Valdez: The Godfather of Chicano Theater
April 26, 2000
"Our teatro [theater] is an act of faith-faith in ourselves, in our people, in humanity, in the world, in the universe, in the ultimate connection of all things, in the Creator... That's our work. It takes belief, action, love and pain, and we put it together and perform." Luis Valdez, May, 1975In 1965, the fertile fields of Delano, CA., produced a new, revolutionary crop. The seeds of discontent, sown for generations, finally bore the fruit of resistance -- with some help from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). Working with the UFW to organize the Delano grape workers' strike that year, a 25-year-old aspiring playwright named Luis Valdez used theater -- using the bed of a farm truck as his stage -- to eloquently voice the anger and hope of America's disenfranchised Chicano minority.From the wood of those turbulent times, Valdez -- with his soon-to-be legendary acting troupe, El Teatro Campesino (The Farmworkers' Theater) -- carpentered a nascent Chicano theater where there was none and brought forth a new era of Chicano artistic expression in America.The distinguished artistic career that followed took Valdez to Broadway and Hollywood, and is currently taking him to Washington. After 31 years and numerous triumphs in both film and theater, the now 56-year-old Valdez -- these days, a cyber-surfing tenured professor at California State University Monterey Bay -- is being honored by President Clinton with a nomination to serve on the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the influential -- and troubled -- agency that oversees federal sponsorship and funding of the arts in America. This week, Valdez's nomination was approved by the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, and will be sent to the Senate floor for final vote of approval at an undetermined future date."In terms of Chicano theater, Luis is the guy, the absolute guy," says Diane Rodriguez, the co-artistic director of the Latino Theater Initiative at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and a former member of El Teatro Campesino. "He saw what was happening with Cesar Chavez in Delano and plugged right into that. He helped define the Chicano movement through art."For Valdez, the NEA nomination is the latest feather in a remarkably plumed artistic cap. In popular culture, he is probably best known as the director of the tremendously successful 1987 film, La Bamba, the story of Mexican-American rock 'n' roll singer Richie Valens. Prior to this, however, Valdez enjoyed (and continues to enjoy) the position of America's pre-eminent Chicano playwright, having penned such works as Zoot Suit, Corridos and Bandido! Most recently, Valdez directed The Cisco Kid, starring "NYPD Blue" star Jimmy Smits, for cable television."I think he was what could be considered the godfather of Chicano theater from its roots," says Rosa Maria Escalante, a bilingual educator who has worked with Valdez at El Teatro Campesino since 1969. "He was the first one to take up the banner and begin a theater company, and cleared the way for other companies to begin. He continues to open up realms of work with the theater and in the movies.""His work is about a struggle to belong that is understood by everyone," says Rodriguez. "Because of his history, he will bring a voice that is rarely heard in the American theater. He'll bring that history to the NEA at a time when its future is so spotty. I think he will be a strong advocate."For the past several years, the NEA has been at the center of a firestorm of controversy, pitting the conservative right against the artistic, liberal left in a struggle to determine what defines "good" art, and, more importantly, if the public should subsidize any of it -- bad or good.The right piously spoke of "perversion" and "depravity" when it balked at paying for controversial photos of the late Robert Mapplethorpe's backside.The left screamed "censorship" and several NEA-endowed artists added fuel to the fire by reacting provocatively. (In a veritable Niagara of creative impulse, one "performance" artist reportedly smeared herself, onstage, with NEA-subsidized canned yams to symbolize her "sense of alienation in a fascist environment.") The result of this surreal brouhaha has been a 40 percent reduction in NEA funding in this year's budget and new, draconian rules imposed by a Republican Congress dictating who gets a piece of this smaller, more "moral" federal pie.Into this highly politicized, carnival-like atmosphere steps citizen Valdez to serve a six-year term on the NEA board. "I have confidence the NEA will survive, in spite of all the criticism," says Valdez optimistically."It's a matter of saving the NEA and showing how it serves the country. "Without artists, our society is completely impoverished," he continues. "Too often, I think, the arts are the first thing cut from school budgets. Cutting the arts is cutting potential for the future. The arts are a human necessity, an integral part of the social fabric. We're talking freedom