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Luis Valdez
by Janice Albert

Luis Valdez: San Juan Bautista is the home of El Teatro Campesino, Valdez' theater company

Delano, California, a town of 22,800 at the junction of highways 99 and 156 in Kern County is known to the world as the home of the United Farm Workers Union, the organization built by Cesar Chavez. It is also the birthplace of Luis Valdez, whose theater group El Teatro Campesino, grew up in the San Joaquin Valley at the same time and from the same root.

Born on June 26, 1940, Luis Valdez is the second of ten children born to farm worker parents in Delano. At the time of the grape strike in 1965, Valdez had earned a degree in theater at San Jose State University. His first full-length play, "The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa," was produced there in 1964. Following graduation, he joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a company that performs free, satirical theater on political themes in the open air for audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area.

By 1965, Cesar Chavez’ organization was making headlines, and Valdez moved south to become the Artistic Director as well as resident playwright for the newly formed El Teatro Campesino.

His company performed for striking farmworkers, often in the fields on the bed of a truck. Writing of his theater that year, Valdez says, "Our most important aim is to reach the farm workers. All the actors are farm workers, and our single topic is the Huelga." Perhaps 1966 will be remembered as the year Anglo Californians learned this Spanish word for "strike."

The Teatro’s performances were brief–10 to 15 minutes–improvised, musical, wildly physical, spoken chiefly in Spanish with an occasional riff in English, and broadly enacted, as in the style of the Italian Commedia dell’ arte. Just as Commedia has its stock figures–the clown, the old man, the sweet young thing–Valdez’s Teatro had its character types–the scab, the contractor, the grower, and the striker. Or to put it another way, Esquiroles, Contratistas, Patroncitos and Huelguistas. Writing for Ramparts magazine in July 1966, Valdez says, "We use costumes and props only casually–an old pair of pants, a wine bottle, a pair of dark glasses, a mask, but mostly we like to show we are still strikers underneath, arms bands and all. This effect is very important to our aims. To simplify things, we hang signs around our necks, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in lively colors, indicating the characters portrayed."   

In 1967, El Teatro left the fields and moved to Del Rey and Fresno before settling in 1971 into a permanent home in San Juan Bautista.

In the next few years, the developing Chicano movement engaged Valdez’s imagination and he began to write for a different kind of actor and theater. His play Zoot Suit, based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial of 1942-3, opened in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in July 1978 and ran for eleven months.

The background of the Sleepy Lagoon trial lies in the well-documented history of the Depression era Los Angeles Establishment at war with its Mexican population. Carey McWilliams, in his book Southern California, An Island On the Land, tells of the attempt by Los Angeles County in the 1930s to rid itself of Mexicans through an extensive program of repatriation. In 1932 alone, over 11,000 Mexicans were sent "home" at county expense. State librarian Kevin Starr in his history of the 40s, The Dream Endures, comments that "each so-called repatriation–with its overt program of ethnic cleansing–… chillingly reflected scenes in Europe in relocation programs that would soon be seeking a final solution."

Yet, a second group of young people could not be so easily brushed aside. These were the American-born sons and daughters of Mexican parents. Disenchanted and alienated from both homelands, these young people often expressed a deep hostility for the dominant California culture. In 1942, the Hearst papers led a newspaper campaign attacking "Mexican" juvenile delinquency and "Mexican" crime. Carey McWilliams reports that "actually the increase in juvenile delinquency among Mexicans was less than the average increase for the community and below that for one or two other special groups." Nonetheless, an inflamed public cried out for action.

Valdez’ musical play Zoot Suit tells the story of Henry Reyna and his friends who are caught up in the chaos of these times and eventually become the unfairly accused defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon trial. They served eighteen months of their sentences before being freed by an appellate court. Subsequently, newspapers dropped the word "Mexican" from their reports, and substituted, instead, the term pachuco or zoot suiter. In the style of Expressionist theater, Zoot Suit employs a narrator, El Pachuco, who interacts both with the audience and the characters on stage. El Pachuco also shows us his Aztec origin when he becomes the nahual or the "other self" who comforts Henry during his stay in solitary confinement. (This may be the first use of San Quentin as the backdrop of a play on the American stage.)

In 1981, Valdez adapted Zoot Suit into a movie for Universal Pictures. Viewers today can appreciate the historical background of the story in addition to Valdez’s hallmarks: language that mixes Spanish and English, dramatic action interspersed with music and dance, a palpable political intent, and the use of authentic actors in Chicano parts.

Valdez’s second film opened in 1987: La Bamba, the story of Ricardo Valenzuela, known to the world of rock ’n roll as Ritchie Valens. This film, which might be called the other half of the Buddy Holly story, follows Ritchie from his Southern California high school days through his discovery at a local concert arranged by his mother. The film ends after a concert in Iowa when he accepts a ride with Buddy Holly on the airplane which crashed, taking both to their deaths. Valens was only 17.

San Juan Bautista

Luis Valdez has made history as the first Chicano writer to open a play on Broadway, as the first Chicano to direct his own movie, and he has led a movement that has helped Chicano theater develop in many states. His own company continues to produce both original work and Valdez’s adaptations of more mythical folk dramas at Christmas time in the Mission of San Juan Bautista. The company alternates a revised version of a medieval shepherd’s play, La Pastorela, with La Virgen del Tepeyac, a nativity story.

The singing, the broad, impassioned acting style, and the exotic mixture of colloquial Spanish and English draw visitors differing in age, ethnicity and social class. Although audiences must often drive long distances to visit this town on Highway 156 between Salinas and Hollister, these Christmas offerings often sell out.

The address of El Teatro Campesino is 705 Fourth Street, San Juan Bautista; telephone (831) 623-2444. Website: www.elteatrocampesino.com.

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