More Than a Theater: How The Olivos Family Created a Safe Place for Mexican Americans

The Yost Theater (El Cine Yost) circa the late 1960s. (Photograph courtesy of the Olivos family)

When we think of movie theaters today, we think of buttery popcorn, comfy seats, and the newest Marvel movie. But in the early-to-mid 1900s, El Cine Yost, one of the first Spanish-language movie theaters in Orange County, California, was more than a place of entertainment for the Latino population in southern California. It was also a safe place for Mexican Americans to feel proud of their ethnic heritage. During the early-to-mid-twentieth century when schools, neighborhoods, and parks were segregated throughout Orange County, Latinos could enter the theater and feel a sense of community.

Dr. David- James Gonzales, Assistant Professor of History at BYU, researched the theater for his article “El Cine Yost and the Power of Place for Mexican Migrants in Orange County, California, 1930–1990,” which will appear in the Journal of American Ethnic History in July 2020. He interviewed several members of the community, including members of the Olivos family, who were responsible for bringing Spanish-language cinema to Orange County, to learn more about how the theater impacted their lives and provided a safe place during a time of intense racial discrimination.

Gonzales reflected on his research, sharing the insight that we need to create safe places in our communities today for people of all ethnicities to feel accepted. These spaces may not always be physical like El Cine Yost, but we can do this as we focus on understanding the lived experiences of others. “We can ask them about their culture, set aside our limited understanding, and listen,” Gonzales said. He encourages us to talk to people of different backgrounds and “have them to teach us their story.”

Louis and Phoebe Olivos circa 1945 shortly after Louis returned from serving as a B-17 gunner in World War II.

That’s exactly what Gonzales did when he met with the son of Louis Sr. and Phoebe Olivos, the couple who ran the famous El Cine Yost from 1952 to 1985, as well as two other theaters, The Princes and State, from 1939 to the early 1990s.

Louis Olivos, Jr. revealed that his father could frequently be found at the movie theaters in Santa Ana during his youth. Even though he was forced to sit in segregated sections because “Mexicans” were not allowed to sit alongside whites, this did not diminish his passion for cinema.

Louis Olivos Sr. was a frequent patron of the Princess Theater in the 1930s. He noticed ushers assigned to the “Mexican” section seemed afraid to go up to the balcony. Louis approached the manager suggesting he supervise the balcony section and was soon hired as an usher. Later on, Louis was able to convince the owner, to screen Spanish-language films weekly, which kept the struggling theater in business. Because of the great success of Spanish films, Louis was eventually promoted to manager and soon after took over the lease. When Louis left to serve in the army during World War II, his wife Phoebe was left to manage the theater. After returning home from the war, Louis leased the Princess and State theaters and later purchased the historic Yost Theater, his childhood dream.

Legendary actor Mario Almada (considered the Clint Eastwood of Mexican cinema) signs autographs for adoring fans at el cine.

 “El Cine Yost and the Olivos family brought ethnic Mexicans together physically and culturally, helping them to build bonds of ethnic solidarity despite differences in citizenship, class, and nationality,” said Gonzales. Mexican Americans would come from all over Orange County to meet and socialize. By screening Spanish-language films, Louis brought Mexico’s top actors and recording artists to Santa Ana. He provided audiences with a positive image of Mexican history, people, and culture.

A packed house at El Cine Yost. Louis Olivos, Jr., estimated that the Yost averaged one thousand patrons each weekend. (Photographs courtesy of the Olivos family)

Louis’s journey from patron to owner was a great inspiration to members of his community where his family became model citizens as they achieved their American dream. They treated all patrons as if they were family. Sadly, after thirty-three years of owning and operating El Cine Yost, the Olivos family was forced to sell their theater to the city of Santa Ana in 1985.

Gonzales said, “El Cine Yost provided a physical gathering place for people all over the community, where they could build relationships, they could meet people, and enjoy film together.”

Gonzales shared the many opportunities to learn about ethnic Mexican history at BYU, including the Latino Civil Rights Seminar. Dean Benjamin Ogles and a team of BYU professors in The College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences proposed the seminar in the summer of 2018. Last fall, Professor Gonzales and Professor Bryant Jensen led the first seminar with BYU students, traveling to Texas to meet with civil rights leaders and activists, including the mother of Julian Castro. Professor Gonzales and Professor Jane Lopez plan to lead the seminar in fall 2020 and hope to visit important Mexican American and Latino historical sites in Southern California, but the trip may be postponed due to COVID-19.

There are several courses available at BYU to learn more about Latino civil rights. Gonzales said, “Dr. Jane Lopez teaches the Sociology of Immigration, Dr. Jacob Rugh teaches Sociology of Race & Ethnicity, and Latinos in the United States, which has been taught by Dr. Ignacio Garcia over the past two decades, will be taught by myself in winter 2021.”

Gonzales is also the faculty advisor for “Hispanos Unidos” an official club for both BYU students of Hispanic/Latin origin and anyone who desires to learn and celebrate Hispanic/Latino culture. The club’s goal is to “create a safe space to express our Latinidad and provide students with resources to feel included and involved inside of BYU.”

Whether through establishing a theater, supporting a club, taking a class, or listening respectively to the lived experience others, creating safe places in our communities for people of all ethnicities to feel accepted is important and worthwhile.