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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...

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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

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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] (anthology) 1972
El fin del mundo (drama) 1972
Los vendidos (screenplay) 1972
Pensamiento serpentino: A Chicano Approach to the Theatre of Reality (poem) 1973
El baile de los gigantes (drama) 1974
El corrido [adaptor; from his drama La gran carpa de la familia Rascuachi] (television script) 1977
Zoot Suit (drama) 1978
Bandido (drama) 1981
Corridos (drama) 1982
Zoot Suit (screenplay) 1982
I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges (drama) 1986
La Bamba (screenplay) 1987
Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution (television script) 1987
Luis Valdez—Early Works: Actos, Bernabé, Pensamiento serpentino (essays and dramas) 1990
Los mineros (television script) 1991
Zoot Suit, and Other Plays (dramas) 1992

∗Valdez also directed the film.

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

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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 priests dotted along the coast of California in their eighteenth century odyssey, with cross and sword, to claim the heathen Indian for Christ. An odd place to find Peter Brook and his International Centre for Theatre Research—among the arid hills where, for the mere wages of survival, expatriate Mexicans now work the land that once belonged to their ancestors.

But here, for six weeks in the summer of 1973, Brook and his acolytes came to work with and to learn from one of the most remarkable theatre groups now working in the United States. For San Juan Bautista is the present home of Luis Valdez and his Teatro Campesino—farmworkers' theatre—which, since it was founded in late 1965 to protest against the economic and spiritual exploitation of the Chicanos, has managed to retain its popular integrity while achieving an artistic stature that has won it awards in the United States and appearances at international festivals in Europe.

Valdez, the founder and guiding spirit of El Teatro, is himself the son of a migrant farm worker, and spent his youth fruit picking around central California while gleaning sufficient education to gain entrance to the California State College. Here an earlier interest in theatre (stimulated by a kindergarten play in which masks and physical movements had compensated for the fact that Valdez couldn't speak English) manifested itself again, and he wrote and had produced two plays during his undergraduate years.

Uncertain what his future would be after graduation, Valdez happened upon a performance by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and, immediately taken by their physically direct and dynamic style, he moved to San Francisco and joined the company. Those were the heady days when the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were gathering momentum, and street theatre such as performed by the Mime Troupe (and the Bread and Puppet Theatre in New York), was beginning to be seen as a natural tool of non-violent protest. Theatre was being 'brought back to the people' on portable stages set up in parks; with marching bands and puppet shows in the streets; and with a broad and bawdy physicality that went for the guts and the heart.

While Valdez was with the Mime Troupe, the atmosphere of protest in America reached the migrant Mexican farmworkers in central California: they went on strike against wages and conditions in the grape fields. These were Valdez' fellow Chicanos—indeed, part of his family was striking—and he came down from San Francisco to join with Cesar Chavez' United Farmworkers Union in a protest march in Delano, California.

As a result of that experience, Valdez conceived the idea of a theatre which would support and further politicize the Mexican farmworkers in their struggle. In November 1965, with the blessing of Chavez, he held a meeting at which he broached the idea of a theatre to the striking workers. The first response was uncertain—chiefly because none of the workers had ever been to a theatre—and Valdez realized that to interest the workers he had to relate directly to their own experiences. So he had some signs made—Esquirol (scab), Huelgista (striker), Patroncito (grower) and Contratista (contractor)—and hung these around the necks of some of the workers, telling them to enact the characteristics of their signs. The results far exceeded his expectations:

The scab didn't want to at first, because it was a dirty word at that time, but he did so in good spirits. Then the two strikers started shouting at him, and everybody started cracking up. All of a sudden people started coming … they filled up the whole kitchen. We started changing signs around, and people started volunteering … imitating all kinds of things. We ran for two hours just doing that.

Thus was El Teatro Campesino born.

From this beginning Valdez gathered a small group to work with each other each evening after the day's picketing. This group evolved what they called 'actos'—short scenes dealing with some specific element of the strike. The actors started with a real life incident, character or idea, and improvised around this in commedia dell'arte fashion, using no scripts or scenery. For simplicity of communication and ease of identification they kept the original idea of wearing signs around their necks to indicate the characters or attitudes bring represented. Props or costumes were used only as a basic reinforcement of character or situation. Valdez was careful not to disguise the fact that the actors were themselves strikers engaged in the same cause as the people for whom they were performing. He was also concerned not to alienate his audience by requiring any political or theatrical sophistication: the actors always appealed directly and simply to the immediate experience of the striking farmworkers.

Typical of the early actos was Three Grapes. A green, a ripe, and a rotten grape come onto the stage and squat. Each wishes to be picked by a scab who has not joined the strike: but each time the scab attempts this he is driven away by a striker with a 'Huelga' (strike) sign. Finally all the grapes become rotten. The scab then realizes that the grower has lost his economic power and joins the strike. The simple lesson gets across: if a grower cannot harvest his crop he must concede to the strikers.

The actos always contained a great deal of physical business and broad humour. The farmworkers are a straightforward, simple, and ebullient people: they respond to largeness of style and comic situations. So Valdez used comedy for its direct appeal—and because, as he said, 'you can't do tragedy on the back of a truck.' The social points came across through the comic situations and the broad but recognizable reality created by the actors:

When I speak about comic and dramatic images, I'm speaking about visions of reality. Our comic images represent the reality that he (the farmworker) sees. It's not a naturalistic representation: most of the time it's a symbolic, emblematic presentation of what the farmworker feels. But we can't be stuffy about it, so we use slapstick. Very often the slapstick is the image.

A particularly powerful example of what Valdez meant by 'emblematic presentation' occurs in another early acto called The Fifth Season, where Summer is represented by an actor wearing an old shirt covered in dollar bills. To the farmworker Summer is the time when the fruit on the trees turns to money. The orchards and vineyards are heavy with clusters of dollars, there for the picking. But the dream of paradise is never realized: nor could it be in the present relationship of the workers to the growers. So the workers laugh at the image of Summer not because it is funny in itself, but because they recognize the irony of the situation—that the joke is on themselves.

For several months after its establishment, El Teatro picketed during the day and worked on the actos during the evening, giving weekly performances for the strikers in Delano. Then, in April 1966, Valdez and his actors joined the great march of strikers from Delano to the state capital of Sacramento, performing nightly in all the small towns on the route. This experience both honed their technique and extended their repertoire. It also gained them a wider reputation, which led to their first commercial performance at the Committee Theatre in San Francisco, on 2 May 1966.

For the next year El Teatro lived in Delano, but toured Chicano population centres throughout California to raise support and funds for the continuing strike. The first national tour came in July and August 1967, when the company performed in union halls across the United States—and in the courtyard of the Senate building in Washington, at the Newport Jazz Festival, and at the Village Theatre in New York. [On July 24, 1967] the Wall Street Journal spoke of their 'provocative, lively, and entertaining theatre,' and Newsweek of their 'ardent and sometimes grim gaiety' [July 31, 1967]. The Newsweek critic went on to say:

The young people of El Teatro are full of racial pride, social and political fervour, and … they know exactly what they mean. As in the old Everyman morality plays, each character has a clear identity, is caught in a sharply defined situation, and is presented with a clear choice of destinies.

All of the New York critics drew parallels between the impact of El Teatro Campesino and that of the Federal Theatre and Labour Union Theatre in the 1930s, when economic and social distress had turned theatre into a powerful political weapon.

The New York tour, for which the company received an Obie, established it nationally, and confirmed that this kind of theatre, though still based in and geared to the aims of the striking Chicano farmworkers, was capable of a dynamic relationship with a much broader spectrum of people. This faced Valdez with an important decision:

The strike in Delano is a beautiful cause, but it won't leave you alone … it's more important to leave a rehearsal and go back to the picket line. So we found we had to back away from Delano to be a theatre. Do you serve the moment by being just kind of half-assed, getting together whenever there's a chance, or do you really hone your theatre down into an effective weapon?

So, in September 1967, Valdez moved the company away from Delano and its direct link with the Farmworkers' Union, and established El Centro Campesino Cultural in Del Rey, California.

The initial success of El Teatro had been based on a bitter truth: its work was rooted in the everyday facts of the farmworkers' lives. Now Valdez wished to keep this truth—the life blood of the worker—running through his theatre, but to reach out beyond the strike to deal with the life of the Chicano in more general terms of his human rights and self respect.

In coming to this expanded theatrical consciousness, Valdez was aware of several facts concerning the cultural identity of the Chicano. First the Spanish had come and deprived the Mexican Indians of their Mayan and Aztec ancestry—had colonized them, robbed them of their pride and wealth, and in return imposed upon them a Christianity which had taught them meekly to accept second-class citizenship in their own country. Later, the Spanish masters had been exchanged for American, and pressures to take on a set of Anglo values.

More than this, many Chicanos living in the USA are not immigrants, but living in a land which is ancestrally theirs, and while there is no separatist movement on the part of the Chicanos in these territories, there is a strong movement to resist anglicization and to retain ethnic traditions. It was to this understanding of the true Chicano cultural and spiritual identity that Luis Valdez turned in taking El Teatro to Del Rey and establishing a Chicano cultural centre, to explore the music and political history of the Chicanos as well as the drama. The new purpose was to embrace and revive the culture of their ancestors, and to create a pride in being a Chicano.

Valdez recognized that to deal with these broader and more abstract issues in his theatre would require a greater technical sophistication on the part of the actors, who would now have to deal with and communicate ideas which, while related to, were no longer a direct part of their immediate experience. He therefore instituted a training programme for the company, on similar lines to those which many 'new' theatre groups were undertaking in the later 'sixties.

There was a great deal of ensemble work—trust and sensitivity exercises—plus work upon physical movement and, above all, a sound technical base for the improvisational work which still formed the starting point of El Teatro's creative efforts. Of one of their exercises, Valdez wrote that it 'must clearly establish characters and their relation to each other. Such things as language, movement, and the strict adherence to the reality of inter-relationships are important. Disciplined clean characterizations are the objective.' Again, 'The emphasis is upon wit and quick thinking, as well as movement, characterization, and stage presence.'

Thus, while clarifying and disciplining the work of the company, Valdez was concerned to retain the great ebullience, energy, and fundamental truth of their work. While becoming conscious of the need for theatrical technique, El Teatro never lost the sense of being a people's theatre, performed by and for the Chicano people—aesthetics never got in the way of direct communication.

What Valdez achieved was a strengthening of impact due to the disciplined channelling of the energies of his troupe, and a cleaner and quicker way of making the point, due to the greater clarity of the stage action. The earlier reliance upon signs hung around actor's necks gave way to more use of masks and the actor's own physicality. The use of props was subtler, and there was a more sophisticated sense of theatrical rhythm and timing. But the vivid sense of humour, the broad physical style, the energy spilling from the stage to sweep up the audience, and, at root, the sharing of fundamental truths by actor and audience, continued to be the hallmark of El Teatro Campesino.

