Valdez, Luis (1940—)

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Valdez, Luis (1940—)

Luis Valdez is considered to be the father of Chicano theater. He is the instigator of the contemporary Chicano theatrical movement and its most outstanding playwright. Valdez has distinguished himself as an actor, director, playwright, and film maker. However, it was in his role as the founding director of El Teatro Campesino, a theater of farm workers in California, that his efforts inspired young Chicano activists across the country to use theater as a means of organizing students, communities, and labor unions.

Luis Valdez was born on June 26, 1940, into a family of migrant farm workers in Delano, California. The second of ten children, he began to work the fields at the age of six and to follow the crops. Although Valdez's education was constantly interrupted, he nevertheless finished high school and went on to San Jose State College, where he majored in English and pursued his interest in theater. While there he won a playwriting contest with his one-act The Theft (1961). In 1963 the Drama Department produced his play The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa. After graduating from college in 1964, Valdez joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe and learned the techniques of agitprop (agitation and propaganda) theater and Italian commedia dell'arte (comedy of art), both of which influenced Valdez's development of the basic format of Chicano theater: the one-act presentational acto or "act." In 1965 Valdez enlisted in César Chávez's mission to organize farm workers in Delano into a union. It was there that Valdez brought together farm workers and students into El Teatro Campesino to dramatize the plight of the farm workers. The publicity and success gained by the troupe led to the spontaneous appearance of a national Chicano theater movement.

In 1967 Valdez and El Teatro Campesino left the unionizing effort to expand their theater beyond agitprop and farm worker concerns. From then on, Valdez and the theater have explored most of the theatrical genres that have been important to Mexicans in the United States, including religious pageants, vaudeville with the down-and-out pelado or underdog figure, and dramatized corridos, or ballads. The new type of socially engaged theater that El Teatro Campesino pioneered led to the creation of a full-blown theatrical movement in fields and barrios across the country. For more than three decades, El Teatro Campesino and Luis Valdez have dramatized the political and cultural concerns of Hispanics, initially among workers and their supporters and later among students in universities and the general public through stage, television, and film. In establishing the canon of what teatro chicano should be, Valdez and El Teatro Campesino published their actos (short one-act agitprop pieces) in 1971 with a preface in which Valdez outlined their theatrical principals: (1) Chicanos must be seen as a nation with geographic, religious, cultural, and racial roots in the Southwest; teatros must further the idea of nationalism and create a national theater based on identification with the Amerindian past; (2) the organizational support of the national theater must be from within and totally independent; (3) "Teatros must never get away from La Raza.… If the Raza will not come to the theater, then the theater must go to the Raza. This, in the long run, will determine the shape, style, content, spirit and form of el teatro chicano. " Valdez and his theater did expand by taking Chicano theater to Broadway and more commercial venues and by moving into commercial cinema and television.

During the late 1960s and the 1970s, El Teatro Campesino produced many of Valdez's plays, including Los vendidos (1967, The Sell-Outs), The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa (1968), Bernabé (1970), Dark Root of a Scream (1971), La Carpa de los Rascuachis (1974), and El Fin del Mundo (1976). In 1978, Valdez broke into mainstream theater in Los Angeles with the Mark Taper Forum's production of his Zoot Suit and, in 1979, with the Broadway production of the same play. In 1986 he had a successful run of his play I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges at the Los Angeles Theater Center.

In Bernabé, one of Valdez's most poetic plays, a young village idiot is transformed into a natural man by his marriage to La Tierra (The Earth) and his subsequent death. Employing Aztec mythology and symbols in a tale about contemporary barrio characters, the play explores the pre-Colombian heritage of Chicano society. The Mayan theme of "death is life, and life is death" was developed here and continued to appear in Valdez's later works. The writing of Bernabé marked the beginning of Valdez's search for the meaning of Aztec and Mayan legends, history, and philosophy, but also revealed the influence of Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca, who also strove to elevate the country folk to heroic and mythic stature.

Valdez's screenwriting career began with early film and television versions of Corky González's poem "I Am Joaquín" (1969) and with his own "Los Vendidos." Later, he wrote a film adaptation of Zoot Suit (1982). However, his real incursion into major Hollywood productions and success came with his writing and directing of La Bamba, the screen biography of Chicano rock 'n' roll star Ritchie Valens. Other screen plays include Corridos (1987) and the successful television movies La Pastorela (1991) and The Cisco Kid (1993). Valdez's plays, essays, and poems have been widely anthologized. He published two collections of plays: Luis Valdez—The Early Works (1990) and Zoot Suit and Other Plays (1992). Valdez's awards include an Obie (1968), Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards (1969, 1972 and 1978), a special Emmy Award (1973), the San Francisco Bay Critics Circle for Best Musical (1983), and honorary doctorates from San Jose Sate University, Columbia College, and the California Institute of the Arts.

—Nicolás Kanellos

Further Reading:

Broyles-González, Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino: Theatre in the Chicano Movement. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.

Kanellos, Nicolás. The Hispanic American Almanac. Detroit, Gale Research, 1997.

Kanellos, Nicolás, and Claudio Esteva Fabregat, editors. Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States. Houston, Arte Público Press, 1994-95.