50 Years of El Teatro Campesino: The Leadership and Legacy of Luis Valdez

LuisValdez.playby Robert T. Wood

Imagine that you are a student sitting in your third grade class. Your teacher has told the class that the best-behaved student will receive a yellow wooden toy truck as a reward. Then, despite being the best- behaved one in your entire class, the teacher gives it to a boy named Jimmy, who hasn’t behaved well at all. When you ask her why, she replies: “You know, Jimmy is the son of a grower, and you are the son of a farmworker. When Jimmy grows up, he will have to know how to manage…and you will need to follow orders”.

This exact situation befell a boy named Luis Miguel Valdez. After hearing his teacher’s explanation, the young Luis stormed out of the classroom. Later that day, he borrowed tools from his uncle and used a piece of wood, paint, and mayonnaise jar lids to build his own toy truck. Luis Valdez would go on to build more than just a wooden truck. He would create a career as a playwright and filmmaker, a theater company, but more importantly a movement that uses the performing arts to advance social justice.

Time for a Teatro: The Founding of El Teatro Campesino

As the son of migrant farmworkers, Luis Valdez studied and worked hard alongside his brothers and sisters in the agricultural fields near San Jose and throughout Central California. He developed an interest in the performing arts at a young age, staging puppet shows for family and friends and even performing on a locally-broadcast program called Fiesta in 1956. As a student at San Jose State University, he completed his first one-act play, The Theft. Valdez penned his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, in 1964.

A year later, Luis Valdez would develop the organization that produced his best-known works to be performed on stage. But his theatrical troupe, El Teatro Campesino, did not begin inside an enclosed theater with lights, rows of seats, and curtains, but outside, in the fields, on t back of a flatbed truck.

Here With Cesar Chavez, Fred Ross, and Dolores Huerta
Here With Cesar Chavez, Fred Ross, and Dolores Huerta

In September 1965, Valdez went to Delano, California, to support Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s efforts to organize farm laborers with the United Farm Workers. Chavez and Huerta were leading the Delano Grape Strike, and Valdez harnessed his artistic passion and theatrical prowess to fortify the workers’ resolve. He recruited farmworkers who were demonstrating to perform in short sketches atop a flatbed truck on the picket lines. The sketches, known as actos, were sharp and satirical and they brought humor and relief to the hardworking campesinos. But El Teatro Campesino was more than mere entertainment.

Hector Galán’s documentary Chicano!: The History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement explores how El Teatro Campesino bolstered the efforts of the United Farm Workers (UFW). El Teatro Campesino cast workers in the actos and provided them with acting experience. In the documentary, Valdez explains that the farmworkers became confident after playing the role of the growers in the productions. According to him, Cesar Chavez recognized that the transformative power of acting equipped the workers with the skills to be stronger organizers. Valdez states that as a result, the theater troupe was sent to train many of the early organizers who would grow the ranks of the UFW. The UFW’s campaigns led to agreements and legislation which provided farmworkers with collective bargaining rights in California. El Teatro Campesino not only represented farmworkers on stage but became an active participant in alleviating their real-life struggles.

Since 1971, El Teatro Campesino has been located in San Juan Bautista, the site of an old Spanish mission south of San Jose. This September, the theater company will celebrate fifty years of not only acclaimed theatrical performances but also off-stage outreach in the Monterey Bay, the Salinas area, and throughout Central California.

A Father of Chicano Theater and a Creator of Chicano Cinema

zootsuit-EJO.castLuis Valdez’s contributions to the theater world have garnered him recognition as the “Father of Chicano Theater”. But Valdez’s accomplishments for Latinos in the performing arts are not limited to his short plays that were performed in union halls or on top of pickup trucks. Valdez wrote and directed I Am Joaquin, considered by many filmmakers and critics to be the first film about the Chicano experience. Later he developed Zoot Suit, the first Mexican-American play to be brought to Broadway and then transformed into a major motion picture. Later, he wrote and directed La Bamba, the most financially successful Chicano-themed film of the 20th century. Each of these works represented an important milestone towards the inclusion and empowerment of the Latino community in the U.S. entertainment industry.

I Am Joaquin, released in 1969, was the first film to articulate the ideals and philosophies of the 1960s civil rights struggle known as the Chicano Movement. Directed and narrated by Luis Valdez, I Am Joaquin is a cinematic illustration of the poem of the same name by boxer-turned- civil rights activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The poem contextualizes the struggles faced by people of Mexican descent from pre-Columbian times to the middle of the 20th century. I Am Joaquin projected pride in one’s roots and strength in the face of adversity: two themes that would emerge to become prominent in Chicano cinema.