After the move to Del Rey and subsequently (in 1969) to Fresno in the central farmland of California, the broader consciousness and capacity of El Teatro became apparent in the actos of that period. The earlier pieces were clearly geared towards the strike. Three Grapes has already been described, and other actos of the first period were Huelgistas (The Strikers), Las Dos Caras del Patroncito (The Two Faces of the Boss), and Papellecion (Playing Games). These actos were all very short, and to the immediate point. Papellecion, for example, has a grape grower with a sign, 'Smiling Jack', who tells his picker how much he loves his Mexican workers. As he talks, the sign changes to 'Liar', 'Gringo', 'Jackass', and finally 'Huelga', as the worker comes to see through the platitudes of the boss.

The new work looked at the Chicano in a wider social perspective. No Saca Nada de la Escuela dealt with the problems of young Chicanos in American schools, where the language and cultural barriers have left them at the bottom of the class, and encouraged a poor self-image and delinquency. Los Vendidos (The Sell-Outs), which was given a national television presentation by NBC, dealt with problems of those Chicanos who had tried to reject their backgrounds and became anglicized, or at least to call themselves 'Mexican-Americans.'

The inequities in the draft system in the United States during the Vietnam War were also dealt with by El Teatro. The play in which this was done, Soldado Razo (The Chicano Solider), was concerned with the death of a Chicano soldier in Vietnam. It treated the 'macho' syndrome and the other forces which conspired to send him there, the absurdity of one brown slave being sent thousands of miles to kill other brown victims, and the total ugliness of the Vietnam circumstance. This was perhaps the first complete example of the new consciousness underlying the work of Valdez and El Teatro. While still based in the truth and uniqueness of the Chicano situation, it proclaims its relationship with the larger anti-war movement in the United States, and its brotherhood with all colonized peoples.

Soldado Razo also illustrates the evolution of the company's work in production terms. The fundamental physical elements of the early actos are retained. There is no attempt to create an artificial physical environment. The stage is bare, with the exception of a simple curtain suspended from a pole upstage centre, and above the curtain is a huge sign—El Teatro Campesino de Aztlan. The emphasis is still upon actors, and actors who are people like their audiences. But the simple cardboard signs have now disappeared, to be replaced by fully fleshed-out characters created with broad and simple strokes.

A further element has also appeared. Symbolic figures, masked and costumed, create a universal environment within which particular characters work out their individual destinies. In Soldado Razo, Valdez employed Death as his narrator, a kindly-ironic skeleton in a monk's robe, whose mocking eye fell upon actors and audience alike.

A triple consciousness is now operating in El Teatro's work: a sense of a particular man in a local situation (the Chicano); a universal man in a world situation (the poor, or underprivileged, or oppressed), and those spiritual, cosmic, and mythological forces of man's primitive psyche which give him a common humanity. In a review of Soldado Razo [that appeared September 23, 1971], the drama critic of the Los Angeles Times wrote: 'Agitprop theatre? I guess so, if we need a definition, but equally close to Everyman and the great medieval chronicles. Something very complicated, and very simple, and very rare is going on….'

On another occasion, the Los Angeles Times spoke of the work of El Teatro Campesino as being 'a stunning mixture of Brechtian presentation and Chicano folklore,' [July 5, 1971], and as Valdez has himself referred to El Teatro's style as 'somewhere between Brecht and Cantinflas,' a brief comparison with Brecht might provide insights into Valdez' own work. The most apparent relationship is in the similarity of the early actos to Brecht's Lehrstucke. Both are short pieces with a didactic purpose in which the actors present characters rather than assume them. Both are geared to completely simple presentation—for Brecht in the classroom, for Valdez on the back of a truck. Both are meant to politicize an audience and inspire them to action.

But here, perhaps, any close analogy ends, for whereas Brecht's impact was geared to the intellectual and rational, based upon the dialectic of Marxism from which he also derived the structure of his pieces, Valdez' appeal is much simpler and more visceral. He has said: 'For our political and personal salvation we don't have to scurry to Marxism or Socialism. We can go to our own roots.'

Certainly, Valdez wished to heighten his audience's understanding of experience, but it was an understanding to be gained with body and soul, rather than through an intellectual process. Nor was the structure of Valdez' actos based upon any intellectual conceit: it came wholly from the necessities of the circumstances in which the actors first worked. It had the basic appeal and technique of the earliest forms of popular theatre.

Valdez' simplicity was a response to fundamental human reactions and beliefs, while Brecht's was more calculated, disciplined, and cerebral. Brecht's choice of a parabolic form and destruction of theatrical illusion was self-conscious, whereas Valdez simply took what he found and gave it theatrical impact. Above all, Teatro Campesino eschewed the revolutionary humourlessness of Brecht's didactic pieces—it took its cause seriously, but never itself. Valdez remained close to Cantinflas while Brecht had ignored Hanswurst.

Both Brecht's Lehrstücke and Valdez' actos turned to historical circumstances, and to folklore or myth. But whereas with Brecht these were neither a part of his own sensibility nor that of the audience for which he was writing, Valdez had the advantage of finding his ideas within the spiritual ethos of the Chicano people. He could continue to make use of contemporary experience, but go beneath that to touch common beliefs and attitudes based in the experiences of a still-believed Christian religion, and a Spanish colonial culture. Beneath this again, Valdez believed he could make a direct appeal to the Mayan and Aztec culture which was the deepest part of the Chicano spiritual identity.

During the years from 1969 to 1971, while this broadening of El Teatro's purpose from the concentration upon Huelga to that of Raza (national identity) was taking place, and the company was moving to its present home in San Juan Bautista, it took part in the Seventh World Theatre Festival in Nancy, France, toured Mexico, and was constantly involved in tours on behalf of the farm-workers throughout the south-western United States.

In 1970 the company also made its first film, I Am Joaquin, based upon an epic poem by Corky Gonzales. The film won first prize at both the San Francisco and Monterey Festivals. But perhaps the most significant event in El Teatro's early history took place in May 1970, when it sponsored the first Chicano Theatre Festival in Fresno, California. Since 1968 small companies had sprung up in Chicano areas in the United States, emulating El Teatro Campesino in their attempt to politicize and raise a Chicano consciousness. Thirteen companies attended that first festival, which has been repeated in each subsequent year.

As a result of the success of these festivals, Luis Valdez has been instrumental in creating Tenaz (El Teatro Na cional de Aztlan), to establish communication between the companies, to provide a means for sharing material, and, above all, to hold workshops at which members of El Teatro Campesino could share their skills with the newer companies which, at first, were founded upon enthusiasm and commitment, but scant theatrical ability. There are now more than 75 companies across the United States, and the work they are doing, catalyzed and encouraged by El Teatro Campesino, is helping to create a Chicano consciousness, dignity, and sense of purpose.

While the Teatros spawned by El Teatro used the acto form originated by Valdez, he himself, after 1971, created what he called the mito, moving further in the direction of myth and symbolism, and relating to the great religious sense and spiritual intuition deep-seated within the Chicano self. Valdez became ever more convinced that the Chicano must grasp his indigenous heritage as the spiritual key to his existence and purpose in life.

The mito was a theatrical form with roots in the many-layered culture of the Chicano. It drew upon Aztec ritual, Mexican folklore, and Christian drama. The auto sacramentale structure was familiar to many Chicanos, and Valdez used elements of this in a conjunction with the basic folk-ballad form of the Chicano—the Corrido, 'handed down from generation to generation … a living part of the Chicano's cultural heritage. Love, hate, jealousy, courage, pride—all of the universal themes of man's existence on earth are expressed in these songs.'

El Teatro took some of these well known ballads and acted them out to the accompaniment of the guitar and singing, and then incorporated this into the mito structure. Thus the mito became the playing and singing of a narrative idea, which was illustrated by emblematic symbolism and ritual taken from the medieval religious drama, the whole being salted by the vigorous, earthy humour which had formed a dynamic element of the secular medieval theatre.

The mito was still geared to the making of direct points about the everyday experience of the Chicano, while this was now seen in the much wider perspective of a total Chicano sensibility. To educate the Chicano to a fuller understanding of himself, to ennoble him in his own eyes, this was the function of the mito, in which Valdez was using traditional religious forms to proselytize a contemporary religion—La Raza.

The levels of consciousness at work in the mito are well illustrated by the setting Valdez calls for in his play The Dark Root of a Scream. This play followed Soldado Razo, in which Valdez was moving towards his new form. The stage directions ask for:

a collage of myth and reality. It forms, in fact, a pyramid with the most real artifacts of barrio life at the broad base and an abstract mythical-religious peak at the top. Above these scenes (of barrio reality) some images are made of iron and the hard steel of modern civilization—guns, knives, automobile parts; others reveal a less violent, more spiritual origin—molcajetes, rebozos, crucifixes, etc. Finally, the very top of the pyramid is dominated by ancient indio images: conches, jade, the sunstone, feathered serpent heads.

The circumstances of this play are the wake for a dead Chicano soldier, killed in Vietnam, whose coffin is set at the top of the pyramid. The action concerns the response to the death of the solider, whose name is Quetzalcoatl Gonzales, from his family, three youths who were his friends, and the Catholic priest who has come to 'comfort' the family.

Moving in and out of the various levels of physical reality, the play touches upon the wasted lives of the youths, removed as they are from any sense of cultural identity; the passivity of the family who have settled for a colonized existence; and the stupidity and futility of the priest, whose fear of the Church leads him to reinforce the situation by explaining it as God's will. At the climax of the play a heartbeat is heard from the coffin and, when it is opened by the mother, feathers and Quetzalcoatl's heart are discovered. This final symbolism relates to the early Aztec sacrifices to the Sun God, when the heart was torn out of a living body, and to the significance of Quetzalcoatl as the redeemer of the Indian people—here still living, despite being killed by the colonizers.

In The Dark Root of a Scream, as in all his most recent plays, Valdez is attempting to reach the deepest levels of Chicano consciousness by his use of elements of Mayan and Aztec rituals, and their Christian equivalents. As was the case in all pagan societies, when the Indians of Mexico were converted to Christianity many of their rituals were simply overlaid with the new Christian sacraments. Thus, in the Mayan ritual of Quetzalcoatl, the God is sacrificed and rises again, so that the analogy with Christ can readily be made.

There is also a close analogy between the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Aztec's own earth mother Tonantzin. The first appearance of the Virgin, to Juan Diego in 1531, was on the very hill which was the traditional home of Tonantzin. El Teatro Campesino has treated this idea which closely binds the Christian Chicano to his pre-Columbian ancestors, and has adapted a play, La Virgen del Tepeyac, from an original manuscript of the appearance to Juan Diego, written in 1531.

The play opens with the corrido idea—a traditional song dealing with the adoration of Tonantzin, to which new lyrics have been written. This is followed by a dramatization of the arrival of Cortez, the destruction of the old religion, and the yoking of the Indians to Christianity. One of the climactic moments, and most powerful images of the play, is the appearance of the Virgin out of a symbolic womb made up of the slaughtered bodies of the Indians. Lofted high on a platform the Virgin speaks to Juan Diego and tells him that she has come to end the injustice.

