Valdez, Luis: 1940—: Playwright, Director, Writer, Actor, Teacher

views updated May 09 2018

Luis Valdez: 1940: Playwright, Director, Writer, Actor, Teacher

Acknowledged as the "godfather of Chicano theater," Luis Valdez is the founder and artistic director of El Teatro Campesino, which translates to The Farmworkers Theater. Started in 1965, Valdez has led the theater company to international acclaim and numerous awards. The author and director of numerous plays, Valdez has also written and directed two films: Zoot Suit, based on his play of the same name and La Bamba, the 1987 hit movie based on the life of the Mexican-American rock star, Ritchie Valens. It's his work with El Teatro Campesino, however, and his dedication to advancing the role of the arts in people's lives that sets Valdez apart from his contemporaries. "If you want to understand modern Latino theater, you have to know that Luis was the start," Sean San Jose of San Fran-cicso's Campo Santo Theater Company told Karen D'Souza of the San Jose Mercury News. "Everything that came after him was informed by him."

Born Luis Miguel Valdez on June 26, 1940 in Delano, California, Valdez was raised in the agricultural labor camps around California where his parents worked in the fields, picking what ever crop was in season. It was a small role in an elementary school play and seeing his parents and those like them work the long, grueling hours for little pay that moved Valdez to use the theater to shed light on the Latino experience. "I took what I most feared, the thing I was most ashamed of, and turned it into something I could write about," he told students at San Diego State Universtiy in 2000.

El Teatro Campesino

Following graduation from high school, Valdez attended San Jose State University where he produced his first play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, in 1964. Following a short time with the famed San Francisco Mime Troupe, Valdez joined activist Cesar Chavez in 1965 and sought to raise funds for the grape boycott and farmworkers strike that Chavez had organized, and bring attention to the plight of migrant farmworkers. Thus begun El Teatro Campesino which performed short plays based on the struggles of the farmworkers and people of Mexican descent. "He addressed cultural and Chicano issues from the point of view of a migrant farmworker," Professor Arsenio Cordova of the University of New Mexico told the Albuquerque Journal. "He's been able to address those attitudes totally, of discrimination."

At a Glance . . .

Born Luis Miguel Valdez on June 26, 1940, in Delano, CA; married Guadalupe, August 23, 1969; children: Anahuac, Kinan, Lakin. Education: San Jose State University, 1964.

Career: Founder and artistic director, El Teatro Campesino, 1965-; playwright: The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, 1964; La Virgen de Tepeyac, 1971; La Carpa de los Rasquachis, 1974; El Fin del Mundo, 1976; Zoot Suit, 1979; Tibercio Vasquez, 1980; Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution, 1983; I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, 1986; Ban-dido!, 1994; The Mummified Deer, 2000; Mundo Mata, 2001; screenwriter: Which Way Is Up?, 1977; Zoot Suit (also director),1982; La Bamba (also director), 1987; author: Actos: Produced Between 1965-70, 1971; Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature, (with Stan Steiner), 1972; Pensamiento Serpentino: A Chicano Approach to the Theater of Reality, 1973; University of California, Santa Cruz; lecturer in theater arts, University of California, Berkeley, lecturer in Chicano History and Theater; Center for Teledramatic Arts and Technology at California State University, founding faculty tenured professor.

Memberships: Writers Guild of America; Society of State Directors and Choreographers; California Arts Council; National Endowment of the Arts.

Awards: Obie Award, 1969; Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle Award, 1969, 1972, 1978; Emmy Award 1973; Best Musical Picture Golden Globe nomination, 1981; San Francisco Bay Critics Circle Award, 1983; Governors Award of the California Arts Council, 1990; Aquila Azteca Award, Government of Mexico, 1994.

Addresses: El Teatro Campesino, PO Box 1250, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045.

After four years the small theater company received national recognition by winning an Obie Award in New York and a Los Angeles Drama Critics Award in 1969, and then another L.A. Drama Critics Award in 1972. In 1977 Valdez co-wrote the screenplay for Which Way is Up?, a comedy starring Richard Pryor, and received a Rockefeller Foundation Artists-In-Residence grant which enabled him to write the most famous play to come out of El Teatro Campesino in 1979, Zoot Suit.

