Luis Valdez (born 1940) was founder of the El Teatro Campesino in California and is thought to be the father of Mexican American theater.
Playwright and director Luis Valdez is considered the father of Mexican American theater. In 1965 he founded El Teatro Campesino, a theater of farm workers in California. This project inspired young Mexican American activists across the country to use the stage to give voice to the history, the myths, and the present-day political concerns of Mexican Americans. In later years, Valdez has tried to portray Mexican American life for a mainstream audience, and his popular 1987 film La Bambahelped him do that.
Valdez was born in 1940 in Delano, California, into a family of migrant farm workers. At the age of six he began to work in the fields with his parents and nine brothers and sisters. Because his family had to travel around California's San Fernando Valley following the ripening of the crops, his education was continuously interrupted. Despite this, Valdez managed to finish high school and to attend San Jose State College. He majored in English and explored his interest in theater. While in college he won a writing contest for his play, The Theft. Later, the college's drama department produced The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, his play about the problems facing a Mexican couple in America.
Learns Techniques of Agitprop
After graduating from college in 1964, Valdez joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, but he couldn't give up telling stories and writing plays. During this time he learned the techniques of agitprop (agitation and propaganda) theater, in which a play puts forth political views and tries to spur the audience to act on those views.
For years migrant farm workers had to endure unhealthy working conditions. They worked long hours for extremely low wages and received no benefits. Finally, in 1965, migrant grape pickers in Delano decided to go on strike. These workers were backed by the labor leader César Chávez and the migrant worker union he helped found, the National Farm Workers Association.
Brings Theater to Farm Workers
Two months after the strike began, Valdez joined Chávez in his efforts to organize the farm workers of Delano. It was there that Valdez brought together farm workers and students to found El Teatro Campesino (the Workers' Theater). The original function of this group of actor-laborers was to raise funds and to publicize the farm-worker strike and the grape boycott. Their efforts soon turned into a full-blown theatrical movement that spread across the country capturing the imagination of artists and activists.
By 1967 Valdez and El Teatro Campesino left the vineyards and lettuce fields to create a theater for the Mexican American nation. The movement evolved into teatro chicano, an agitprop theater that blended traditional theatrical styles with Mexican humor, character types, folklore, and popular culture. All across America, Mexican American theatrical groups sprang up to stage Valdez's one-act plays, called actos. The actos explored modern issues facing Mexican Americans: the farm workers' struggle for unionization, the Vietnam War, the drive for bilingual education, the war against drug addiction and crime, and community control of parks and schools.
Hands Down Rules for Mexican American Theater
In 1971 Valdez published a collection of actos to be used by Mexican American community and student theater groups. He also supplied the groups with several theatrical and political principles. Included among these were the ideas that Mexican Americans must be seen as a nation with roots spreading back to the ancient Aztec and that the focus of the theater groups should be the Mexican American people. Valdez's vision of a national theater that created art out of the folklore and social concerns of Mexican Americans was successful. The Mexican American theater movement reached its peak in 1976.
Valdez and others in the movement then tried to expand the Mexican American experience into areas that would reach all Americans. In 1978 Valdez broke into mainstream theater with a Los Angeles production of his popular play Zoot Suit, about Mexican-American gang members during the Los Angeles race riots of 1942-43. The following year the play moved to the Broadway stage in New York. It was then made into a film in 1982, but this version failed to please both critics and audiences. Valdez was hurt by the experience. "It's painful to make a passionate statement about something and then have people ignore it, " he explained to Susan Linfield in American Film.
La Bamba Brings Attention
Valdez remained determined to reach a national audience. His next play, Corridos, the dramatization of a series of Mexican folk ballads, was praised by theater critics. It was then made into a television production that aired on PBS in the fall of 1987. Valdez's breakthrough into mainstream America, however, had come earlier that summer. He had written and directed La Bamba, the screen biography of Ritchie Valens, the 1950s Mexican American rock-and-roll singer. Audiences across America learned not only about the tragically short life of Valens but also about the lifestyle and other elements of the Mexican American community. The movie was an overwhelming box office success.
"My work comes from the border, " Valdez told Gerald C. Lubenow of Newsweek. "It is neither Mexican nor American. It's part of America, like Cajun music." Valdez has continued to write plays for the theater, for television, and for motion pictures that focus on the lives and the histories of Mexican Americans. In 1994 he began work on the script for a film about the life of César Chávez, who died in 1993. He has also remained artistic director for El Teatro Campesino. In the process, he believes he is simply exposing America to another part of itself. "I have something to give, " he explained to Lubenow. "I can unlock somethings about the American landscape."
Valdez holds honorary doctorates from San Jose State University, the University of Santa Clara, Columbia College of Chicago, and the California Institute of the Arts. He is also a founding faculty member of the new California State University Monterey Bay and a founding member of the California Arts Council. His awards include the George Peabody Award (1987), the Governor's Award (1990), and Mexico's prestigious Aguila Azteca Award (1994).
Further Reading on Luis Valdez
American Film, July/August, 1987, p. 15.
National Council on the Arts: Luis Valdez July 23, 1997; "http://arts.endow.gov/Guide/NCABios/Valdez.html "
Harper, Hillard, "The Evolution of Valdez and El Teatro Campesino, " Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1984, sec. 6, p. 1.
Matthiessen, Peter, Sal Si Puedes: César Chávez and the New American Revolution, New York: Random House, 1969.
Mills, Kay, "A Matter of Changing Perspectives, " Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1984, sec. 4, p. 3.
Newsweek, May 4, 1987, p. 79.
New York, February 7, 1994, pp. 60-61.
New Yorker, August 10, 1987, pp. 70-73.