El Teatro's play deals with the true economic nature of the Spanish conquest, under its cloak of religious conversion, and, more importantly, suggests that the Chicano can discover his true roots and spiritual identity through the symbol of the Virgin of Guadalupe-cum-Tonantzin. That same mother earth from which we must all derive our inner strength, a sense of unity and universal love.

Possibly the most complete example of the structure and impact that Valdez is now seeking is to be found in La Carpa de los Rasquachis (The Tent of the Underdogs), of which Valdez has said, 'It's everything we have ever done, with this whole extra dimension, the spiritual.' The play begins almost casually, with the members of the company coming on stage, clowning, chatting up the audience and erecting their 'tent' backdrop—a curtain made up of potato sacks and torn burlap. This suggests a basic simplicity and poverty—but more than that for the tent recalls those used by shows which toured small Mexican towns in the 1930s. The tent is the home of the under-privileged Rasquachi family in the play, and also houses the whole cultural history of the Chicanos. Three separate but inter-related levels of reality are thus established.

The play proper begins with the narrative musical choruses, which tie all the scenes together. Then a religious procession makes a formal entrance. Christ, with a halter round his neck, is led by a black-masked figure, overpainted with a white skeleton, wearing the helmet of the sixteenth-century Spanish Conquistadores. Devil-masked executioners surround the Christ-figure, who is ritualistically crucified.

The awesome silence attending this action is broken by lively mariachi rhythms, and we are swept into the life of poor Jesus Rasquachi, a Chicano farm-worker who is lured across the border to the United States by hopes of economic advancement and the collusion of corrupt customs officials and labour agents. The play follows the fortunes of his family through the typical experience of such a worker. One son becomes a dope addict, another a pusher; a brother becomes a dupe for an Anglo political machine, and is killed for his pains. Finally, a worn-out shell, Rasquachi dies on the floor of the welfare office while being forced to make belittling statements about himself in order to get the state's pittance.

The play is performed in Spanglish by the company of twelve players, who change hats and props with skilled panache and act with great physical agility and comic flair. Nothing escapes El Teatro's eye as it exposes all that it believes to stand in the way of the full realization of Chicano individuality. It satirizes equally the puffed-up machismo of posturing revolutionary activists, and the corruption of the Catholic Church—here symbolized by a bishop with a dollar sign upon his mitre.

As in The Dark Root of a Scream, the essence of the play is an appeal for a return to a kind of atavistic spirituality. As a reviewer put it:

El Teatro finally advocates a militant nonviolence, a compassion which is not synonymous with compromise, and a religious innocence which is not naivety. Transcendence for the Chicano cannot be attained through Catholicism, but rather through a uniting of the White Christ with the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl.

A scene exemplifying this idea takes place at the end of the play, when Quetzalcoatl is reborn, magnificent in his Indian dress, transcending the tattered, materialism around him. In his absence, there has been no peace, no hope for the Chicano. He brings an end to universal discord with a simple philosophy: you are my other self, if I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself. It is this philosophy that El Teatro is now attempting to live and to propagate.

Luis Valdez' move from active political involvement to a more personal and seemingly passive form of spiritual approach has brought criticism from some radical Chicano quarters. Valdez himself sees El Teatro's present orientation as a logical extension of its development from a theatre dealing with specific problems of the striking farmworkers, through the wider material problems of the Chicano minority to more fundamental human goals.

Now our acts are the acts of human beings living and working on this earth…. We are still very much the political theatre, but our politics are the politics of the spirit—not of the flesh, but of the heart.

In this search for spiritual rebirth, Valdez is greatly influenced by the myth of Quetzalcoatl, who has appeared in all the recent plays. The God of positive force, Quetzalcoatl was defeated by the God of negative force, Tezcatipoca, more than a thousand years ago. The rebirth of Quetzalcoatl is due, according to the Mayan calendar, towards the end of this century, when the world will once again enter a period of peace and positive dynamic. Valdez believes the current task of El Teatro to be the bringing of people to a spiritual understanding which will prepare them for Quetzalcoatl's return.

This purpose informs the life-style and work of the company in its communal existence in San Juan Bautista. It still 'combats poverty and oppression in the heart of the richest agricultural valley in the world,' but now does this in the context of La Raza and a wider universal brotherhood. El Teatro's roots are more than ever in a Chicano reality, for the capacity for powerfully simple religious belief is as much a part of the Chicano's daily existence as the soil from which he draws his living. The same hands pray and pick grapes with equal honesty. It is to the full consciousness of this reality that El Teatro now appeals.

While discovering a soul, El Teatro Campesino has not lost its vulgar energy. While affirming man's sublimity, it still laughs at his human absurdity. The theatre remains as funky, beautiful, coarse, delicate, commonplace, and cosmic as La Raza itself. Words written by Luis Valdez in 1970 connect the past with the present, and to the future of El Teatro:

Beyond the mass struggle of La Raza in the fields and barrios of America, there is an internal struggle in the very heart of our people. That struggle too calls for revolutionary change. Our belief in God, the Church, the social role of women—these must be subject to examination and redefining on some kind of public platform. And that again means teatro. Not simply a teatro composed of actos or agit-prop, but a teatro of ritual, of music, of beauty and spiritual sensitivity. A teatro of legends and myths. A teatro of religious strength. This type of theatre will require real dedication.

Such dedication to theatre, to his people, and to all humanity has always been the guiding spirit and sustaining force of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino.

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

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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 murder of this one boy. The Hearst papers played it up as a "Mexican crimewave," and in the trial the Chicanos involved were referred to as members of a "gang." The prosecution charged that one of the members of the gang, Henry Leyvas, was beaten by members of a rival gang at the reservoir nicknamed "Sleepy Lagoon," and that Leyvas and his gang returned armed and organized for the purpose of revenge on the rival gang. Admitted as evidence was this statement from a report written by Capt. E. Duran Ayers, Chief of Foreign Relations Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department:

The biological basis is the main basis to work from. Although a wild cat and a domestic cat are of the same family, they have certain biological characteristics so different that while one may be domesticated, the other would have to be caged to be kept in captivity; and there is practically as much difference between the races of man as so aptly recognized by Rudyard Kipling when he said when writing of the Oriental, 'East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet,' which gives us an insight into the present problem because the Indian, from Alaska to Patagonia, is evidently Oriental in background—at least he shows many of the Oriental characteristics, especially so in his utter disregard for the value of life.

Ayers traces the "utter disregard for the value of life" back to the Aztec sacrifices. Of the twenty-four Chicano boys indicted, seventeen were convicted. Three were found guilty of first degree murder; two of second degree. One, asleep in his car through the whole incident, was given five years to life. All were sent to San Quentin. Two boys who had enough money for their own lawyers demanded separate trials, and their cases were dismissed for insufficient evidence. On October 4, 1944, the District Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, reversed the conviction of all the defendants and the case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence.

Valdez' choice of subject was thus clearly a political one. Zoot Suit, a docu-drama with music, focuses on the trial of Henry Reyna—the fictionalized Henry Leyvas and leader of the pachuco gang—on Reyna's relationship to his family and friends, and on the relationship of the pachuco to the Mexican-American community. The play gets its name from the exaggerated clothing that was the badge of the pachuco—high-waisted, baggy, pegged pants; square-shouldered, oversized jacket; and long, dangling key chain.

Zoot Suit began as an experimental production of the Mark Taper Forum's "New Theatre for Now" series in April, 1978. The response to the original fourteen performances was electric enough to convince Gordon Davidson, the Forum's artistic director, to move it to the theatre's main space, rework it, and have it open the Forum's twelfth season.

In October, 1978, after a successful six-week run at the Forum, Zoot Suit moved to the 1200-seat Aquarius Theatre in downtown L.A. where it remained until [summer, 1980]. It brought in an average of $90-100,000 a week. While still playing in L.A., a modified version opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden on March 25, 1979, and closed April 29, after 17 performances, at an $800,000 loss.

It is possible the play failed on Broadway, as Valdez contends, because of racist reviewers. Even though plays can endure despite negative reviews, New York reviewers are extremely influential figures and they almost universally panned the play. Focusing on the issue of racism, however, diverts us from a far more significant issue: that Zoot Suit, as presented on Broadway, was in fact a bad play, politically and aesthetically.

In case anyone has any doubts about this being "Brechtian" theatre—and we mention this because the work of Valdez is constantly described as being "somewhere between Brecht and Cantinflas"—Valdez opens the play with the disclaimer, mouthed by El Pachuco, the interlocutor and Spirit of the pachuco, that the theatre by nature is a place of pretense, a place of fantasy. The docu-drama is thus undercut before the newspapers which form much of the set (symbolizing the complicity of the Hearst papers in the racist hysteria of the period) are brought on stage. And at the end of the play, Henry Reyna, released from jail, finds himself in a dilemma: shall he marry Alice Bloomfield, the Jewish Communist working for the Defense Committee which grew up around the Sleepy Lagoon case, or his faithful Chicana, Della Barrios? (With such a name, Henry's ultimate choice is predestined.) The false love story between Alice and Henry, a love which never happened in the real case, is so badly written that the progressive Alice—and in turn her politics—is laughed at.

In the thirteen years of his work with El Teatro Campesino, Valdez was conscious of his social role, and in Zoot Suit, many social and political issues are touched upon: the complicity of the Hearst press, the racism of the judicial and penal systems, the nature of Chicano family relationships. But rather than politicizing the events by deepening the analysis, Valdez adds musical dance numbers to keep the spirits up, leaves the barrio behind, sentimentalizes all relationships in order to make his "message" palatable and saleable, and invests his Pachuco with Indian and Existential consciousness.

It is the pachuco, the 1940's street youth, who is the central focus of the play. In addition to the pachucos who make up Henry's gang, there is the larger than life character—El Pachuco—who speaks directly to the audience, wittily introduces and interrupts the play, criticizes the action and acts as Henry Reyna's inner voice, El Pachuco is the mythic spirit of "pachuquismo." Valdez claims this existential rebellious youth is the predecessor of the Mexican-American consciousness of the early '70's Chicanismo. This mythic interpretation of the real-life pachuco is one of the central political problems of the play.

To understand where this interpretation of the pachuco comes from, it is helpful to look briefly at the history of El Teatro Campesino. When Valdez started El Teatro Campesino in 1965, he was responding to immediate material needs: the U.F.W. needed workers to leave the fields and Anglos to send money for support. So Valdez and his campesinos created "actos," agit-prop pieces to do just that. After two years, he and his teatro left Delano and the U.F.W. because he wanted to devote more time to teatro; because he wanted to deal with broader issues—Viet Nam, racism, imperialism, the situation of the urban Chicano; and because he wanted to do teatro only about Chicanos, a position clearly untenable in the multi-ethnic U.F.W., yet in keeping with the increasingly nationalist thrust of the chicano movement at that time. Accordingly, the earliest works of Campesino are peopled by campesinos, patrones, coyotes, and esquiroles, but it is not long before the figure of the pachuco appears.

At first a minor character whose "bilingualism" consists of the ability to say both "En la madre la placa" and "Fuck you," and whose money is made by "liberating" purses, the pachuco becomes, in the person of the "vato loco," the contemporary street dude, a rebel-hero who, allied with a Black Panther, "liberates" the college that has refused him admission.

