Study Guide

Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez Biography

Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111226308-Valdez.jpgLuis Miguel Valdez Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Luis Miguel Valdez was born on June 26, 1940, in Delano, California, the second of ten brothers and sisters. His mother and father were migrant farmworkers, and Luis began working in the fields at the age of six. Because his family traveled to the harvests in the San Joaquin Valley, Luis received little uninterrupted schooling.

In an interview, Valdez discussed one significant, and ultimately fortunate, consequence of such a disruptive early life: His family had just finished a cotton harvest; the season had ended, the rains begun, but because their truck had broken down, the family had to stay put. Leaving school one day, Luis realized he had left behind his paper lunch bag, a precious commodity in 1946, given the paper shortages and the family’s poverty. When he returned to get it, however, he found his teacher had torn it up. She was using it to make papier-mâché animal masks for the school play. Luis was amazed by the transformation. Although he did not even know what a play was at the time, he decided to audition and was given the leading role as a monkey. The play was about Christmas in the jungle, and the following weeks of colorful preparation were exhilarating. A week before the show was to begin, however, his father got the truck fixed, and the family moved away. Valdez has said of the experience: “That left an unfillable gap, a vacuum I’ve been pouring myself into ever since.”

The pang of that early disappointment sparked a fascination for the theater and a wealth of creative energy that was to bring Valdez remarkable success in the years ahead. Despite his intermittent schooling, he won a scholarship to San Jose State College in 1960. There he studied theater history and developed a lasting enthusiasm for classical Greek and Roman drama. His own work also began to take shape, and his first one-act play, The Theft, won a regional playwriting award. In 1965, he directed his first full-length play,...

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Luis Valdez Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Luis Miguel Valdez was born on June 26, 1940, in Delano, California, the second of ten brothers and sisters. His father and mother were migrant farmworkers. Already working in the fields by the age of six, Valdez spent his childhood traveling to the harvests in the agricultural centers of the San Joaquin Valley. Despite having little uninterrupted early schooling, he managed to win a scholarship to San Jose State College in 1960.

Soon after his arrival at college, he won a regional playwriting contest for his first one-act play, The Theft. Encouraged by his teachers to write a full-length work, Valdez complied with The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, which was promptly produced by the San Jose State drama department. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1964, Valdez spent the next several months traveling in Cuba; on his return, he joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe under Ron Davis, where he worked for one year, learning from the troupe’s commedia dell’arte techniques, which he was later to adapt in new ways.

Partly as a result of the sense of solidarity that he gained from his experiences while in Cuba, Valdez returned home to Delano, where the United Farm Workers Union was then being formed under the leadership of César Chávez. Amid a strike for union recognition, the union officials responded enthusiastically to Valdez’s offer to create an educational theater group. Using volunteer actors from among the strikers, he formed El Teatro Campesino in 1965. Traveling on a flatbed truck from field to field, the troupe produced a series of one-act political skits dubbed actos (actions, or gestures), performing them in churches, storefronts, and on the edges of the fields themselves.

Enormously successful, the plays soon won outside attention and led to a United States tour in the summer of 1967. Later that year, Valdez left the fields to found the Centro Campesino Cultural in Del Rey, California. Similar recognition followed, with an Obie Award in New York in 1969 for “creating a workers’ theater to demonstrate the politics of survival” and an invitation to perform at the Theatre des Nations festival in Nancy, France—one of four tours to Europe between 1969 and 1980. Later in 1969, Valdez and the...

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Luis Valdez Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Luis Miguel Valdez (VAL-dehz), political activist, playwright, director, essayist, and founder of El Teatro Campesino, is the most prominent figure in modern Chicano theater. Born on June 26, 1940, to migrant farmworker parents, he was second in a family of ten brothers and sisters. In spite of working in the fields from the age of six, Valdez completed high school and received a scholarship to San Jose State College, where he developed his early interest in theater. The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa was written while Valdez was a student there. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in English and drama in 1964, he joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, whose work was based on commedia dell’arte and the theater of Bertolt Brecht. These experiences heavily influenced Valdez’s work, especially in terms of style and production.

A 1965 meeting with César Chávez, who was organizing migrant farmworkers in Delano, California, led to the formation of El Teatro Campesino, the cultural and propagandistic arm of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. Valdez created short improvisational pieces, called actos, for the troupe. All the actos are characterized by the use of masks, stereotyped characters, farcical exaggeration, and improvisation. Las dos caras del patroncito (the two faces of the boss) and La quinta temporada (the fifth season) are actos from this early period that highlight the plight of the farmworkers and the benefits of unionization. Valdez left the union in 1967, bringing El Teatro Campesino with him to establish El Centro Campesino Cultural. He wanted to broaden the concerns of the troupe by fostering Chicanos’ pride in their cultural heritage and by depicting their problems in the Anglo culture. Los vendidos (the sellouts), for example, satirizes Chicanos who attempt to assimilate into a white, racist society, and La conquista de Mexico (the conquest of Mexico) links the fall of the Aztecs with the internal dissension of Chicano activists. In 1968 El Teatro Campesino moved toward producing full-length plays, starting with Valdez’s The Shrunken Head of Pancho...

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Luis Valdez Biography (Drama for Students)

Luis Valdez was born June 26, 1940, to migrant farm workers in Delano, California; he was one of ten children. His interest in drama began early: a schoolteacher introduced him to puppetry, and in high school he appeared on a local television station. He also periodically helped his family in the fields, as they moved from farm to farm, following the planting and harvest schedule. He received his Bachelor Arts in English from the San Jose State University, where he produced his first play. Later, his alma mater awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Arts degree.

Valdez worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe for a year before helping Hispanic labor leader César Chávez organize workers during the Great Delano Grape Strike of 1965. To support this effort, Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino (The Farmworkers' Theater), serving as its Artistic Director for many years. This small theater group began performing actos—brief theatrical "sketches"—to communicate the need for unionization among farmworkers and to educate the public about the migrant workers' plight. Eventually, the troupe took a more artistic turn, producing plays in San Francisco and elsewhere. In 1968, El Teatro won an Obie (a distinguished off-Broadway award) for "demonstrating the politics of survival."

Valdez began writing mitos or "myths," such as his 1967 Dark Root of a Scream, a condemnation of the Vietnam War and his 1973 La carpa de los Rasquachis, a story of the Mexican immigrant experience. His unique combination of acto (sketch), mito, and corrido (musical), along with his personal brand of Brechtian self-consciousness, combined with his goal of socio-political change quickly brought Valdez to the forefront of Chicano theater, and he enjoyed success with nationwide tours of his works. Zoot Suit (1978) was produced with the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles, while he continued his leadership role at El Teatro Campesino.

Although Zoot Suit received mixed reviews during its New York debut, Valdez had the honor of being the first Chicano director to have a play produced on Broadway, and popular enthusiasm for the play encouraged him to take it on a successful national tour. This accomplishment marked the beginning of his rise as an individual artist, and he produced a well-received film version of Zoot Suit in 1981. In 1987, he directed the hit film La Bamba, which chronicled the short life of Hispanic rock star Richie Valens, and created several performances for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In the 1990s, Valdez divided his time between screenwriting and teaching at California State University, Monterey Bay.