At the corner of St. John and Askew in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast is a nondescript red brick and stone building that almost blends with the surrounding neighborhood. The exterior stands in contrast to lively Spanish language movies being screened inside.
Yosmel Serrano opened the movie theater, La Selva De Los Relojes (or the Jungle of Clocks), to help a Latino community embrace its cultural voice and heritage.
"I know English, but I love Spanish, and I don't want to lose my Spanish and I don't want to lose my art," he says. "So the first thing to be proud of yourself and to be able to integrate into another community is to learn more about yourself."
The movie theater's emphasis on lifting up unheard voices from throughout Latin America and the United States comes from a very personal place. Born and raised in Cuba, Serrano was an avid writer and published a book there, but felt his voice muffled by a country he describes as a big branch of government.
"In Cuba, I had problems with my freedom of expression," Serrano says.
Serrano left his homeland in 2010 and headed for Miami, where he earned his degree in film production technologies and spent time working at Tower Theater, a local movie theater and landmark. After a trip around the country, Serrano settled on Kansas City as his new home.
Here, he found people had a big interest in the Spanish language and Latin American culture. But he thought something was missing: film.
"That was something that I had taken for granted, coming from Miami," Serrano says. "So I decided to run this project to fulfill the emptiness in myself and the emptiness in the city."
Serrano purchased an empty space and began construction on this movie theater a year ago. He installed everything — new floors and walls and the projector system. By May of this year, he was ready to begin showing films.
The first two films he chose are both documentaries based on Cuban subjects. "Severo Secreto" chronicles the life of exiled Cuban writer Severo Sarduy and his work during the Cuban revolution. "Queen of Thursdays" follows ballerina Rosari Suarez as she struggles to gain recognition in the Cuban National Ballet. Both films are still showing, thouh he plans to change them once he has acquired new films.
They are also both independent films, an intentional choice and reflective of Serrano's desire to create a space where all voices are heard.
"Do you want to learn about cultures? You can do that here. Have you made a film yourself to show? We may show it here," Serrano says. "Opportunity for people who don't have it is the purpose of the theater."
Serrano plans to branch out, hoping to show fictional movies as well as documentaries. He also plans to widen his regional focus with films from around Latin America, starting with Argentina and Chile. He says showing a variety of films will create inter-cultural discourse.
"What had made some societies so great is what they have been importing from everywhere in the world. So the best way we can do that is bringing our Latin culture from different countries and show that just like the U.S. has Hemingway, Cuba has Jose Martí and Nicaragua has Ruben Dario," he says, citing some legendary Latin American writers.
The future won't be without its challenges. Back at the Tower Theater in Miami, Serrano was used to receiving films from all over the world. Now, he has to spend time negotiating with the filmmakers in order to show them.
Serrano is also aware that this isn't the best business model. He chose to open his theater in the Historic Northeast despite its lower visibility, and offers varying rates for patrons who can't afford higher ticket prices. Earning money from this movie theater was never likely.
For Serrano, however, the dollars and cents are not the be-all, end-all.
"The first thing is to give the Latino community something to learn anything important about their own culture and then to show the KC non-Hispanic community the value of work made in Hispanic countries," Serrano says.
He hopes he can help the community begin working to integrate the important elements of each culture into their own neighborhoods throught the metro.
"That's actually my idea of culture. You need to know from the past, you need to know from the present. and it's a jungle of clocks, a jungle of time. That's actually the idea of this project," Serrano says, explaining that the idea behind the theater's name reinforces the importance of looking at a culture across generations.
"To bring from any time, anything that is important. And anything that has a value that you may integrate in your own space, in your own time."
Serrano estimates each showing has drawn between 5 and 10 people, and says with each new patron his theater feels a little more successful.
"When I received the first person that came to the theater it was already worth it," Serrano says. "It's like when you have a child, it doesn't matter what he does. He's the best child in the world."
"Severo Secreto" and "Queen of Thursdays" screen Saturday and Sunday nights at La Selva De Los Relojes, 3600 Saint John Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64123.
Noah Taborda is an intern with KCUR's Central Standard. Follow him on Twitter @NoahTaborda.