Once separated from the U.F.W., Valdez' plays come more and more to treat the question of ethnic identity and national consciousness. Actos begin to be accompanied by "mitos," religious rituals and plays with metaphysical themes. The shift in theme is not as dramatic as it first appears, however, for even in his U.F.W. days Valdez spoke of Chicano identity in terms which included Aztec Mayan and Christian religious thought, mysticism, and mythification.

Accordingly, the pachuco is, in one play, the character who is most sympathetic to the revolutionary cries of "Viva Villa" which emanate from a bodiless head with a Villa moustache and a voracious appetite for cockroaches; but in another, he appears as the unseen central character, Quetzalcoatl Gonzales, a cultural nationalist and community leader, whose name and activities suggest this vato is linked to the Aztec savior-god, Quetzalcoatl. The pachuco is rebel/hero/savior.

In 1974, by the way, because of such mitos, Valdez came under attack for "misleading the people" and ultimately left TENAZ, an association of Chicano theatres which he helped found, because he did not accept the increasing criticism of his essentially religious solutions to material problems.

It is in the 1976 touring version of El Fin del Mundo that the character of the vato, played, as in Zoot Suit, by Daniel Valdez, is given its closest examination. The story of Raymundo Mata, while a naturalistic story of union organizing in "Burlap, California," is also encased in an obvious symbolic framework. It is the story of the "end of the world" as we know it today, and of the literal "end"—the death—of Raymundo Mata, known in the barrio as "el Mundo." In the play, although Mundo is held up as a potential model, there is a serious study of the contradictions within him and of the complications of using such a figure as hero. Mundo, the local drug dealer, arrogant, rebellious in the face of authorities, violent, sexist, egocentric, is willing to do anything for money, even disrupt the U.F.W.'s organizing. Ultimately, he learns compassion, faith, and brotherhood, but at the very moment of his apotheosis, he is killed. It is clear that as a street dude, he is useless, even harmful, to his community. It is only after he has harnessed his rebelliousness that he becomes useful and admirable.

In Zoot Suit, however, the complexities are lost and the historical facts, distorted, in the service of mythification. El Pachuco is presented as a model, but just what does he model? In an interview with Valdez in New York City on December 30, 1978, R. G. Davis pointed out that El Pachuco is like Superfly, and that Superfly, the pimp hustler of Black exploitation films, is different from the working class Blacks moving up and buying a house in the white ghetto of Lorraine Hansberry's Raisin in the Sun. The regressing Superfly is a no-work character much like Zoot Suit's Pachuco. Neither one shows or demonstrated work; in fact, they secret their labor. How did they get their two hundred dollars for those threads? Such a model is not useful.

Furthermore, as Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto point out in an unpublished paper entitled "Un Análisis Crìtico de Zoot Suit de Luis Valdez," not all pachucos were "lumpen." Some worked and "eran como pachucos de fin de semana." Thus, they continue, Valdez' portrait of El Pachuco and the pachuco gang members furthers a simplistic stereotype. (Valdez must have been somewhat aware of this criticism because he tries to avert it by having Communist Alice comment to Henry: "You're an excellent mechanic. You fix all the guy's cars. Well, at least you're not one of the lumpen proletariat." Her analysis is, at best, weak.)

The pachuco is also presented as a defender of Chicano pride and culture, as a rebel. He is meant to be seen, as we are repeatedly told, as the "home front warrior." But to what end? The only value he articulates is that he "takes no shit from anyone." True, the pachuco possesses a rebelliousness, but it is totally without direction; it is a blind lashing out. Richard A. Garcìa, a Chicano historian at UC-Irvine, argues with Valdez' interpretation of the pachuco. In a Los Angeles Times article [published on August 27, 1978], he wrote that pachucos are regarded by some as:

The first Mexican-Americans to have consciously celebrated their bicultural heritage. This view is dangerously romantic and historically false. Indeed, pachucos—far from being progressive—were among the most reactionary segments of the Mexican-American community…. The failure to distinguish clearly between criminal behavior and authentic political action underlies current attempts to turn pachucos into Chicano folk heroes.

Valdez' elevation of the pachuco to the status of social bandit is like Norman Mailer's encomium of subway graffiti as a grand existential assertion of "I am." There is much energy and much anger in such scrawling, but when the graffiti cover up the subway map, you get lost.

Valdez realizes that he has distorted the character of the pachuco. In the Davis interview, Valdez states that the pachuco is a creation of 1978, not of 1942; that he represents a consciousness that is present today. He also says that the pachuco does not represent an ultimate solution, but is only a phase, a symbol that change is possible, that Chicanos can do something with their lives. In Zoot Suit, however, the fact that the pachuco must be transformed before he can do something useful is undercut. One of the pachucos in San Quentin turns to the audience and declaims naively that he has come to a grand realization: when he gets out of jail, the thing he can do is become a union organizer (audience laughter)—or a professional baseball player (more audience laughter). The "message" is played for a laugh. Similarly, that the pachuco can become useful only when he changes and ceases to be a pachuco is contradicted by the insistence upon the mythic, i.e., static, nature of El Pachuco.

Valdez wants the figurative character and the documented imitation of Henry Reyna to carry all the weight of his own Chicanismo and Mayan Aztec mysticism. Henry is a tough blowhard, but loves his family. El Pachuco is a tough blowhard, but is beaten up by Marines and Sailors and ends up naked, except for a loincloth, on stage in a pool of light. The loincloth is supposed to represent, if you know Campesino's mitos, the Indian under the clothes of the city dude. The image is barely understood by those of us who know, giggled at by Chicanos in the Los Angeles audience, and viewed as melodramatic and confusing in New York City. Thus the confused politics produces confused art.

The other political problems in the play are also inseparable from the aesthetic problems. When a cultural nationalist goes to Broadway to reach a "wider audience," his message, which previously gained much of its force precisely from its cultural specificity, must be diluted to be intelligible to those not a part of that culture. Valdez, in other words, had to professionalize the "rasquachiness" that gave the works of El Teatro Campesino their unique force and vigor.

According to Valdez, the major changes in Zoot Suit were made before the trip to Broadway, between the original version as played on the Taper's experimental stage, and the version as performed on the main stage of the Forum. It is at this juncture that the barrio disappeared from the set and the Las Vegas shiny dance floor stage emerged; the love story between Alice Bloomfield and Henry Reyna came to dominate the historical/political material; and the production staff, formerly members of Campesino, was changed. (Pat Birch of Grease fame, for example, became principal choreographer; Thomas A. Walsh, a set designer, replaced Bob Morales; and Abe Jacob, a sound designer, was added.)

But the play was a great success in L.A. even after the professionalization and homogenization began. There is another, very slippery, issue here. The success of Zoot Suit in L.A. was due, in part, to the California audience—Chicano and non-Chicano—which could read the geography and personal Chicano experiences into the play, however simple the characterizations, just as Campesino's original farmworker audience could read into the agitprop "actos" in Delano.

In Valdez' earliest works, the people on stage and the people off-stage were the same. They came from the same place and their concerns were specifically those of the Huelga. Even when those concerns broadened, the effect of the actors and plays was great because the Chicano performers' persona gave an additional dimension to the plays. They were speaking the language of the audience, legitimizing its culture. So when someone on stage said "Chale, ese," the audience roared at hearing its private language in a public place; there was the laughter of recognition, of complicity.

Similarly, in Los Angeles, when El Pachuco came on stage and preened in his Zoot Suit, the largely Chicano audience went wild. In New York, however, there was an embarrassed silence, perhaps a chuckle or two. As Clive Barnes wrote, "Broadway is not the street where it lives." Though Barnes' comment may have been motivated by East Coast snobbery, it has a certain validity. Take away the Chicano audience and the Chicano actors, take away the Chicano locale, and all you have left is the play itself, a play which does not hold up to critical scrutiny.

Also, once on Broadway, the play had to be changed even further to reach not merely a wider "audience," but a wider "market." Culture, politics, become part of a product that must be packaged and sold. The Shubert Organization, owners of seventeen theatres on Broadway and the producers of Zoot Suit, was interested in developing the newly discovered Hispanic market, a market which Hollywood has also recently discovered (Gang, Boulevard Nights, Up in Smoke.)

The show had to be changed to fit both the white New York theatre scene, and to attract the Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican audience. Accordingly, it was cut and reshaped to fit what Valdez and Davidson would "work" in New York. But it is a tricky problem to reach a wider audience rather than cater to it, as one moves from local community to state and on to the national stage. "Once the Broadway machinery takes hold, other things happen," said Davidson.

The first problem was that of language. The Wiz, Ain't Misbehavin', Eubie, Timbuctoo are "Black" shows, but they are big musicals that attract both Blacks and whites to the theatre. But if a play is in Spanish, only the Spanish speaking will attend. Political problem: in the actos, one way in which the Good Guys were distinguished from the Bad Guys was their embrace of Chicano Spanish. We know "Miss JIM-enez" is a villain because she denies her culture and anglicizes the pronounciation of her name. However, the more Zoot Suit belonged to the Spanish speaking, the less it could be understood by the English speaking. And the more Chicano slang, the less it could be understood by Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Dominicans. Thus to reach a wider audience market, the language had to change. One political point down. Spanish/slang out: sentimentalized English in.

A different set of problems resulted from the marketing scheme of placing Zoot Suit in the Winter Garden, a large theatre which demands musical extravaganza. The play was too small for the house. In addition, the 1943 Zoot Suit riots in which white sailors and marines attacked pachucos in L.A. seemed a bit distant in this docu-drama interrupted by dance and song. The historical importance of these events was buried by flashback and flashy gimmicry. (The "minority" play most recently at the Winter Garden was Comin' Uptown, an all Black musical version of A Christmas Carol. Its politics? Scrooge is a black tap dancing slum landlord.)

Finally, problems in the play also came from Valdez' politics of cultural nationalism. He did not want Anglos to walk out,—to get his "message" to them and to sell them tickets. However, because Valdez does still experience the world as divided between "us" and "them," his ability to understand those outside his culture is limited. We get recreations of others experiences, i.e., characters from bad movies. In Zoot Suit, we have the heroic white liberal lawyer whose startling message is that the system works, and the feisty Jewish Communist who of course falls in love with Henry, ever true to the cheap theatrics that two who are antagonists at the beginning of a show will become lovers by its end.

Also, Valdez' cultural nationalism relies heavily on the "spirituality" that is, in his view, the inheritance of the Chicanos from their Indian past. He believes in his "mission": Zoot Suit, he said to R. G. Davis when asked how the play was going in L.A. "is doing what it is supposed to do, what it has to do." He has faith. He, by himself, would change Establishment theatre. Campesino would take over, though just how the takeover was to be accomplished and what would happen once it had, was vague, rather like the unfocused rebelliousness of the pachuco hero Henry Reyna. Valdez has faith, rather than a proposal. So too Zoot Suit.

