Luis Valdez Essay - Critical Essays

Valdez, Luis (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Luis Valdez 1940–

(Born Luis Miguel Valdez) Chicano dramatist, scriptwriter, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and director.

The following entry provides an overview of Valdez's career through 1992.

Considered the originator of modern Chicano theater, Valdez is best known as the founding director of El Teatro Campesino, a seminal, grassroots theater group initially formed to convince California migrant farmworkers of the value of unionization. Valdez, who writes some works in English and others in a blend of English and Spanish, is credited with having provided momentum to the Chicano theater movement through his highly vivid style and his ability to place the Chicano experience within a universal American framework.

Biographical Information

Born into a family of migrant farmworkers in Delano, California, Valdez began working in the fields at six years of age. Although his education was frequently interrupted by his family's constant travel, Valdez finished high school and subsequently attended San Jose State College. After graduating in 1964, Valdez joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe, from which he gained an appreciation of "agitprop" theater, which makes use of political agitation and propaganda to protest social injustice. Valdez returned to Delano in 1965 to assist César Chávez and the United Farmworkers Union in their efforts to unionize migrant workers. There Valdez organized the strikers into a performing group to dramatize the exploitation of farm-workers and to demonstrate the necessity of unionization for their financial survival. In 1967 Valdez and El Teatro Campesino began touring nationally, expanding their focus on the plight of migrant farmworkers to include the Chicanos' roots in Native American history, music, and myth. In the early 1970s Valdez's emphasis on mysticism and indigenous concerns eventually resulted in a split between El Teatro Campesino and the overall Chicano theater movement. Since the mid-1970s Valdez has become additionally involved in writing and directing for television and film productions.

Major Works

Valdez was credited early in his career with creating the acto, a short, often humorous dramatic sketch that employs the language of working-class Chicanos to present a lucid social or political message. Valdez's early actos, generally written or created with other members of El Teatro Campesino, often make use of humor and simple representational strategies, including signs imprinted with characters' occupations that are hung around actors' necks or masks that actors exchange to reverse their traditional roles. Valdez's plays of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including No saco nada de la escuela (1969), Vietnam campensino (1970), and Soldado razo (1971), deal with such subjects as the American school system's tendency to force cultural assimilation on minorities and the over-representation of Chicanos in the Vietnam War. Traditional Native American and modern issues converge in Dark Root of a Scream (1971), in which the death of a Chicano soldier is treated as a sacrifice to the gods, paralleling Aztec culture and history. By the mid-1970s El Teatro Campesino had become more commercially oriented. In 1978 Valdez's drama Zoot Suit enjoyed a highly successful run in Los Angeles. Considered the first play to draw large Mexican-American audiences to a mainstream American theater production, the drama is metatheatrical and documentary in nature. In this work Valdez uses Latin-American music, sections of courtroom transcripts, and quotes from newspaper reports to examine the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, in which several young Chicanos in east Los Angeles were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment based on circumstantial evidence. In subsequent works, such as his play I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges (1986) and La Bamba (1987), a film concerning Chicano pop star Ritchie Valens, Valdez has continued to deconstruct negative stereotypes regarding Chicanos and Mexicans within a mainstream perspective that avoids exclusive minority concerns.

Critical Reception

Although sometimes faulted for his overly idealistic rendering of Native American culture, Valdez has been credited with providing the impetus that led to the genesis of the Chicano theater movement and with creating the now-accepted genre of Chicano theater, as based on the acto. A leader and innovator, Valdez is widely recognized as one of the few dramatists who have been able to change the way Chicanos are perceived by white America. As Gerald C. Lubenow has noted, Valdez "has succeeded by shaping the experience of Chicanos into drama that speaks to all Americans."

Principal Works

The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa (drama) 1963
Las dos caras del patroncito (drama) 1965
La quinta temporada (drama) 1966
Los vendidos (drama) 1967
La conquista de México (drama) 1968
I Am Joaquín (screenplay) 1969
The Militants (drama) 1969
No saco nada de la escuela (drama) 1969
Bernabé (drama) 1970
Huelguistas (drama) 1970
Vietnam campesino (drama) 1970
Dark Root of a Scream (drama) 1971
La gran carpa de la familia Rascuachi (drama) 1971
Soldado razo (drama) 1971
Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature [editor, with Stan Steiner]...

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Criticism

John Harrop and Jorge Huerta (essay date March-May 1975)

SOURCE: "The Agitprop Pilgrimage of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino," in Theatre Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 17, March-May, 1975, pp. 30-9.