of expression here. Once people learn to express themselves, they are better members of society."Valdez hopes to bring his passion for art and a fresh perspective to the NEA. "Coming from the West Coast, I can bring a western perspective to the NEA vision," he explains. "Most of what passes for art is seen through an East Coast vision."The "western perspective" of which Valdez speaks when discussing his future at the NEA is not a mere appreciation for cowboy paintings. It involves the new Bethlehem-Silicon Valley -- and what Valdez sees as the very high-tech future of artistic expression. "I have an understanding of where art and technology are going," says Valdez. "It is no coincidence that the leader in CD-ROM technology is Hollywood."These days, Valdez (or Professor Valdez, as he is known around the CSUMB campus) channels much of his considerable energy into the exploration of new frontiers in the mostly uncharted world of technological art.While his NEA nomination is a pleasant, if not flattering topic of conversation, Valdez reserves his real enthusiasm for discussions of his role as the head of the Department of Teledramatic Arts and Technology at CSUMB and what he hopes to accomplish there."In Monterey, we sit at the nexus of Silicon Valley and Hollywood," says Valdez. "We are attempting to ride that wave."A lot of technology is not good without art," he explains. "To make a computer work for us as a tool for human development, you have to draw upon other traditional forms of art such as theater, drawing and performance. In the future, techies cannot remain just techies. They must be artists as well. Anyone who can understand this will have a lot more options in the future."The CSUMB student who signs up for Professor Valdez's courses will be part Van Gogh, part computer geek (though hopefully a bit more well-adjusted than both), and in the future will enjoy, according to Valdez, considerably more employability than the traditional artist suffering from malnutrition in a cold-water flat. "I want students to be as creative and entrepreneurial as possible. They will be able to create information and visual imagery for sale. It's all a matter of where their imaginations will take them."Valdez did not always breathe the rarified air of presidential honors and futuristic art. He was born in 1940, the second in a family of 10 children, in Delano. His parents were migrant workers who traveled all over the state in the constant search for employment. Though the family eventually settled in San Jose, it was in school at age six in Stratford, CA, that young Luis discovered the magical world of theater. "My first experience with theater was in school was where I was cast in the part of a monkey in a Christmas play, and wore a papier mache mask," he recalls. "Later, I started to make masks on my own. When I got a group of kids together, we would use the masks and play theater. I started to write scripts, but for a long time I thought it was just child's play."Valdez went to San Jose State University on a math/science scholarship, but switched to English to become a playwright. After graduation, he briefly associated with a mime troupe in San Francisco, but found his way home to the fields of Delano and the grape workers' strike. It was here that his trademark fusion of politics and art was defined, a trademark that informs his works to this day.Valdez and El Teatro Campesino remained affiliated with the UFW for the next two years, putting on brief morality plays known as "actos" that were intended to politicize farm workers around the state. However, Valdez ultimately wanted more. Of that time, he wrote, "We became more concerned with the broad sweep of history that the Chicano was caught up in.The international struggle by working class people all over the world, the effect of US imperialism on Vietnam, Latin America, Asia, etc...We saw the Chicano as a part of a total thrust by humanity struggling toward something, a new world, a new society. A new vision of mankind.""Luis felt artistically limited by the UFW," says Escalante. "He wanted to address other things. The civil rights movement in general...There was an amiable split between the company and the UFW and the company moved on to more spiritual, intellectual and cultural things."Over the next decade, Valdez and El Teatro Campesino honed their craft, developing a unique, distinctly Chicano brand of theater. Valdez created plays that went on to become standards of Chicano theater, such as Soldado Razo, which dealt with young Chicanos fighting in Vietnam; Dark Root of a Scream, which continues after the death of a soldier; and the widely acclaimed La carpa del los Rasquachis (The Tent of the Underdogs), which follows a Mexican character crossing the border and the subsequent indignities he endures until his death.During this time, Valdez drew upon many diverse influences, such as the theater of Bertolt Brecht, Spanish and Mexican theater, Russian "agitprop" theater (from "agitation" and "propaganda," a tool used by Russian communists) and, perhaps