El Evento del Año: Honoring Mexican-American Heritage in a Historic Theater
“Fue el evento del año.”—It was the event of the year.
These are the words an elderly Hispanic resident of McAllen, Texas, used in reminiscing about the opening of the Cine El Rey Theatre in May of 1947. The downtown theater catered to the town's Hispanic population for more than 40 years.
Following World War II, demand increased in McAllen for Spanish-language entertainment due in part to the influx of Mexican agricultural workers from the U.S.-Mexican Bracero program, which authorized 5 million Mexican laborers to work on U.S. farms to make up for labor shortages caused by the war. Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American residents were often refused entry or segregated in the balconies of other theaters. Affectionately known among Hispanic residents as the "Mexican theater," Cine El Rey offered an inclusive space that celebrated Mexican identity through top-notch entertainment.
Many famous performers from what is now considered the “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema made their American debut on the Cine El Rey screen. Other stars performed live or made personal appearances.
Among the most famous names are German Valdez, a comic actor known for his portrayal of the streetwise pachuco, or “zoot suiter.” Valdez starred in over 100 films throughout his career and was the first major star to make an appearance at Cine El Rey.
Such high-profile appearances made the theater a sought-after venue by young Hispanic regional performers, who had difficulty finding theaters that would allow them to perform.
Current owner Bert Guerra believes that Cine El Rey Theatre was as symbolic to Hispanic Americans as the Apollo Theatre was to black Americans. Yet as the Mexican film industry declined in the 1980s, theater attendance dropped and Cine El Rey operated on a much smaller scale.
In 2007, Guerra bought the old theater from an acquaintance.(Eduardo Izaguirre bought the theater from Texas Consolidated Theaters in 1973.) Though the previous owners had successfully listed Cine El Rey on the National Register of Historic Places, they were unsuccessful in their efforts to renovate the theater. So Guerra founded the Historic Cine El Rey Theatre Foundation, an initiative aimed at preserving the theater’s legacy and reestablishing it as a community entertainment venue.
Today the theater hosts concerts, comedy shows, movies, and cultural events, including an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. It also houses the Hispanic theater company of a local community college.
Most important to Guerra was to preserve not only the building, but its tradition of providing a performance space for all—including those who cannot afford the venue fees.
When a 2016 McAllen city ordinance tried to enforce an age restriction on theater patrons and performers, a multigenerational local protest movement united residents. In Guerra’s words, “It was a very symbolic victory ensuring that the continuity of opportunity and inspiration continue to be gifted to young people. Inspiration doesn’t and shouldn’t ever have an age requirement to be consumed.”
Guerra says that it is still common for older visitors to describe seeing their first show or going on their first date at the theater. Seeing the theater’s prominent place in the memories of McAllen natives alongside its contemporary success illustrates how the celebration of historic spaces has the power to unite communities.
When asked if he would consider selling the theater, Guerra says that he does not see it as a piece of property: “Cine El Rey saved and changed me. We believe in the power of art. We have dedicated our lives to it and we have historically seen the dividends that come when you invest in the arts. Our theatre is a testament to the rich culture and respect that local residents and artists have for this theatre.”
As for future projects, Guerra hopes to raise funds through grassroots initiatives and donations to archive regional oral histories that have shaped community culture. This will make sure that future McAllen residents know just how much “el evento del año” formed their town’s identity.