“As soon as you sit down, a guy will come over and offer you sexual favors,” a gay friend told me a couple of years ago. “You pay around two dollars and you can stay all the time that you want. There’s always pervs in there and it reeks,” he said.
I heard the rumors from multiple people when I was living a couple of blocks from the historic Cinemas Latino, located on the corner of 5th and Niños Heroes (cater-corner to a 24-7 tamales shop).
I walked by the cinema nearly every day because it was on the way to my apartment (I also shopped at the grocery store across the street). The main corner entrance always had the gates locked. Right outside the theater, there are usually long lines of people waiting for a taxi de ruta. On the side of the building, on Niños Heroes, a creepy white iron door that looks like the entrance to a dungeon leads you to the adult cinema.
The corner building was originally Gran Cinema, built in 1941. Just like the city of Tijuana, the building has gone through a lot of changes, but for the past several years it was known to be an adult movie theater. The only Yelp review in Spanish is a story of a girl who tried to walk in with her friends, but they were denied entry unless they were accompanied by a male.
On January 29th, the metal gates at the corner entrance for Cinemas Latino were lifted. The building had a fresh coat of cream, yellow, and green paint. Several local sources announced that the movie theater was no longer showing adult movies but instead started projecting family movies exclusively. For only 30 pesos (less than two dollars), you could watch a movie in their only projection room that seats around 300 people.
Those sources were wrong — there are two projection rooms.
I visited the theater with a friend on February 24th, hoping they would be showing something good. Because we were walking on Niños Heroes, I didn’t think much of it and entered the theater through the creepy iron door. A sharply inclined ramp led us to the second floor. At the far end wall was a woman standing behind a candy stand. To my left there were two guys sitting on a black leather couch; to my right, thick black curtains led to the projection room.
I asked what movie was playing. The lady behind the counter seemed confused and told me ”la cartelera” was at the entrance. I asked again, incredulous that she couldn’t give me an answer, and a guy on the couch told me to peek inside. I got the vibe that I was in the wrong place and hesitated to move in any direction or say anything else.
“I think you are looking for the family theater; it’s back down and around the corner,” the lady behind the counter told me when she saw that I didn’t know what to do. I thanked her, went back down the ramp, and didn’t look back. As I was exiting, I took a quick glance at the small cartelera sign by the entrance and read: “BEZO, CRIME, SOLO ADULTO, 30 PESOS.”
The corner entrance of the building was wide open. Though it is only 30 feet away and right below the dirty-movie theater, there were signs written in Sharpie that announce they are “Cine Familiar” (a “family movie theater”) and movie posters cover the walls. The animated movie Zootopia (the Spanish-dubbed version) was playing at 2:00, 4:00, and 6:00 p.m. and El Niño at 8:00 p.m.
Though there was a poster for Deadpool (the movie I wanted to watch), they were not showing it anytime soon. I asked if I could talk to the manager to know more about the cinema and their decision to re-open it for family audiences, but he wasn’t around. Instead, my friend and I went to one of the dozen modern movie theaters in Tijuana (the VIP version) where for $7, you can sit in a recliner and order from a menu that includes sushi, beers, mixed drinks, crepes, and more.
I went back into the Cine Familiar on Monday, February 29th, asking for the manager again. A young lady by the entrance told me to wait for a minute while she went to get him. A tall and heavy man with a big mustache introduced himself as the manager, Angel Francisco Escamilla.
“Pos ahí va, poco a poco,” he said, informing me that business was going slow but well during the first month showing family-friendly movies. “The cinema closed around seven years ago. People got used to it being closed. So we are barely starting to get people in, giving out flyers on the street announcing that we are in fact open as a family theater…. We are a cheaper choice for the same quality of movie experience.”
“This building was here before I was born,” he said. “It still belongs to the same family, to Don Pedro Salazar Sánchez, that’s his name. We manage the whole building, but we are tenants. The other [adult] theater didn’t close. But that’s independent from this one.”
Escamilla allowed me to peek into the theater. The screen showing Zootopia was of good size; the audio wasn’t booming like in modern theaters, but it was plenty loud. You can tell that the theater is 75 years old and hasn’t been renovated in more than a decade.
While trying to learn more about this historic movie theater, the top search results for “Cinemas Latino Tijuana” included links to gay blogs that describe vividly what happens on the second floor of the movie theater. I quit my research after clicking a few links.