Luis Miguel Valdez Essay - Critical Essays

Luis Valdez

Luis Miguel Valdez American Literature Analysis

From the earliest and simplest actos to the complex sophistication of “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” nearly three decades later, Valdez’s plays have displayed a remarkable consistency of theme and purpose. Certainly, his work has evolved in scope, depth, and technique, but his basic objectives have remained constant: to expose social injustice, to satirize the oppressors, and to dramatize, in all of its fullness and variety, the struggle to achieve a viable Chicano identity.

Born into a family of migrant farmworkers, Valdez knew firsthand the effects of oppression and exploitation. It was therefore quite natural that his first short plays would deal with the struggles of the farmworkers to unionize. These early actos were improvised using a unique collaborative method: Valdez would simply ask striking workers to show what had happened to them during the day. Employing masks or crude signs to indicate different characters—workers, scabs, growers, and so forth—the strikers, under Valdez’s direction, produced skits of engaging immediacy, broad humor, and a pointed political message. Their purpose was to raise consciousness, deflate the opposition’s authority, and point to a solution. Yet the plays were quite entertaining as well, often transforming and releasing the workers’ immediate feelings of fear and frustration through comedy and withering satire.

Though some of the actos, such as Vietnam campesino (1970), can seem too bluntly didactic, Valdez learned much from them about making theater a vehicle for inspiring social action. He also sensed, eventually, the need to ground the Chicano experience in something more enduring than immediate political struggle. He returned to the ancient wellsprings of Aztec and Mayan culture to provide such a groundwork for the contemporary Chicano identity.

In his introduction to Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature (1972), Valdez frames the problem of Chicano marginalization explicitly:His birthright to speak as Man has been forcibly stripped from him. To his conqueror he is patently sub-human, uncivilized, or culturally deprived. The poet in him flounders in a morass of lies and distortions about his conquered people. He loses his identity with mankind, and self-consciously struggles to regain his one-to-one relationship with human existence. It is a long way back. . . . Such is the condition of the Chicano.

That “long way back” took Valdez to pre-Columbian Mexico. What he found there were the achievements of Aztec and Mayan civilization, their astonishing developments in medicine, art, poetry, hygiene, urban planning, and religion, all of which he compares favorably to their European counterparts of the time. To combat the degradation of centuries of Anglo racism, of being seen as “foreigners in the continent of their birth,” Valdez wants to reconnect Chicanos to an ancient, proud, and venerable culture. Chicanos must, in his view, revive this connection and rethink their history if they are to maintain an identity in Anglo society.

Valdez attempts this reconnection in a variety of ways. In Bernabé (1970), he creates a character, the village lunatic, who physically and metaphorically marries La Tierra (the Earth) and thus reestablishes the Mayan reverence for it. In Zoot Suit and Bandido!, Valdez reexamines history from the Chicano and Mexican perspective. Thus Tiburcio Vasquez, whom history had portrayed as a mere bandit working the California countryside from 1850 to 1875, becomes in Bandido! a revolutionary bent on political rebellion. Zoot Suit retrieves for the American conscience an overlooked period of intense racism culminating in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the riots that followed. Both plays try not only to set the record straight but also to discover a source of pride for Chicanos in a history that has been unjustly debased.

The consequence of Chicanos being cut off from the life-giving power of their history and culture is brilliantly dramatized in “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!,” in which Valdez explores the deeply problematic nature of assimilation into Anglo culture. In their desire to fit in with middle-class America, the members of the Villa family find themselves silenced and marginalized. Bit-part actors who rarely receive speaking roles, Buddy and Connie Villa have achieved a comfortable success, but their only connection with their own culture is the stereotyped Mexicans they portray on film. Their son, who enrolled in Harvard Law School at age sixteen, represents the possibility for the epitome of Anglo success. Yet he rebels against this assimilation and drops out of school, only to discover just how rigid the limitations are for Chicanos who reject an Anglo identity.

Stylistically, Valdez is clearly not a realist, though some of his plays—those, for example, depicting actual historical events—employ elements of realism. In all of his plays, however, Valdez takes pains (often in the manner of Bertolt Brecht) to ensure that his audiences never forget that they are watching a play. He does not want to create the illusion of reality or to manipulate the audience into emotional identification with the characters. Plays within plays, characters who speak directly to the audience, radical shifts in time, and many other devices all serve to disrupt the illusion of reality and focus the audience’s attention on the artifice before them. Such strategies serve Valdez’s purposes well, for he wants audiences to maintain the necessary distance to reflect on the problems that his plays present and to relate them to the world outside the theater. Often the plays are open-ended or have multiple endings, and in this way, too, the audience must actively engage the play and resolve it for themselves. These methods do not provide a comfortable or easy theatrical experience, but the rewards of thinking hard about Valdez’s plays are indeed worth the effort.

Las dos caras del patroncito

First produced: 1965 (first published, 1971)

Type of work: Play

The boss trades places with one of his farmworkers and discovers how exploited they are.

Las dos caras del patroncito (the two faces of the little boss) typifies, in many ways, Valdez’s early actos. The piece grew out of a collaborative improvisation during the grape strike of 1965 and dramatized the immediate and intense feelings of its audience. Like all the actos, it is brief, direct, didactic, intending not only to express the workers’ anger and urge them to join the union but also to satirize the growers and reveal their injustice. The play succeeds brilliantly by enacting a total reversal of what Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche termed the master/slave relationship.

The play begins with an undocumented Mexican worker being visited by his...

(The entire section is 2872 words.)