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The Story of a Latino Theater Owner, from Cuba to Kansas City

Showing Latino Cinema to Build Community

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Above image credit: Yosmel Serrano stands in the entryway of his theater. (Contributed)

Take two steps into a small movie theater on Askew Avenue called Selva de los Relojes (The Jungle of Clocks) and owner Yosmel Serrano makes it feel like home. 

Salsa music pulses and booms in the background as Serrano, a proud native of Camaguey, Cuba, flashes a grin and strikes up conversation about music, specifically Cuban salsa. 

“La soltura, la liberta en la salsa Cubana es evidente. Hay mucho mas movimiento. Por ejemplo, este movimiento de los hombros,” he says, shaking his shoulders, “viene de la Rumba… y eso se mescla con la salsa Cubana.” 

Translated it means: “The agility and liberty found in Cuban salsa are evident. There’s a lot more movement. For example, this movement with the shoulders…comes from Rumba…and that is mixed in with Cuban salsa.” 

He beams with pride for his culture. His theater is named after a piece by the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca.

Serrano then extends his arm toward two armchairs propped at the end of a narrow hallway, poised for his interview as he sips cafe Cubano. By day, Serrano works as an electrician. And by night he runs Selva de los Relojes, the only Latino theater of its kind nestled in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast area.

The theater is two steps to the right through two small curtains and seats 30 people. The chairs are removable. He envisions using the space to host salsa dance lessons in addition to screening movies. 

This theater, which opened in May 2019, only shows Spanish-language films. Serrano explains that opening an independent theater at the corner of St. John and Askew avenues in the Northeast neighborhood was a deliberate decision. The area‘s population is majority Hispanic but he wants to also attract non-Latinos who want to learn more about Latino cinema. 

Yosmel Serrano, pre-pandemic, poses with patrons in his small Latino theater in Northeast Kansas City. He sees his businesses as a way to education the Kansas City community of Spanish-language films. (Contributed)
Yosmel Serrano sees his business as a way to educate the Kansas City community about Spanish-language films. (Contributed)

The COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the month he planned to begin hosting events, so he’s had to rethink how to connect communities with his carefully curated films.

For Serrano, his theater not only provides film education, but also a place to build community. He knows. He’s moved around quite a bit, so wherever he goes he thrives on connecting with the people around him. 

That’s how he got to Kansas City. 

A Cop, A Dog and Cup of Yogurt

When Serrano left Cuba in 2010, he knew he wouldn’t return. The capital city of Havana was crumbling and his dreams of being a filmmaker would be impossible to make a reality. So he moved 90 miles away, to Miami. 

“Cuando yo venia en el avion … y empiesa a ver la ciudad, yo casi pensaba que mi hiban virao pa’tra,” he says, chuckling.

“When I was in the plane, I began to see the city and almost thought we’d turned back around.” 

Houses in Miami were influenced by the Cuban migration in 1959, which is why Serrano felt as though he’d returned home. He settled in and prepared to study film production and cinematography at Miami Dade College

Yosmel Serrano stands behind a camera.
Yosmel Cerrano turned a degree in film into a business. (Contributed)

But the city didn’t feel like home. A warm and amiable person, Serrano says Miami felt more like a transient place. Classmates didn’t stick around to discuss the material like his classmates from Cuba would. Life in the U.S., particularly Miami, was different.  

During the holidays one year, he took a road trip to visit friends in Houston and the Kansas City area. That’s when his life changed forever. A one-week stop in the Midwest turned into a months-long stay. 

Ironically, the moment he knew he wanted to stay was a run-in with Missouri policemen. 

He had been stopped at around 2 a.m. for failure to signal a turn. But Serrano recalls he’d swerved because he didn’t know where he was going, thanks to a GPS glitch. 

The cops asked to check his car with their K-9 detection dogs. 

He had nothing to hide and obliged. During the search, Serrano and one of the cops chatted about life, and he quickly learned that the official also spoke Spanish. But then the K-9s barked. 

The dogs only alert when they detect marijuana or cocaine, the cop explained. So they pressed Serrano again and asked if he had anything hidden in the car. 

Serrano, slightly in jest, explained he’d driven from Florida to Texas and then to Missouri. That’s a long road trip that requires a few snacks. 

“Mire, ahi lo que se encontro fue yogurt,” Serrano told the police, chuckling as he reminisced. “Ese perro lo que tiene es hambre.” 

Serrano said the dog had found an old yogurt cup in the car door so he barked because he was hungry. Sure enough, the empty cup was there so the police conceded and let him go. 

The experience inspired the Miami-based filmmaker to move to the Midwest in late 2017. But why?

“Aqui la gente converse,” he says. People talk here and that conversation with the cop was the nudge that he needed. 

So he moved and created a space that showcases Latino films for everyone in the metro. Not only does his theater provide Spanish-language films for Latinos and Hispanics in the area, but it also provides education about the Latino culture through film to other communities in Kansas City. It seeks to bridge misunderstanding and connect people through art.

Oftentimes, his patrons stick around to discuss the movies. Serrano misses that most, but while the theater is closed he will begin renovations and reimagining his concessions. 

“Esperamos que no haya complicaciones adicionales,” he said. Hopefully, there aren’t any more complications with the pandemic. 

Serrano hopes that someday soon he and his patrons can reconvene, watch unseen movies, snack on free popcorn and sip on his in-house staple — cafe Cubano

Because of restrictions for indoor gatherings, La Selva De Los Relojes now offers movies for rent and online streaming for a select group of Spanish-language films. 

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