It is not Valdez' success one criticizes, for who in the good world of the liberal left dare proclaim poverty is moral? But what Zoot Suit offers us is ultimately the pachuco. While the performance of Eddie Olmos on Broadway lent an alluring stature to El Pachuco, the real life pachuco was a kid, a clothes model, an image of political reaction and temporary identity rebelliousness. To select as truth only those elements one wishes to see as true, to ignore the historical reality of the central characters of a drama based on political fact, is to create a model of the Chicano as useless as the Frito Bandito.

Gerald C. Lubenow (review date 4 May 1987)

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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 theater, where that very question can make or break you, Valdez has come triumphantly into his own. With a new immigration law creating millions of hyphenated Hispanic-Americans, he is a powerful interpreter of their search for identity in an Anglo culture. He has succeeded by shaping the experience of Chicanos into drama that speaks to all Americans. His latest work, I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, has been cheered in Los Angeles and San Diego. Corridos, a series of Mexican folk ballads that won critical acclaim on the stage, will air as a special on PBS this fall. La Bamba, a movie about '50s rock-and-roller Ritchie Valens that Valdez wrote and directed, is being talked about as one of this summer's hot movies.

Badges is as middle-American as Archie Bunker. Buddy Villa, the testy father in the play, even complains of Asians ruining the San Fernando Valley neighborhood where he and his wife have made a comfortable home as the "silentbit king and queen of Hollywood." Their son drops out of Harvard Law School to find himself. Determined to become a movie star, he attacks his parents for playing anonymous stereotypical Chicano roles.

If Badges has ethnic origins, its dreams are mainstream. The play is as much a story of generational conflict as of assimilation. Jorge Huerta, an expert on Chicano theater, is struck by the distance between Badges and The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, an early Valdez work about Mexican parents trying to find themselves in America. "These people in Badges are middle class," says Huerta. "This is an American conflict. All Americans have gone through it." What Chicanos don't have to do, Badges says, is apologize for wanting to assimilate.

La Bamba is set in the '50s. Ritchie Valens is all-American, a poor boy who makes it on raw talent and honest ambition. A third-generation southern California kid who doesn't speak Spanish and has never seen Mexico, he becomes a star and records "La Bamba," the first song in Spanish to be a rock-and-roll hit. The film soars from its grainy documentary-style opening to the final crash everyone knows is coming. It has established Valdez, 46, as an accomplished filmmaker and prompted talk of other movie projects.

From the time Valdez first made it to Broadway with Zoot Suit, no one has done more to change how America perceives its Hispanic citizens. With Corridos, he brings to television the tradition of the Mexican-American folk ballad—densely textured weavings of story and song. "My work comes from the border," he says. "It is neither Mexican nor American. It's part of America, like Cajun music." With songs in Spanish and dialogue in English, Corridos features Linda Ronstadt, who is half Mexican. Smiles Valdez, who went over Ronstadt's songs with her word by word, "She sounds very authentic. You wouldn't know she doesn't speak Spanish."

Valdez's early plays mix Spanish and English. "I was on my way to being acculturated," he says of growing up in San Jose, Calif., in the '50s. "By the time I graduated from high school, my Spanish was in tatters. I got it back because I wanted it back." His ultimate concern, however, is not which language he uses, but what he has to say: "I'm writing in English now. It took me a long time to get to that. I needed a few Spanish words as an anchor." He switched when he found Chicano audiences, particularly the young, didn't want Spanish, didn't understand it. "My characters can speak English and be very Chicano at the same time," he says. His message is his medium: "I have something to give. I can unlock some things about the American landscape."

Valdez started as a migrant worker picking cotton and staging agitprop skits on the back of a flatbed to support Cesar Chavez's farm workers' union. His success and the direction of his recent work have caused some critics to accuse him of selling out. He admits to ambition. "There was a time when I spoke only to Chicanos. Now I want a national audience." But he also retains a firm grasp on his roots. During the filming of La Bamba, he was intrigued by the thought that he and Valens may have worked together in the orchards near San Jose. When the labor camp set was built, he took his parents on a tour. "It was so real," he says, "it was like stepping back into the past."

Anthony DeCurtis (review date 16 August 1987)

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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 inspiration for his hit "Donna," is almost laughably blank. In contrast, Rosana De Soto and Esai Morales, as Valens's mother and half brother, give performances that are operatic in their histrionic excess.

But the movie's most damning flaw is in its handling of Valens's death. Sweet Dreams, the 1985 movie about country singer Patsy Cline, who died in a plane crash at age thirty, worked because it made Cline's life seem so recognizably ordinary. When her plane slams into a mountain, it hits with all the pointless shock that violent, accidental death delivers in real life.

Writer and director Luis Valdez takes a much less effective tack in La Bamba, in which the circumstances surrounding Valens's death are laden with portentous cliches. The singer is haunted by prophetic dreams of plane crashes and reels off lines like "I'm gonna be a star, and stars don't fall from the sky, do they?"

The mystical inflation of Valens's story may be the result of the difficulties Valdez faced in dramatizing the life of someone who died as a teenager. But Valens's life hardly requires this degree of aesthetic shaping to have its impact. The child of an impoverished and broken family, Valens had already scored hits with "Donna," "La Bamba" and "Come On, Let's Go" at the time of his death and seemed poised for greater things. The loss of such a seminal figure should provide power and pathos enough for any film.

Luis Valdez with David Savran (interview date January 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6693

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 career as founder and director of El Teatro Campesino—a career that in the more than two decades since has thrust him to the forefront of the complex and politically charged Hispanic search for identity in the Anglo culture of the United States.

Riding the wave of growing Hispanic numbers and influence, Valdez has come into his own in no less than three media: his latest play, the comedy I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, drew cheers in recent seasons at the Los Angeles Theater Center and San Diego Repertory Company; Corridos, a series of staged Mexican folk ballads, was videotaped and aired as a PBS-TV special in October; and La Bamba, a movie about '50s rock-and-roller Ritchie Valens that Valdez wrote and directed was released over the summer (in English and Spanish versions) to critical accolades and box-office success. "There was a time when I spoke only to Chicanos—now I want a national audience," Valdez admits. But the recent mainstreaming of his work has not obscured the continuity or clarity of Valdez's intention: to communicate the Chicano experience in all of its political, cultural and religious complexity.

That intention was shaped in El Teatro Campesino's early history and fired by its struggles. During the company's first years it was a union tool, performing in meeting halls, fields and strike camps. Drawing on commedia dell' arte and elements of Mexican folk culture, Valdez created actos, short comic sketches designed to raise political awareness and inspire action. Los Vendidos (The Sellouts, 1967), for example, attacks the stereotyping of Chicanos and government-sanctioned tokenism. A Chicano secretary from Governor Reagan's office goes to Honest Sancho's Used Mexican Lot to buy "a Mexican type" for the front office. She examines several models—a farm worker, a young pachuco (a swaggering street kid), a revolucionario and finally a Mexican-American in a business suit who sings "God Bless America" and drinks dry martinis. As soon as she buys the last, he malfunctions and begins shouting "Viva la huelga," while the others chase her away and divide the money.

At the same time that he was writing and performing agitprop for the Farm Workers, Valdez turned to examine his pre-Columbian heritage, the sophisticated religion and culture of the ancient Mayans. The Teatro settled in two houses in San Juan Bautistas in 1971, where they farmed according to Mayan practices and Valdez developed the second of his dramatic forms, the mito (myth), which characteristically takes the form of a parable based on Indian ritual. For Valdez the mito is an attempt to integrate political activism and religious ritual—to tie "the cause of social justice" to "the cause of everything else in our universe." Bernabe (1970) is a parable about the prostitution of the land. It opposes the pure, mystical love for La Tierra (the Earth) by the mentally retarded campesino of the title against its simple possession by landowners and banks. At the play's end Bernabe is visited by La Luna (the Moon, dressed as a 1942 pachuco), La Tierra and El Sol (the Sun) in the guise of Tonatiuh, the Aztec sun god. In a final apotheosis, the "cosmic idiot" is made whole and united with La Tierra, at last revealed to be Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of life, death and rebirth.

In the 1970s Valdez developed a third dramatic form, the corrido (ballad), which, like the mito, is intended to claim a cultural heritage rather than inspire political revolution. The corrido is Valdez's reinvention of the musical, based on Mexican-American folk ballads telling tales of love, death and heroism. Zoot Suit (1978) is perhaps his best known corrido and was the first Hispanic play to reach Broadway, after a long and successful run in Los Angeles. Mixing narrative, action, song and dance, it is the story of members of a zoot suit-clad pachuco gang of the '40s, their wrongful conviction for murder and the "Zoot Suit Riots" that followed.

I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges takes on the political and existential implications of acting, both in theatre and society. It takes place in a television studio in which is set the suburban southern California home of Buddy and Connie Villa, two assimilated, middle-class Chicanos, "the silent bit king and queen of Hollywood." Their son, Sonny, who has just dropped out of Harvard Law School and has returned home with his Asian-American girlfriend, tries to find work in Hollywood, but despairs at having to become one of the many "actors faking our roles to fit into the great American success story." With Pirandellian sleight of hand, Valdez uses a director to interrupt the scene (which it turns out is an episode of a new sitcom, Badges!) in order to debate the social function of art. "This isn't reality," Sonny protests. But the director assures him, "Frankly, reality's a big boring pain in the ass. We're in the entertainment business. Laughs, Sonny, that's more important than reality."

Although closer to mainstream comedy than mystery play, Valdez's exploration of role-playing represents more a development of than a break with the technique of his early mitos. Both Bernabe and Badges eschew naturalism in favor of a more theatrically bold style, the earlier play drawing upon a naive former model and the later a sophisticated one. Bernabe, in keeping with the conventions of religious drama, opts for a simple, mystical ending, while Badges refuses the pat resolution of television sitcom by offering several alternative endings. Both examine the spiritual implications of material choices; both are celebratory despite their socially critical vision.

Deep connections are evident in Valdez's uniquely diverse collection of plays. As he shapes the experience of Chicanos into drama that speaks to all Americans, he is also examining the interrelationship between the political and the metaphysical, between historically determined oppressive structures and man's transhistorical desire for faith and freedom.

I spoke with Valdez in May 1987, in his El Teatro Campesino office in San Juan Bautista.

[Savran]: How did you get interested in theatre?

[Valdez]: There's a story that's almost apocryphal, I've repeated it so many times now. It's nevertheless true. I got hooked on the theatre when I was six. I was born into a family of migrant farm workers and shortly after World War II we were in a cotton camp in the San Joaquin valley. The season was over, it was starting to rain, but we were still there because my dad's little Ford pickup truck had broken down and was up on blocks and there was no way for us to get out. Life was pretty meager then and we survived by fishing in a river and sharing staples like beans, rice and flour. And the bus from the local school used to come in from a place called Stratford—irony of ironies, except it was on the San Joaquin River [laughs].

