El Teatro Campesino

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El Teatro Campesino

The United States' annexation of Mexico's northern territories in 1858 marked the beginning of the Mexican-American theater arts tradition. Mexican-American (California Chicano, Texas Tejano, and New Mexico Hispano inclusive) theater evolved as an amalgamation of Mexican street theater arts such as the carpa (traveling tent theater) and the zarzuela (Spanish comedic opera) with a European, Bertolt Brechtian brand of sociopolitical drama. Until the 1960s civil rightsmovements, however, Mexican-American theatrical arts had not received mainstream recognition. In 1965, two Chicano activists—the young, fiery new actor/director, Luis Valdez, and the powerful farmworkers' organizer César Chávez—teamed up during California's "Great Delano Strike" and founded El Teatro Campesino Cultural (The Workers' Cultural Center). Valdez drew on first-hand experience as an actor/director working in San Francisco's Mime Troupe and a broad knowledge of Mexican drama, history, and myth to train striking farmworkers to perform and write politically savvy, bilingual performances. Valdez writes in his book, Actos: El Teatro Campesino, of El Teatro Campesino's mission: "Chicano theater must be revolutionary in technique as well as in content. It must be popular, subject to no other critics except the pueblo itself; but it must also educate the pueblo toward an appreciation of social change, on and off the stage."

El Teatro Campesino's performances became well-known among those involved in the "Brown Power Movement" of the 1960s. For example, one of El Teatro's first productions, titled Las dos caras del patroncito (The Two-Faced Boss), fully embodied El Teatro's ideal of developing a socially aware dramatic art form combining Aztec and European traditions. The loosely improvised, bilingually acted piece—composed of ten to 15 minute actos, or skits—not only candidly addresses a farmworker's plight at the hands of a money-grubbing boss, but does so with a tinge of humor; the influence of satirically playful Italian comedia dell'arte allows the piece to both incite action and offer the audience the possibility of laughing at "The Boss," who dons a yellow pig-face mask and hides behind a rent-a-goon bodyguard.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s El Teatro performed a series of plays that utilized the mito, or culturally anchored act, to explore the plight of the Chicano/a dwelling increasingly in inner-city barrios ("neighborhoods"). For example, in Las Vendidas (The Sell-Outs), the audience not only meets a Chicana Republican, Miss Jiménez, a gangbanger pachuco, and a revolucionario, but also gets a big taste of Aztec mythology and Mexican culture. Las Vendidas won the prestigious Obie Award in 1967. In 1971 Valdez and a professionalized El Teatro troupe moved to San Juan Bautista, where a range of performances continued to infuse the mythical dimension of Chicano/a identity—figures such as Huitzilpochtil (the Sun God), Quetzalcoatl, and the Virgin de Guadalupe would appear symbolically—to explore the everyday struggles of survival, from border crossing tragedies to romances and family breakups.

El Teatro's professionalization and broadened scope quickly led to recognition by mainstream critics. In the mid-1970s the famed British artistic director and drama critic Peter Brooks traveled to San Juan Bautista to work with El Teatro. The result: The Conference of the Birds, whose nation-wide success opened doors outside the Americas. El Teatro's follow-up production, La Carpa de los Rasquachis (The Tent of the Underdogs), toured eight European countries. And in 1979 El Teatro's Zoot Suit —a music-infused drama that retells the story of the 1942 Zoot Suit riots in Los Angeles of 1942 from a Chicano, Aztec-mythic point of view—was the first Chicano play to open on New York's Broadway. While Zoot Suit only had a short run, flopping at the box office, it received glowing critical reviews from drama critics.

Now in its thirtieth year as a professional theater-arts organization, El Teatro is recognized as a major contributor to dramatic arts. While El Teatro continues with performances in the Old Mission at San Juan Bautista—at Christmas they regularly perform their Chicano re-visioned miracle plays such as the La Virgen Del Tepeyac and La Pastorela —the members continue to experiment with new forms and techniques. El Teatro has moved into television, and Valdez has directed several films. Finally, it is largely due to El Teatro's struggle to clear a space in the dramatic arts terrain that opportunity has opened up for many contemporary Chicano/a playwrights—Cheríe Moraga, Ricardo Bracho, and Octavio Solis, to name a few—to express a more complicated (queer sexuality and gender inclusive) vision of what it means to be Latino/a in the United States.

—Frederick Luis Aldama

Further Reading:

Tatum, Charles. Chicano Literature. Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Valdez, Luis. Actos: El Teatro Campesino. San Juan Bautista, Cucaracha Press, 1971.