[An American professor and critic, Huerta has written many books on Chicano literature and drama in addition to serving variously as founder, director, and actor in many Chicano theater groups in California. In the following essay, he and Harrop provide an overview of Valdez's career with El Teatro Campesino, focusing in particular on his development as a playwright.]

San Juan Bautista is a very ordinary, small town in central California. Its chief attraction to outsiders is the Catholic Mission—one of those churches the Spanish...

(The entire section is 5688 words.)

R. G. Davis and Betty Diamond (essay date January-March 1981)

SOURCE: "Zoot Suit: From the Barrio to Broadway," in Ideologies and Literature, Vol. 3, No. 15, January-March, 1981, pp. 124-33.

[Davis is an American critic with a special interest in the theater. In the following essay, he and Diamond trace the evolution of Zoot Suit from its inception to Broadway and examine the reasons for its failure.]

Zoot Suit, by Luis Valdez, was the first Chicano play on Broadway. Valdez chose as his subject an actual event—the Sleepy Lagoon Murder case. On August 2, 1942, José Díaz was found dead in a dirt road near Los Angeles. There were no witnesses and no murder weapon, but twenty-four Chicanos were indicated for...

(The entire section is 3649 words.)

Gerald C. Lubenow (review date 4 May 1987)

SOURCE: "Putting the Border Onstage," in Newsweek, Vol. CIX, No. 18, May 4, 1987, p. 79.

[In the following excerpt, Lubenow favorably appraises Valdez's work as a playwright as well as his role as scriptwriter and director of the film La Bamba.]

When playwright Luis Valdez withdraws to rewrite a script, he envisions himself not as some great Spanish playwright, but like Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman in a stuffy room in New York City smoking cigars and eating Hershey bars. The only difference is that he loves cigars and hates chocolate. "I'm as American as the next guy," he says. "It's just a question of being perceived as such."

In the...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Anthony DeCurtis (review date 16 August 1987)

SOURCE: "Flawed 'La Bamba'," in Rolling Stone, Issue 506, August 16, 1987, p. 13.

[In the following film review of La Bamba, DeCurtis criticizes Valdez for artificially inflating the already powerful story of Valens's life.]

A variety of problems plagues La Bamba, the new film about the life of Ritchie Valens, the Mexican American rocker who was killed at age seventeen in the 1959 plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Casting in the major roles is the movie's most obvious problem. Newcomer Lou Diamond Phillips is likeable but far from riveting as Valens, while Danielle von Zerneck, who plays Valens's girlfriend and the...

(The entire section is 346 words.)

Luis Valdez with David Savran (interview date January 1988)

SOURCE: An interview in American Theatre, Vol. 4, No. 10, January, 1988, pp. 15-21, 56-7.

[In the following interview, Valdez discusses his career as a playwright and the roles of politics and mysticism in his work.]

One month into the 1965 Delano grape strike, which solidified the power of the United Farm Workers, 23-year-old Luis Valdez met with a group of union volunteers and devised a short comic skit to help persuade reluctant workers to join the strike. He hung signs reading Huelgista (striker) on two men and Esquirol (scab) on a third. The two Huelgistas started yelling at the Esquirol and the audience laughed. Thus began Valdez's...

(The entire section is 6693 words.)

Luis Valdez (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Early Works: Actos, Bernabé and Pensamiento Serpentino, Arte Publico Press, 1990, pp. 6-13.

[In the following excerpt, Valdez defines "Chicano theatre" and discusses the significance of the acto in its development.]

What is Chicano theatre? It is theatre as beautiful, rasquachi, human, cosmic, broad, deep, tragic, comic, as the life of La Raza itself. At its high point Chicano theatre is religion—the huelguistas de Delano praying at the shrine of the Virgen de Guadalupe, located in the rear of an old station wagon parked across the road from DiGiorgio's camp #4; at its low point, it is a cuento or a chiste told somewhere in the recesses of the barrio,...

(The entire section is 2455 words.)

Jorge Huerta (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An introduction, in Zoot Suit and Other Plays by Luis Valdez, Arte Publico Press, 1992, pp. 7-20.

[In the following excerpt, Huerta traces Valdez's maturation as a playwright and director, and discusses the defining qualities of his work.]

For some, Luis Valdez needs no introduction; for others, his name may only be associated with his more widely seen films and television programs. No other individual has made as important an impact on Chicano theater as Luis Valdez. He is widely recognized as the leading Chicano director and playwright who, as the founder of El Teatro Campesino (Farmworker's Theatre) in 1965, inspired a national movement of theater troupes...

(The entire section is 5770 words.)