I took my lunch to school in a little brown paper bag—which was a valuable commodity because there were still paper shortages in 1946. One day as school let out and kids were rushing toward the bus, I found my bag missing and I went around in a panic looking for it. The teacher saw me and said, "Are you looking for your bag?" and I said, "Yes." She said, "Come, here," and she took me in the little back room and there, on a table, were some things laid out that completely changed my perception of the universe. She'd torn the bag up and placed it in water. I was horrified. But then she showed me the next bowl. It was a paste. She was making papier-mâché. A little farther down the line, she'd taken the paper and put in on a clay mold of a face of a monkey, and finally there was a finished product, unpainted but nevertheless definitely a monkey. And she said, "I'm making masks."

I was amazed, shocked in an exhilarating way, that she could do this with paper and paste. As it turned out, she was making masks for the school play. I didn't know what a play was, but she explained and said, "We're having tryouts." I came back the next week all enthused and auditioned for a part and got a leading role as a monkey. The play was about Christmas in the jungle. I was measured for a costume that was better than the clothes I was wearing at the time, certainly more colorful. The next few weeks were some of the most exciting in my short life. After seeing the stage transformed into a jungle and after all the excitement of the preparations—I doubt that it was as elaborate as my mind remembers it now—my dad got the truck fixed and a week before the show was to go on, we moved away. So I never got to be in the Christmas play.

That left an unfillable gap, a vacuum that I've been pouring myself into for the last 41 years. From then on, it was just a question of evolution. Later I got into puppets. I was a ventriloquist, believe it or not. In 1956 when I was in high school, I became a regular on a local television program. I was still living in a barrio with my family, a place in San Jose called Sal Si Puedes—Get Out if You Can. It was one of those places with dirt streets and potholes, a terrible place. But I was on television, right? [laughs], and I wrote my own stuff and it established me in high school.

By the time I graduated, I had pretty well decided that writing was my consuming passion. Coming from my background, I didn't feel right about going to my parents and saying, "I want to be a playwright." So I started college majoring in math and physics. Then one day late in my freshman year I walked to the drama department and decided, "To hell with it, I'm going to go with this." I changed majors to English, with an emphasis on playwriting, and that's what I did for the rest of my college days.

In 1964 I wrote and directed my first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa. People saw it and gave me a lot of encouragement. I joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe the following year, and then in '65 joined the Farm Workers Union and essentially started El Teatro Campesino. The evolution has been continuous since then, both of the company and of my styles of playwriting.

During that period, what was your most important theatre training—college, the Mime Troupe?

It's all important. It's a question of layering. I love to layer things, I think they achieve a certain richness—I'm speaking now about "the work." But life essentially evolves that way, too. Those years of studying theatre history were extremely important. I connected with a number of ancient playwrights in a very direct way. Plautus was a revelation, he spoke directly to me. I took four years of Latin so I was able to read him in Latin. There are clever turns of phrases that I grew to appreciate and, in my own way, was able almost to reproduce in Spanish. The central figure of the wily servant in classical Roman drama—Greek also—became a standard feature of my work with El Teatro Campesino. The striker was basically a wily servant. I'd also been exposed to commedia dell' arte through the Brighellas, Arlecchinos and Pantalones. I saw a direct link between these commedia types and the types I had to work with in order to put together a Farm Workers' theatre. I chose to do an outdoor, robust theatre of types. I figured it hit the reality.

My second phase was the raw, elemental education I got, performing under the most primitive conditions in the farm labor camps and on flatbed trucks. In doing so, I dealt with the basic elements of drama: structure, language, music, movement. The first education was literary, the second practical. We used to put on stuff every week, under all kinds of circumstances: outdoors, indoors, under the threat of violence.

There was a period during the grape strike in '67 when we had become an effective weapon within the Farm Workers and were considered enough of a threat that a rumor flashed across the strike camp that somebody was after me with a high-powered rifle. We went out to the labor camp anyway, but I was really sweating it. I don't think I've sweated any performance since then. It changed my perspective on what I was doing. Was this really worth it? Was it a life-and-death issue? Of course it was for me at the time, and still is. I learned that in a very direct and practical way. I was beaten and kicked and jailed, also in the '60s, essentially for doing theatre. I knew the kind of theatre we were doing was a political act, it was art and politics. At least I hope I wasn't being kicked for the art [laughs].

What other playwrights had a major impact on you in those days?

Brecht looms huge in my orientation. I discovered Brecht in college, from an intellectual perspective. That was really the only way—no one was doing Brecht back in 1961. When Esslin's book, Brecht: The Man and His Work, came out in 1960, I was working in the library, so I had first dibs on all the new books. Brecht to me had been only a name. But this book opened up Brecht and I started reading all his plays and his theories, which I subscribed to immediately. I continue to use his alienation effect to this day. I don't think audiences like it too much, but I like it because it seems to me an essential feature of the experience of theatre.

Theatre should reflect an audience back on itself: You should think as well as feel. Still, there's no underestimating the power of emotional impact—I understand better now how ideas are conveyed and exchanged on a beam of emotion. I think Brecht began to discover that in his later works and integrated it. I've integrated a lot of feeling into my works, but I still love ideas. I still love communicating a concept, an abstraction. That's the mathematician in me.

How has your way of writing changed over the years?

What has changed over the years is an approach and a technique. The first few years with the Teatro Campesino were largely improvisational. I wrote outlines. I sketched out a dramatic structure, sometimes on a single page, and used that as my guide to direct the actors. Later on, I began to write very simple scripts that were sometimes born out of improvisations. During the first 10 years, from '65 to '75, the collective process became more complicated and more sophisticated within the company—we were creating longer pieces, full-length pieces, but they'd take forever to complete using the collective process.

By 1975 I'd taken the collective process as far as I could. I enjoyed working with people. I didn't have to deal with the loneliness of writing. My problem was that I was so much part of the collective that I couldn't leave for even a month without the group having serious problems. By 1975 we were stable enough as a company for me to begin to take a month, two months, six months, eventually a year. I turned a corner and was ready to start writing plays again.

In 1975 I took a month off and wrote a play called El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World). We began to create it the year before and did it through 1980, a different version every year. The characters were people born of my experience, and they are still alive for me. Someday I'll finish all of that as a play or else it will be poured into a screenplay for a "major motion picture" [laughs]. Shortly after that, in 1977, I was invited by the Mark Taper Forum to write a play for their New Theatre for Now series. We agreed on the Zoot Suit Riots as a subject. Zoot Suit firmly reestablished my self-identity as a playwright. Essentially I've been writing nonstop since '75. That's not to say I didn't write anything between '65 and '75. Soldado Razo, which is probably my most performed play around the world, was written in 1970, as was Bernabe. The Dark Root of a Scream was written in 1967. These are all one-acts. But I used to work on them with a sense of longing, wanting more time to be able to sit down and write.

Now I'm firmly back in touch with myself as a playwright. When I begin, I allow myself at least a month of free association with notes. I can start anywhere. I can start with an abstract notion, a character … it's rarely dialogue or anything specific like that. More often than not, it's just an amorphous bunch of ideas, impressions and feelings. I allow myself to tumble in this ball of thoughts and impressions, knowing that I'm heading toward a play and that eventually I've got to begin dealing with character and then structure.

Because of the dearth of Hispanic playwrights—or even American playwrights, for that matter—I felt it necessary to explore the territory, to cover the range of theatre as widely as I could. Political theatre with the Farm Workers was sometimes minimal scale, a small group of workers gathered in some dusty little corner in a labor camp, and sometimes immense—huge crowds, 10,000, 15,000, with banners flying. But the political theatre extends beyond the farm worker into the whole Chicano experience. We've dealt with a lot of issues: racism, education, immigration—and that took us, again, through many circles.

We evolved three separate forms: the acto was the political act, the short form, 15 minutes; the mito was the mythic, religious play; and the corrido was the ballad. I just finished a full-length video program called Corridos. So the form has evolved into another medium. I do political plays, musicals, historical dramas, religious dramas. We still do our religious plays at the Mission here every year. They're nurturing, they feed the spirit. Peter Brook's response when he saw our Virgin play, years ago, was that it was like something out of the Middle Ages. It's religious for many of the people who come see it, not just entertainment. And of course we've gone on to do serious plays and comedies like I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges.

It seems that a play like Bernabe aligns the mito and the acto, the politics and the myth. It uses religious mysticism to point out the difference between simply owning the land and loving it. The political point is made by appeal to mystical process.

The spiritual aspect of the political struggle has been part of the work from the beginning. Some of that is through Cesar Chavez, who is a spiritual-political leader. Some people—say, the political types—have had trouble dealing with the spiritual. They say, "It's distortion. Religion is the opium of the masses." But it seems to me that the spiritual is very much part of everyday life. There's no way to exclude it … we are spirit. We're a manifestation of something, of an energy.

The whole fusion between the spiritual and the material is for me the paradox of human existence. That's why I connected with Peter Brook when he was here in '73—his question was, "How do you make the invisible visible?" To me myth is not something that's fake or not real. On the contrary, it's so real that it's just below the surface—it's the supporting structure of our everyday reality. That makes me a lot more Jungian than Freudian. And it distinguishes me, I think, from a lot of other playwrights. A lot of modern playwrights go to psycho-analysis to work out their problems. I can't stop there, that's just the beginning for me. I've had to go to the root of my own existence in order to effect my own salvation, if you will. The search for meaning took me into religion and science, and into mythology.

I had to sound out these things in myself. Someone pointed out to me the evolution a couple of years ago. The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa is theatre of the absurd. One of the characters, the oldest brother, is a disembodied head, huge, oversized. And he eats all of the food that the family can produce. So they stay poor. He has lice that turn out to be tiny little cockroaches that grow and cover the walls. He sings La Cucaracha but cannot talk. And he can't move. He's just kind of there. In a metaphorical sense, that was me back in the early '60s. That's the way I felt—that I had no legs, no arms. By 1970, when I got to Bernabe, I was the idiot, but I'd gotten in contact with the sun and the moon and earth. Fortunately, out of these grotesque self-portraits, my characters have attained a greater and greater degree of humanity.

I've always had difficulty with naturalism in the theatre. Consequently, a lot of people have looked at my work and said, "Maybe he just can't write naturalism. His is the theatre of types, of simplistic little stick figures." What I needed was a medium in which to be able to do that, so I came to film. La Bamba is naturalism, as well as of the spirit. There I wanted the dirt, so I got the dirt. I wanted intimate realistic scenes between two real people. I can write that stuff for the stage too, but it just doesn't interest me. The stage for me—that box, that flat floor—holds other potentials; it's a means to explore other things.

As much a ritual space as anything else.

Most definitely. It seems to me that the essence of the human being is to act, to move through space in patterns that gives his life meaning. We adorn ourselves with symbolic objects that give that movement even more meaning. Then we come out with sounds. And then somewhere along the line we begin to call that reality—but it's a self-created reality. The whole of civilization is a dance. I think the theatre celebrates that.

So religion functions in your work as a connection with the past, with one's heritage and one's bond to all men.

