ASU Professor a Prizewinning Documentarian of Chicano History

Paul Espinosa

Paul Espinosa

Paul Espinosa grew up in America among a wealth of family members whose ancestors settled in the western region of the United States centuries ago. From family members, he gained inspiration and a drive to pursue whatever career he chose. For six years, he’s been a professor at Arizona State University in the School of Transborder Studies.

Both of his parents were born in Colorado. Espinosa’s father taught Spanish at an elementary school. His mother was a homemaker, and he had an older sister and three younger brothers. Education was always important in his family, Espinosa said. “I went to high school in Albuquerque. I was a good student in sciences and humanities, and when I graduated, I knew I wanted to go to college.”
Espinosa enrolled at Brown University in Rhode Island. He graduated in 1972 with a B.A. in anthropology. “I think anthropology is a powerful discipline and a very useful methodology for thinking about the world,” he said.
After graduation, Espinosa went to Peru for several years and toured Latin America. Still wanting to expand his knowledge, he then attended Stanford University in California where he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1982. Although Espinosa was always interested in a bridge between anthropology and media, his next move was quite unusual.
“What most anthropologists do is go to someplace far away and study what the natives do,” Espinosa said. “I decided to go to Hollywood and do an ethnography – a long-term study of a television studio, sort of looking at it as an ethnological village. I was interested in how they created television programs, not from a technical but a cultural point of view.”
Espinosa lived in Los Angles while working in the field and eventually saw his experience as a way to tell the stories of his culture and what he refers to as a recovery of Latino history. He became involved in public television, with his first film appearing on KPBS in San Diego.
For the next 10 years, Espinosa wore many hats – as a writer, producer and director. His film-making forays took him into arenas he felt important to capture on film. The New Tijuana, his one-hour documentary as producer/writer in 1990, captured the economic and political changes shaping Tijuana, Mexico. In 1991, he wrote Los Mineros, about Mexican-American copper miners’ 50-year struggle for justice in Arizona. In 1992, he produced and directed 1492 Revisited, a documentary of an art exhibit that provided a critical perspective on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journey.
As the accolades began to flow and his films began to appear on more public television shows, it was apparent to Espinosa that he was doing the right work. “People were very supportive of my interest in producing work about the broader U.S.-Mexico border region that appealed to a national and international audience,” he said.
Espinosa produced and wrote the 1993 documentary episode “The Hunt for Pancho Villa” for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting series The American Experience. It examined Villa’s raid on the United States and the American expedition that pursued Villa in 1916.
In 1996, Espinosa executive-produced a feature-length American Playhouse drama funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The film covered a year in the life of a young Mexican-American boy and his migrant farmworker family. Espinosa was senior producer of the 1998 four-hour, bi-national documentary series The U.S.-Mexican War: 1846-1848, with KERA-TV in Dallas. It commemorated the 150th anniversary of a war that was a pivotal event in U.S.-Mexican history.
Not only was Espinosa creatively involved in all of his projects – writing, interviewing, shaping the development – many times he also had to raise the funds to produce them. He learned how to get grants so he could keep pursuing important subjects, as in The Trail North, a doc-umentary about one family’s journey over generations to come to America, or The Lemon Grove Incident, the case of Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District – the first successful school desegregation court decision in the history of the U.S.

Paul Espinosa (right) directs cinematographer Howard Shack on the shoot for The American Dream series.

Paul Espinosa (right) directs cinematographer Howard Shack on the shoot for The American Dream series.

“The film is a docudrama about the 1930 court case,” Espinosa said. “Many non-White children were segregated, and this was before the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) legal challenge to segregate children of color. I was extremely fortunate to build credibility with the PBS networks. So many of the stories and work Latinos were doing in the United States was not particularly well known even in my case, as my family has been here a very long time. Many of these stories would not have made it into official records, but through the work that I and many others have done with oral histories and arguing for their importance, that is changing.”
In the early ’90s, Espinosa met grad student Ethan van Thillo, who was putting on a Latino film festival at the University of California-Santa Cruz. When van Thillo moved to San Diego, Espinosa continued to advise him as he pursued creating Latino film festivals around San Diego.
“Mr. Espinosa continued to be an advisor and eventually a founding member of the board for the San Diego Latino Film Festival, which began in 1994,” van Thillo said. “Then in 1999, he became one of the founding board members and key people behind the creation of the Media Arts Center San Diego, a nonprofit organization modeled after other media arts centers across the United States.”
Married to Marta Sánchez, also a professor at Arizona State, Espinosa continued to widen the landscape of those who could learn and be inspired by his films. He was always in search of the next story. In 1997, he formed Espinosa Productions, a film and video company specializing in documentaries and dramatic films focused on U.S.-Mexico border topics.
His Latino Art in the U.S. was a three-hour series examining all genres of Latino art. In 1999, he was producer, writer and executive producer of The Border, a two-hour news magazine about contemporary life along the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2002, he wrote, directed and produced “Taco Shop Poets,” a segment for Visiones. Espinosa’s national production credits for PBS included California and the American Dream, in 2006, a four-hour series examining the dynamics of culture, community and identity in one of the most diverse regions in the world.
While continuing to work as a filmmaker, Espinosa also finds value in being a teacher. Both parents, he said, instilled the value of education in their children while maintaining a traditional Hispanic culture. So it seemed fitting that he became an educator. Espinosa’s courses at Arizona State include Constructing the Border on Film and Chicana/o Film. “I was often asked to lecture at universities, and very happy to be here in academia, but I continue to work on films, too.”
Espinosa has received prestigious recognition for his tireless social awareness and work in telling the Chicano/Latino story at universities, festivals and in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and NPR’s All Things Considered.
Espinosa previously served as a board member of the California Council for the Humanities and as a member of the Documentary Jury for the Ninth Annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, Cuba. He has been nominated four times for a Rockefeller Foundation Intercultural Film/Video Fellowship in the Documentary category.
The California Chicano News Media Association honored Espinosa with a Lifetime Achievement Award 1998. In 1999, he was recognized by Union Bank of California and KPBS with a Local Hero Award to those who have made a difference in the Latino community. In 2000, Espinosa was named a Regents Lecturer at the University of California-San Diego.
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists inducted him into its hall of fame in 2003. In 2010, he received the Outstanding Latino Cultural Award in Fine or Performing Arts from the American Association for Hispanics in Higher Education (AAHHE).
“My work has had a broad viewership,” said Espinosa about his recognitions. “Hopefully, it’s had an impact – to get people to see the world differently and to understand some of the missing pieces of the Latino story which are important –and even more so today. We’re living through challenging times in terms of immigration, the border and all the things that have sort of hyper-polarized in the last 10 years. So there’s even more need for careful historical knowledge about this broad region where Mexico and the United States have been co-mingling for centuries.”
As a filmmaker, educator and mentor, Ethan van Thillo, executive director, founder of the Media Arts Center, recognizes the importance of Espinosa’s work.
“His documentaries are seminal works depicting the Chicano/Latino experience here in the U.S.; and especially in the Greater U.S.-Mexican Border Region,” van Thillo said. “Thousands upon thousands of television viewers, students, educators and general audiences have greatly benefited and learned from his work and tireless effort to promote a more positive and accurate portrayal of the Chicano/Latino experience.”