more influentially, ancient Mayan culture. "I'm part Mayan. It's a natural interest I took," says Valdez. "I was attracted to the mathematics and astronomy of it. It seemed to me that there was more to it than just a primitive civilization."In 1978, Zoot Suit, Valdez's first work to enjoy mainstream acceptance, became the first Chicano play to be produced on Broadway. The play dramatizes the infamous "Sleepy Lagoon" murder case and the subsequent "Pachuco Riots" that took place in war-time Los Angeles. New York critics held their noses and audiences stayed away in droves, thus ensuring a very short (four week) run. However, the Los Angeles production was a smashing success, playing to sold out houses for 11 months.For Valdez, the success of Zoot Suit led to a notable career as a film director in Hollywood. The box-office hit La Bamba secured his place as a viable cinematic artist and enabled Valdez to plan for future projects, such as a movie bio of Cesar Chavez. "This film will be a testimonial to the life of a man who was my friend and mentor," says Valdez. With another major film project he has been working on -- the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo -- Valdez drew fire from the Chicano theater community in 1992 when Valdez announced the casting of Italian-American actress Laura San Giacomo in the title role. The production was subsequently postponed and is now, according to Valdez, "in between."Anyone who has enjoyed as much success as Luis Valdez will probably tell you that it's lonely at the top. Valdez -- unquestionably in a league of his own in the world of Chicano arts -- is not without critics. For instance, in her 1994 book, El Teatro Campesino -- Theater in the Chicano Movement, Professor Yolanda Broyles-Gonzalez of the University of California Santa Barbara paints a rather grim picture of Valdez as a misogynistic tyrant who takes total credit at El Teatro Campesino for what were actually collective endeavors. She writes, "The history of the company [El Teatro Campesino] has been constructed as the history of the life and times of Luis Valdez.As such, El Teatro Campesino history has been shaped into a male-dominated hierarchical structure that replicates oppressive dominant tendencies within society." Valdez is keenly aware of the criticism. When asked if women had been under-represented in his works, Valdez, without missing a beat, replied, "You've been reading Yolanda Broyles-Gonzales, haven't you? The idea that we have been suppressing women is not true. She did us a tremendous disservice. She had an axe to grind and she came in and did not interview everybody," says Valdez.Both Escalante and Rodriguez were associated with El Teatro Campesino at the time Broyles-Gonzales was researching the book in the late '70s. "In a lot of ways I feel she is correct, but in a lot of ways I disagree with her too," says Escalante. "She was here at a time of transition when a lot of the women were beginning to feel their power and energy and began resisting male dominance. If anything, the women have become stronger voices. It's not fair to compare what she wrote 15 years ago to the present.""Yolanda was trying to give us all credit, and I appreciate that," says Rodriguez. "But there were a lot of things that weren't right [in the book]. She wasn't completely accurate." Rodriguez adds, "All of us could have left the Teatro if we wanted to, but we never did. He [Luis Valdez] never held us back. All of us need to take responsibility for what we did."Valdez says that over time he has endured much criticism. "Over the years, people have come at me from both the left and the right," says Valdez. "I have also been severely criticized for changing. People say, 'Why are you not on a flatbed truck?' My experiences have changed me. If the world keeps changing and you don't change, it makes you a reactionary. You must continue to change as you perceive your reality to be."Valdez's current reality is of one of frenzied activity. At any given time, he is juggling movie deals, writing projects, teaching responsibilities and, now, demands by the NEA on the other side of the continent.The Chicano theater he fathered in 1965 is alive and well and growing throughout the United States. Younger Chicano playwrights occasionally suggest he has lost his edge but, regardless of their criticisms, Luis Valdez stands above most in his contribution to the arts in America."I think he's one of the major influences living today," says Phil Esparza, a former El Teatro member and current associate of Valdez at CSUMB. "Many of his works have underscored that the American dream is still possible. In our own community, it has shown that where there's a will there's a way and with some culture and nurturing, we can take our place along with other people.""I hope he continues," says Escalante. "I think right now, in a lot of ways, he might be doing a lot individually, but he needs to get out there and be the point man and break ground. Some people say he is doing it for himself, but I don't think that. I see him as a leader."