from the mid-20th century, ones that parents and grandparents grew up watching, and can now share with their American-born kids.

“Film is one of those things that really resonates around culture and identity and kind of who we are and what we are,” said Mark Alvarado, who does neighborhood outreach for the City of Santa Barbara, and helped curate the series. “These films are shown every weekend on syndicated TV in Mexico, and you can pick up those frequencies over the border.”

Although one-third of Santa Barbara’s population is Mexican-American, it’s tough to find a Spanish-language film in theaters anywhere around the city. But, that was not always the case. The Mission Theater, which is now Metro 4 Theater on State Street, played exclusively Spanish-language films from the 1950s until the 1980s.

“It was the only theater that was showing anything in Spanish. It was also the most inexpensive and it was family oriented. Some theaters were not tolerant of children running around,” said Beatriz Molina, who was also attending the film series. The Mission Theater was owned by her father, Antonio Molina, along with Dr. Michael Lemus and Thomas Hidalgo. They catered to Santa Barbara families of Hispanic descent, as well as Mexican farmworkers who came to Santa Barbara on the bracero program.

Santa Barbara News-Press clipping from 1987. Source: Santa Barbara Historical Museum (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

In 1987, the theater was bought out by Metropolitan Theaters, the chain that still runs most of the movie houses in Santa Barbara and Goleta.

When her father lost the lease, Molina said Latinos living in Santa Barbara lost that Sunday afternoon tradition.

“I remember the challenge was, where do the Mexican people go to see (Spanish) language movies?” she said.

Source: Santa Barbara Historical Museum (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Nearly 30 years later, with a new film projector and a freedom not afforded to most commercial movie houses, the Granada is trying to fill that void and lose its reputation as a theater for the white upper class.

“This is not an audience that we’ve really seen in the Granada, and so I think there’s a little bit of a trust factor,” said Ohly-Cusack, the chair of the Community Engagement Committee. She understands it will take some time. “But, I do think the trust will build as people see that we stick with it.”

The next movie in the series is the 1948 Mexican film Nosotros los Pobres in March. Another is on the schedule for May.