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 troupe moved to Fresno, California, where they founded an annual Chicano theater festival, and Valdez began teaching drama at Fresno State College.
The Centro Campesino Cultural relocated once again in 1971 to San Juan Bautista, a small rural California town, where it would stay for the next several years, rooting itself in the community and transforming its dramaturgy to reflect local concerns—particularly through its adaptations of earlier devotional drama dating from the Spanish occupation. El Teatro Campesino there underwent a fundamental transformation. Living more or less in a commune, the group began increasingly to emphasize the spiritual side of their work, as derived not only from the prevalent Christianity of the typical Chicano community but also from their own newfound Aztec and Mayan roots. This shift from the agitational actos to a search for spiritual solutions was met with anger by formerly admiring audiences at the Quinto Festival de los Teatros Chicanos in Mexico City in 1974.
From its base in San Juan Bautista, the Centro Campesino Cultural continued to flourish, touring campuses and communities on a yearly basis; giving financial support, training, and advice to other theater troupes; and hosting visitors such as English director Peter Brook, who brought his actors from the International Centre of Theatre Research in 1973. After a career of refusing to participate in the commercial theater, Valdez determined finally, in 1978,...
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to try reaching a middle-class audience. The result wasZoot Suit, a polished, full-length dance-musical based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial of 1943. It premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978 and ran for eleven months. The play opened at the Wintergarden Theatre on Broadway in 1979 but was forced to close after a month because of bad reviews. A film version of the play was made in 1981. In 1985, Soldado razo and Dark Root of a Scream were performed for the first time in New York at the Public Theatre as part of a Latino theater festival.
Valdez brought Tony Curiel into El Teatro Campesino in 1985 to help run the company. Valdez’s play “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” (a famous line from the 1948 film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) was coproduced with the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986. The film La Bamba (1987), written and directed by Valdez, was the first major release to celebrate the urban Hispanic youth lifestyle.
In 1991, a trio of actos from earlier El Teatro Campesino projects were presented in Dallas at the South Dallas Cultural Center; reviewers noted that they remained “remarkably fresh and quick-witted.” Soldado razo, a 1970’s play of protest about Chicano involvement in the Vietnam War, was revived in San Jose, California, in 1991.
El Teatro Campesino began the process of restructuring in 1988, learning to work more independently of Valdez, although his commitment to it remained substantial. On July 29, 1990, in a retrospective in the Los Angeles Times in celebration of Valdez’s fiftieth birthday (“Luis Valdez at Fifty: The Rage Has Cooled”), the playwright, firmly established in Hollywood, admitted: “I couldn’t turn around and kiss the teatro good-bye . . . without ruining my chances in Hollywood . . . my roots would dry up. I need to be true to what I set out to do.”
In 2001, in a keynote address for the American Society for Theatre Research, with a new play in production and a forthcoming anthology, Valdez reaffirmed his commitment to El Teatro Campesino, Chicano Theatre, politicization and his work.