Zoot Suit was based on the murder of a Mexican American and the subsequent unfair trial of Mexican Americans or zoot suiters, as they were termed by the press in Los Angeles in the early 1940s. A musical, Valdez's Zoot Suit become one of the most popular plays to have ever originated in Los Angeles and was the first play by a Chicano to be presented on Broadway. A movie version, also written and directed by Valdez and starring Edward James Olmos, was released in 1981 and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Musical Picture.

La Bamba

Valdez had his most mainstream success in 1987 with another film he wrote and directed, La Bamba. The story of Mexican American rock and roller Ritchie Valens, whose brief time in the spotlight ended when he was killed in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly, was one of that year's biggest box office successes. That same year, Valdez adapted his play, Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution, for PBS and won the prestigous Peabody Award. That play had previously won the San Francisco Bay Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, when it premiered in 1983.

In 1993 Valdez co-wrote and directed a made-for-TV movie of The Cisco Kid starring Jimmy Smits. Broadcast on the Turner Television Network, the entire production was filmed on location in Mexico. The following year, Valdez received the prestigious Aguila Azteca Award (Golden Eagle Award), which is the highest honor bestowed by the Mexican government for citizens of other countries.

In 2000 Valdez became a founding faculty tenured professor at the Center for Teledramatic Arts and Technology at California State University, Monterey Bay. In this role, the playwright works with students from a variety of backgrounds and encourages them to use technology in an effort to continue the tradition of raising social issues through art. "Today, the opportunity to distribute artistic work and share untold stories has never been greater," Valdez told Alejandra Navarro of the Modesto Bee, adding that he envisioned live theater going out over the Internet.

Back to "the Farmworker Question"

In 2001 Valdez returned to a play he began writing in 1976, and to a subject matter that's never left him: farmworkers. "It's been 25 years," Valdez confessed to the San Jose Mercury News. "It's time to come full circle, to come back to the farmworker question." Mundo Mata tells the story of two migrant worker brothers divided by their beliefs. One brother is idealistic and eager to join the United Farm Workers, while the other falls into drugs after a tour of duty in Vietnam, and begins working for the landowners.

In the title role of Mundo was one of Valdez's sons, Kinan, who shares his father's beliefs in the social significance of art and seeks to instill those ideas in El Teatro Campesino of the future. "We, the new generation at the theater, really want to take the company back to its roots in agitational propaganda," Kinan Valdez told the San Jose Mercury News. "The farm-workers are still stuck in the same place. We want to remind people of the struggle."

In his work, Valdez attempts to illustrate, not just the plight of Latinos and the prejudices they face, but also the fact that there are differences among all people and that there is much to be learned from them. "What comes out in the final analysis," he told the students at San Diego State University, "is we are all more alike than we think, we're just from different tribes."

Selected Works


The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, 1964.

La Virgen de Tepeyac, 1971.

La Carpa de los Rasquachis, 1974.

El Fin del Mundo, 1976.

Zoot Suit, 1979.

Tibercio Vasquez, 1980.

Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution, 1983.

I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, 1986.

Bandido!, 1994.

The Mummified Deer, 2000.

Mundo Mata, 2001.


Which Way Is Up?, 1977.

Zoot Suit, (also director)1982.

La Bamba, (also director) 1987.

Television Plays and Movies

Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution, (also director) 1987.

La Pastorela: A Shepherd's Tale, 1991.

The Cisco Kid, (also director), 1993.


Actos: Produced Between 1965-70, Cucaracha Press, 1971.

Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature, (with Stan Steiner), Knopf, 1972.

Pensamiento Serpentino: A Chicano Approach to the Theater of Reality, Cucaracha Press, 1973.


Albuquerque Journal, April 1, 2001.

Daily Aztec (San Diego State University), May 11, 2000.

Modesto Bee, April 29, 2000.

San Jose Mercury News, May 31, 2001.


Additional information for this profile was obtained from El Teatro Campesino.

Brian Escamilla

Luis Valdez

views updated Jun 08 2018

Luis Valdez

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

American Film, July/August, 1987, p. 15.

National Council on the Arts: Luis Valdez July 23, 1997; " "

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. □