Sounding out those elemental drums, going back into the basics. I was doing this as a Chicano but I was also doing it as someone who inhabits the 20th century. I think we need to reconnect. The word religion means "a tying back." The vacuum I thought I was born into turned out to be full of all kinds of mystery and power. The strange things that were going on in the barrio—the Mexican things, the ethnic things—seemed like superstition, but on another level there was a lot of psychic activity. There's a lot of psychic activity in Mexican culture that is actually political at times.

Zoot Suit is another extremely spiritual, political play. And it was never understood. People thought it was about juvenile delinquents and that I was putting the Pachuco on the stage just to be snide. But the young man, Henry Reyna, achieves his own liberation by coming into contact with this internal authority. The Pachuco is the Jungian self-image, the superego if you will, the power inside every individual that's greater than any human institution. The Pachuco says, "It'll take more than the U.S. Navy to beat me down," referring to the Navy and Marines stripping zoot suiters in the 1940s. "I don't give a fuck what you do to me, you can't take this from me. And I reassert myself, in this guise." The fact that critics couldn't accept that guise was too bad, but it doesn't change the nature of what the play's about. It deals with self-salvation. And you can follow the playwright through the story—I was also those two dudes. With Zoot Suit I was finally able to transcend social conditions, and the way I did it on stage was to give the Pachuco absolute power, as the master of ceremonies. He could snap his fingers and stop the action. It was a Brechtian device that allowed the plot to move forward, but psychically and symbolically, in the right way.

And Chicanos got off on it. That's why a half-million people came to see it in L.A. Because I had given a disenfranchised people their religion back. I dressed the Pachuco in the colors of Testatipoka, the Aztec god of education, the dean of the school of hard knocks. There's another god of culture, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, who's much kinder. He surfaces in La Bamba as the figure of Ritchie Valens. He's an artist and poet and is gentle and not at all fearful. When my audiences see La Bamba, they like that positive spirit. The Pachuco's a little harder to take.

But these are evolutions. I use the metaphor of the serpent crawling out of its skin. There's that symbolism in La Bamba—it's pre-Columbian, but it's also very accurate in terms of the way that I view my own life. I've crawled through many of my own dead skins.

Although Badges and Bernabe are very different, in both of them the metaphysical is given a political dimension.

I like to think there's a core that's constant. In one way, what I have to say is quite basic, quite human. In another way, it's specifically American, in a continental sense. I'm reaching back to pre-Columbian America and trying to share that. I feel and sense those rhythms within me. I'm not just a Mexican farm worker. I'm an American with roots in Mayan culture. I can resonate and unlock some of the mysteries of this land which reside in all of us. I've just been in the neighborhood a little bit longer.

What about the endings of your plays? Zoot Suit's seems very Brechtian, a happy ending immediately called into question. Then you present three different possible futures for the characters. And Badges is similar. You present what could happen, depending on the choices the characters make.

Multiple endings—multiple beginnings, too—have started to evolve in my work. I don't think there's any single end. I firmly believe that, we exist simultaneously on seven levels—you can call them shakras if you're so inclined, or you can call them something else. In the Mayan sculptures, there's a vision of the universe in those ancient headdresses, in which you see the open mouths of birds with human heads coming through them, and then something else going in through the eyes and coming out again. That's a pulsating vision of the universe. It might have been born from the jungle but is, nevertheless, an accurate description of what is going on below the surface, at the nuclear level, in the way atomic particles are interacting. To me the universe is a huge, pulsating, enormously vital and conscious phenomenon. There is no end. There is no beginning. There's only an apparent end and an apparent beginning.

We had an ending and beginning to La Bamba, which I had scripted and seemed right on paper. But our first preview audiences rejected them. So eventually we snipped them. What we had was not exactly a Brechtian turn, but it was a stepping back and looking at the '50s from the perspective of the '80s. They wanted to stay in the '50s. I had been trying, on some level, to alleviate the pain of Ritchie Valens' death, but audiences told us, "Leave us with the pain." So that's where we left it.

Can you describe how you work as a director with your own material?

As a director I switch gears. Writing is a solitary process—you're in there with the words, and I love that. But I also love directing, getting out of myself and into other people. As a director—and this again comes from my experiences in the Farm Worker days—I have to know who I'm working with. And what they are like. If I have four actors, or a dozen actors, plus crew, my first job as a director is to get them to become one, to get them hot enough about doing the project so that there's a lot of enthusiasm.

More and more the first thing I want to establish in character development is movement. You can't have a feeling, an emotion, without motion. You can pick up a lot from the associative school, referring back to your own experiences, but I think it's also possible to get people to laugh and cry through what they do to their bodies.

Very often that's the difference between acting for film and acting for the stage. You can't get away with "acting" on film. You have to cut it so close to the bone, you have to be, to get down-and-dirty. It's "the Method," to be sure. So you have to make it small, intense and real. On the stage, because you have to project, things sometimes get out of whack. And you have to switch to a new mentality. This is where ritual comes in. Performance on the stage is much more like dance than anything else. Dance is real. You can't fake dance. But somehow a lot of people start acting as if they're "acting," and think they're doing it right. In fact, acting is something totally different: it's a real act. Which gets back to politics, in that our first theatrical acts were real political acts. That's why that dude was out there with a high-powered rifle—he wasn't seeing theatre, but a threatening political act.

Now it seems that the political dimension has become sublimated, less explicit. You're no longer writing agitprop.

There is a time and place for all forms. It's 20 years down the road. But the political impact is still there. The only difference is that I'm being asked to run for governor now, which I'm not interested in doing. My purpose is still to impact socially, culturally and politically. I'm reaffirming some things that are very important to all of us as Americans, those things that we all believe to be essential to our society. What I hope is changing is a perception about the country as a whole. And the continent as well.

I'm just trying to kick my two cents into the pot. I still want El Teatro Campesino to perform on Broadway, because I think that's a political act. El Teatro Campesino is in Hollywood, and I don't think we've compromised any social statements. We started out in '65 doing these actos within the context of the United Farm Workers. Twenty-two years later, my next movie may be about the grape strike. My Vietnam was at home. I refused to go to Vietnam, but I encountered all the violence I needed on the home front: People were killed by the Farm Workers' strike.

Some critics have accused you of selling out.

I used to joke, "It's impossible for us to sell out because nobody wants to buy us." That doesn't bother me in the least. There's too much to do, to be socially conscious about. In some ways, it's just people sounding me out. I don't mind people referring back to what I have been. We're all like mirrors to each other. People help to keep you on course. I've strayed very little from my pronounced intentions.

In '67 when we left United Farm Workers and started our own cultural center in Del Rey, we came out with a manifesto, essentially stating that we were trying to put the tools of the artist in the hands of the humblest, the working people. But not just 19th-century tools, not clay and straw or spit and masking tape or felt pens. We were talking about video, film, recording studios. Now we're beginning to work in the best facilities that the industry has to offer. What we do with them from here is something else.

Do you read the critics?

Sure. I love listening to the public. They're the audience, who am I to argue with them? They either got it or they didn't. The critics are part of the process. I do have some strong feelings about the nature of American criticism—I don't think that it's deeply rooted enough in a knowledge of theatre history. Very often newspapers just assign reporters, Joe Blow off the street. Perhaps it would be too much for the public to have somebody that's overly informed—is that possible?—about the theatre.

How do you see the American theatre today?

The overwhelming impression for me is that theatre's not nearly as interesting as it could be, that it's been stuck in its traces for many, many years. Broadway has not moved out of the '20s, from what I can see. It might be due to the fact that so many of the houses on Broadway are 19th-century playhouses. But much of the material that I see—and I don't see nearly enough—is too anemic for my tastes. I have trouble staying awake in the theatre, believe it or not. I can barely stay awake at my own plays.

I feel that the whole question of the human enterprise is up for grabs. I don't think this country has come to terms with its racial questions, obviously. And because of that, it has not really come to terms with the cultural question of what America is. There are two vast melting pots that must eventually come together. The Hispanic, after all, is really the product of a melting pot—there's no such thing as a Latin American race. The Hispanic melting pot melds all the races of the world, like the Anglo melting pot does; so one of these days, and probably in the United States, those two are going to be poured together—probably in a play, and it could be one of my own [laughs].

There's a connection with the Indian cultures that has to be established in American life. Before we can do that, however, we have to get beyond the national guilt over the genocide of the Indian. What's needed is expiation and forgiveness, and the only ones that are in a position to forgive are the Indian peoples. I'm a Yaqui Indian—Spanish blood, yes, but largely Yaqui. I'm in a position to be able to forgive white people. And why not? I think that's what we're here for, to forgive each other. Martin Luther King speaking in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial was a beginning. It didn't reach nearly far enough. We're still wrestling with it. Deep fears, about miscegenation and the despoliation of the race, have to be dealt with. I'm here, through my work, to show that short, brown people are okay, you know what I mean? We've got ideas, too, and we've got a song and a dance or two. And we know something about the world that we can share. I'm here to show that to other brown people who don't think very much of themselves, and there are a lot of those.

I wish there were more plays that dealt with the reality of this country. The racial issue is always just swept aside. It deserves to be swept aside—once it's been dealt with. We cannot begin to approach a real solution to our social ills—a solution like integration, for instance, or assimilation—without dealing with all our underlying feelings about each other. I'm trying to deal with my past, not just with respect to Anglos, but to blacks and Asians. I draw on the symbolism of the four roads: the black road, the white road, the red road and the yellow road. They all meet in the navel of the universe, the place where the upper road leads into the underworld—read consciousness and subconsciousness. I think that where they come home is in America.

What are your plans for the future? And goals.

I'm into a very active phase right now, as writer and director, but with writing as the base. I have a number of very central stories I want to tell—on film, on television and on the stage. I want to be working in the three media, on simultaneous projects that feed each other. I like the separation between film, television and theatre. It makes each a lot clearer for me. In theatre, there are a number of ritualistic pieces I want to do that explore the movement of bodies in space and the relation between movement and language. That sphere I can explore on film, too, or television. What film gives me is movement around the actor—I can explore from any viewpoint, any distance. But theatre's the only medium that gives me the sheer beauty, power and presence of bodies. Ritual, literally.

I've got a piece that I've been working on for many, many years, called The Earthquake Sun, about our time. All I can tell you is that it will be on the road one of these days. I have another play called The Mummified Fetus. It takes off from a real incident that happened a couple years ago: an 85-year-old woman was discovered with a mummified fetus in her womb. I have a couple of plays that the world has not seen, that we've only done here with the company.

In television I have a number of projects. Corridos has begun to open up other possibilities. I talk about video as electronic theatre. I'm getting into the idea of doing theatre before cameras, but going for specifically theatrical moments as opposed to real cinematic moments. Corridos is an example of this.

I hope a more workable touring network will develop in this country. The links between East and West must be solidified. I think it's great for companies to tour. We're very excited about the possibility of our company plugging into the resources of the regional theatres, as we've done with Badges in San Diego and at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, even with the Burt Reynolds Playhouse in Jupiter, Fla. We hope to be able to go from regional theatre to regional theatre all the way across the country, including New York. In that way, we'll be able to reach a national audience.

