Las dos caras del patroncito

by Luis Valdez

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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 patroncito, or “little boss,” who appears wearing a pig mask and smoking a cigar. Initially, both play their assumed roles of intimidating master and cowering slave to perfection. Soon, though, the patroncito waxes poetic over his Mexicans. Seeing them “barreling down the freeway” makes his “heart feel good; hands on their sombreros, hair flying in the wind, bouncing along happy as babies.” “I sure do love my Mexicans,” he says. The patroncito reveals a typical condescension, romanticizing the migrant workers’ lives and regarding them essentially as children. When the farmworker responds by putting his arm around him, however, the patroncito says; “I love ’em about ten feet away from me.”

Their conversation takes a peculiar turn as the patroncito verbally coerces the farmworker into agreeing that the workers have it easy, with their “free housing” (labor-camp shacks), “free transportation” (unsafe trucks), and “free food” (beans and tortillas). The boss asserts that he himself suffers all the anxiety that comes from owning a Lincoln Continental, an expensive ranch house, and a wife with expensive tastes. At one point, he asks the farmworker, “Ever write out a check for $12,000?” The audience of migrant workers struggling to raise their wages to two dollars an hour would have felt the irony of such a question; the agony of writing out such a check is not something they would experience anytime soon, given their exploited condition.

Yet the patroncito actually envies the farmworkers’ “freedom” and wishes to trade places. After some coaxing, the farmworker agrees, and the patroncito gives him his pig mask, whereupon the power relations between them are reversed. The farmworker now gives the boss a taste of his own medicine. He insults him and proceeds to claim his land, his house, his car, and his wife. The patroncito soon realizes that the game has gone too far. He does not want to live in the rat-infested shacks he so generously provides for his workers, or ride in his death-trap trucks, or work for such low wages.

By the play’s end, the farmworker has so thoroughly abused his patroncito, calling him a “spic,” “greaseball,” and “commie bastard”—all the slurs the workers endured—that the patroncito calls for help from union activist César Chávez and screams “huelga” (“strike”). Thus the play brings him full circle from callous owner to union supporter and suggests that if the oppressors could put themselves in the place of the oppressed, they would see their own injustice.

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