I Am Joaquin (1969) by

Luis Valdez and the people of El Teatro Campesino developed the work many consider to be his magnum opus in the late 1970s. Zoot Suit is a musical retelling of the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial beginning in 1942 and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, two events which showcased injustices affecting Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. The protagonist Henry Reyna is one of several young Angelenos falsely accused of murder, and the story follows the struggles faced by him, his attorney, his editor, his friends, and his family to clear the names of the innocent and endure the home front of war. The play is narrated by El Pachuco, a character who blurs the line between narrator, participant, and the hero’s conscience. True to the spirit of a people’s theatre, Zoot Suit leaves the final fate of Henry Reyna up to the audience with three alternative endings to choose from.

After enjoying a successful premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in April of 1978, Zoot Suit became the first Chicano-themed play to be adapted to Broadway on March 25, 1979. Two years later Zoot Suit was adapted to film with Luis Valdez in the director’s chair, garnering a Golden Globe Award nomination. In addition to re-introducing audiences to several historical events that occurred during World War II, the various versions of Zoot Suit went a long way in establishing the careers of Latino actors in the entertainment community.

Later in the 1980s, Valdez’s film La Bamba stood out from other biopics of musicians by focusing not solely on the protagonist Ritchie Valens but also on other members of his family. La Bamba has been credited by authors such as the Los Angeles Times’ Victor Valle in his 1988 article “The Latino Wave: More Show-Biz Doors Are Opening Since ‘La Bamba’” with increasing studio interest in Latino-themed film projects including Stand and Deliver and The Milagro Beanfield War.

In an interview with film director Robert Rodriguez on the El Rey Network this past March, Luis Valdez said “If anything I’ve done can speak truth to somebody, I’m grateful”. It can be said that in addition to being the father of Chicano theater, Luis Valdez planted the seeds that would grow into the Chicano cinematic family tree.

Valdez And the Waves of Latino “Actorvism”

A variety of individuals have been inspired to make a difference in their communities after working with Luis Valdez or witnessing one of his plays. According to a 1986 Los Angeles Times article written by Jeff Meyers, Edward James Olmos said that acting in Zoot Suit “changed the course of my life”. Meyers explains that Olmos attained massive popularity in Los Angeles’ Latino community in the role of El Pachuco, which drew him closer to the issues important to the community. Olmos became committed to the cause of the United Farm Workers and demonstrated in support of Cesar Chavez during the labor leader’s 1988 “Fast for Life” in protest of the use of pesticides.

EvelinaFernandezEvelina Fernandez, an actress and playwright who acted in the stage version of Zoot Suit, has described Luis Valdez as a mentor in an interview with Adam Szymkowicz. In 1985, Fernandez co-founded the Latino Theater Company in Los Angeles. The Latino Theater Company has been involved with the community of Los Angeles for nearly thirty years and, like El Teatro Campesino, has staged and continues to stage many plays with important social messages.

josefinaLopezJosefina Lopez, the writer of the play and film Real Women Have Curves among other works, first became interested in playwriting after seeing Luis Valdez’s play I Don’t Have To Show You No Stinking Badges in 1986. A 1990 Los Angeles Times article by Nancy Churnin details how Lopez became inspired by Valdez’s play about the challenges faced by Latino actors as a teenager, and at age twenty-one her play Simply Maria, or the American Dream was presented in a double bill with Valdez’s play Soldado Razo. Valdez described Josefina Lopez as “one of the most brilliant young voices writing for the theater in this country today” and explained “We need Josefina to develop into the finest writer she can so she can inspire other people”. In 2000, Lopez founded CASA 0101, a theater and educational center dedicated to the representation and empowerment of the community of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. These individuals and organizations have been committed to raising the profile of Latinos in the arts and have paved the way for future generations.

The Return of a Playwright to the Valley of Heart’s Delight

Luis Valdez has taken a hands-on approach towards educating future playwrights and filmmakers as a teacher and professor, first at Fresno State College, then at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and most recently as a founding faculty member of California State University, Monterey Bay. In 2013, El Teatro Campesino premiered his most recent play Valley of the Heart in San Juan Bautista. Billed as a “kabuki corrido”, Valley of the Heart’s style consists of a fusion of Japanese theatrical traditions and Mexican-influenced music. This artistic design is employed to tell a tale of romance and remembrance set in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”, an archaic nickname for the Santa Clara Valley.

In addition to drawing from Valdez’s earliest memories living on a ranch near San Jose, the play examines the historical experiences of Japanese-American and Mexican-American farming families during World War II. Valley of the Heart was revived a year later in September 2014. According to Karen D’Souza, the play helped younger members of the audience to understand the issue of Japanese-American internment during the Second World War. Valdez explained: “I have always believed that the way into people’s heads, the way to get at real ideas, is through their hearts”.

Few have done more for Latino actors, film directors, and playwrights than Luis Valdez. Whether it was a toy truck made from wood, a musical made from history, or a movement made for justice, the father of Chicano theater has always been committed to solving problems with a nonviolent, inventive solution. The work of Luis Valdez exemplifies the ideals of creativity, compassion, and resilience that have allowed for the Latino entertainment community to thrive.

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