I still want to experience the dust and sweat occasionally. I'm trying to leave time open for that. This month we're going to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Farm Workers, and we'll be back on a flatbed truck, doing some of the old actos. I don't want to lose any of our audience. I want worldwide audience. We had that—up until 1980 we were touring Europe and Latin America. We want to tour Asia with the Teatro Campesino. Essentially, I would like to see theatre develop the kind of mass audience—it's impossible of course—that the movies have. I wish we could generate that enthusiasm in young people and in audiences in general, get them out of their homes, away from their VCRs, to experience the theatre as the life-affirming, life-giving experience that it is.

Luis Valdez (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2455

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, puro pedo.

Chicano theatre, then, is first a reaffirmation of LIFE. That is what all theatre is supposed to be, of course; but the limp, superficial, gringo seco productions in the "professional" American theatre (and the college and university drama departments that serve it) are so antiseptic, they are antibiotic (anti-life). The characters and life situations emerging from our little teatros are too real, too full of sudor, sangre and body smells to be boxed in. Audience participation is no cute production trick with us; it is a pre-established, pre-assumed privilege. "¡Que le suenen la campanita!"

Defining Chicano theatre is a little like defining a Chicano car. We can start with a lowriders' cool Merc or a campesino's banged-up Chevi, and describe the various paint jobs, hub caps, dents, taped windows, Virgin on the dashboard, etc. that define the car as particularly Raza. Underneath all the trimmings, however, is an unmistakable product of Detroit, an extension of General Motors. Consider now a theatre that uses the basic form, the vehicle, created by Broadway or Hollywood: that is, the "realistic" play. Actually, this type of play was created in Europe, but where French, German, and Scandinavian playwrights went beyond realism and naturalism long ago, commercial gabacho theatre refuses to let go. It reflects a characteristic "American" hang-up on the material aspect of human existence. European theatre, by contrast, has been influenced since around 1900 by the unrealistic, formal rituals of Oriental theatre.

What does Oriental and European theatre have to do with teatro Chicano? Nothing, except that we are talking about a theatre that is particularly our own, not another imitation of the gabacho. If we consider our origins, say the theatre of the Mayans or the Aztecs, we are talking about something totally unlike the realistic play and more Chinese or Japanese in spirit. Kabuki, as a matter of fact, started long ago as something like our actos and evolved over two centuries into the highly exacting artform it is today; but it still contains pleberìas. It evolved from and still belongs to el pueblo japonés.

In Mexico, before the coming of the white man, the greatest examples of total theatre were, of course, the human sacrifices. El Rabinal Achi, one of the few surviving pieces of indigenous theatre, describes the sacrifice of a courageous guerrillero, who rather than dying passively on the block is granted the opportunity to fight until he is killed. It is a tragedy, naturally, but it is all the more transcendent because of the guerrillero's identification, through sacrifice, with God. The only "set" such a drama-ritual needed was a stone block; nature took care of the rest.

But since the Conquest, Mexico's theatre, like its society, has had to imitate Europe and, in recent times, the United States. In the same vein, Chicanos in Spanish classes are frequently involved in productions of plays by Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Tirso de Molina and other classic playwrights. Nothing is wrong with this, but it does obscure the indio fountains of Chicano culture. Is Chicano theatre, in turn, to be nothing but an imitation of gabacho playwrights, with barrio productions of racist works by Eugene O'Neil and Tennessee Williams? Will Broadway produce a Chicano version of Hello, Dolly now that it has produced a Black one?

The nature of Chicanismo calls for a revolutionary turn in the arts as well as in society. Chicano theatre must be revolutionary in technique as well as content. It must be popular, subject to no other critics except the pueblo itself; but it must also educate the pueblo toward an appreciation of social change, on and off the stage.

It is particularly important for teatro Chicano to draw a distinction between what is theatre and what is reality. A demonstration with a thousand Chicanos, all carrying flags and picket signs, shouting CHICANO POWER! is not the revolution. It is theatre about the revolution. The people must act in reality, not on stage (which could be anywhere, even a sidewalk) in order to achieve real change. The Raza gets excited, simón, but unless the demonstration evolves into a street battle (which has not yet happened but it is possible), it is basically a lot of emotion with very little political power, as Chicanos have discovered by demonstrating, picketing and shouting before school boards, police departments and stores to no avail.

Such guerrilla theatre passing as a demonstration has its uses, of course. It is agit-prop theatre, as white radicals used to call it in the '30's: agitation and propaganda. It helps to stimulate and sustain the mass strength of a crowd. Hitler was very effective with this kind of theatre, from the swastika to the Wagneresque stadium at Nuremburg. At the other end of the political spectrum, the Huelga march to Sacramento in 1966 was pure guerrilla theatre. The red and black thunderbird flags of the UFWOC (then NFWA) and the standard of the Virgen de Guadalupe challenged the bleak sterility of Highway 99. Its emotional impact was irrefutable. Its political power was somewhat less. Governor Brown was not at the state capitol, and only one grower, Schenley Industries, signed a contract. Later contracts have been won through a brilliant balance between highly publicized events, which gained public support (marches, César's fast, visits by Reuther, Robert and Ted Kennedy, etc.), and actual hard-ass, door to door, worker to worker organizing. Like Delano, other aspects of the Chicano movement must remember what is teatro and what is reality.

But beyond the mass struggle of La Raza in the fields and barrios of America, there is an internal struggle in the very corazón of our people. That struggle, too, calls for revolutionary change. Our belief in God, the church, the social role of women, these must be subject to examination and redefinition on some kind of public forum. And that again means teatro. Not a teatro composed of actos or agit-pop, but a teatro of ritual, of music, of beauty and spiritual sensitivity. This type of theatre will require real dedication; it may, indeed, require a couple of generations of Chicanos devoted to the use of the theatre as an instrument in the evolution of our people.

The teatros in existence today reflect the most intimate understanding of everyday events in the barrios from which they have emerged. But if Aztlán is to become a reality, then we as Chicanos must not be reluctant to act nationally. To think in national terms: politically, economically and spiritually. We must destroy the deadly regionalism that keeps us apart. The concept of a national theatre for La Raza is intimately related to our evolving nationalism in Aztlán.

Consider a Teatro Nacional de Aztlán that performs with the same skill and prestige as the Ballet Folklórico de Méico (not for gabachos, however, but for the Raza). Such a teatro could carry the message of La Raza into Latin America, Europe, Japan, Africa—in short, all over the world. It would draw its strength from all the small teatros in the barrios, in terms of people and their plays, songs, designs; and it would give back funds, training and augmented strength of national unity. One season the teatro members would be on tour with the Teatro Nacional; the next season they would be back in the barrio sharing their skills and experience. It would accommodate about 150 altogether, with 20-25 in the National and the rest spread out in various parts of Aztlán, working with the Campesino, the Urbano, the Mestizo, the Piojo, etc.

Above all, the national organization of teatros Chicanos would be self-supporting and independent, meaning no government grants. The corazón de la Raza cannot be revolutionalized on a grant from Uncle Sam. Though many of the teatros, including El Campesino, have been born out of pre-established political groups, thus making them harbingers of that particular group's viewpoint, news and political prejudices, there is yet a need for independence for the following reasons: objectivity, artistic competence, survival. El Teatro Campesino was born in the huelga, but the very huelga would have killed it, if we had not moved sixty miles to the north of Delano. A struggle like the huelga needs every person it can get to serve its immediate goals in order to survive; the teatro, as well as the clinic, service center and newspaper, being less important at the moment of need than the survival of the union, were always losing people to the grape boycott. When it became clear to us that the UFWOC would succeed and continue to grow, we felt it was time for us to move and to begin speaking about things beyond the huelga: Vietnam, the barrio, racial discrimination, etc.

The teatros must never get away from La Raza. Without the palomilla sitting there, laughing, crying and sharing whatever is onstage, the teatros will dry up and die. If the raza will not come to the theatre, then the theatre must go to the raza.

This, in the long run, will determine the shape, style, content, spirit and form of el teatro Chicano. Pachucos, campesinos, low-riders, pintos, chavalonas, familias, cuñados, tíos, primos, Mexican-Americans, all the human essence of the barrio, is starting to appear in the mirror of our theatre. With them come the joys, sufferings, disappointments and aspirations of our gente. We challenge Chicanos to become involved in the art, the life style, the political and religious act of doing teatro.


Nothing represents the work of El Teatro Campesino (and other teatros Chicanos) better than the acto. In a sense, the acto is Chicano theatre, though we are now moving into a new, more mystical dramatic form we have begun to call the mito. The two forms are, in fact, cuates that complement and balance each other as day goes into night, el sol la sombra, la vida la muerte, el pájaro la serpiente. Our rejection of white western European (gabacho) proscenium theatre makes the birth of new Chicano forms necessary, thus, los actos y los mitos; one through the eyes of man, the other through the eyes of God.

The actos were born quite matter of factly in Delano. Nacieron hambrientos de la realidad. Anything and everything that pertained to the daily life, la vida cotidiana, of the huelguistas became food for thought, material for actos. The reality of campesinos on strike had become dramatic, (and theatrical as reflected by newspapers, TV newscasts, films, etc.) and so the actos merely reflected the reality. Huelguistas portrayed huelguistas, drawing their improvised dialogue from real words they exchanged with the esquiroles (scabs) in the fields everyday.

       "Hermanos, compañeros, sálganse de esos files."
       "Tenemos comida y trabajo para ustedes afuera de la huelga."
       "Esquirol, ten vergu enza."
       "Unidos venceremos."
       "¡Sal de ahi barrigón!"

The first huelguista to portray an esquirol in the teatro did it to settle a score with a particularly stubborn scab he had talked with in the fields that day. Satire became a weapon that was soon aimed at known and despised contractors, growers and mayor-domos. The effect of those early actos on the huelguistas de Delano packed into Filipino Hall was immediate, intense and cathartic. The actos rang true to the reality of the huelga.

Looking back at those early, crude, vital, beautiful, powerful actos of 1965, certain things have now become clear about the dramatic form we were just beginning to develop. There was, of course, no conscious deliberate plan to develop the acto as such. Even the name we gave our small presentations reflects the hard pressing expediency under which we worked from day to day. We could have called them "skits," but we lived and talked in San Joaquin Valley Spanish (with a strong Tejano influence), so we needed a name that made sense to the raza. Cuadros, pasquines, autos, entremeses all seemed too highly intellectualized. We began to call them actos for lack of a better word, lack of time and lack of interest in trying to sound like classical Spanish scholars. De todos modos éramos raza, quién se iba a fijar?

The acto, however, developed its own structure through five years of experimentation. It evolved into a short dramatic form now used primarily by los teatros de Aztlán, but utilized to some extent by other non-Chicano guerrilla theatre companies throughout the U.S., including the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Bread and Puppet Theatre. (Considerable creative crossfeeding has occurred on other levels, I might add, between the Mime Troupe, the Bread and Puppet and the Campesino.) Each of these groups may have their own definition of the acto, but the following are some of the guidelines we have established for ourselves over the years:

Actos: Inspire the audience to social action. Illuminate specific points about social problems. Satirize the opposition. Show or hint at a solution. Express what people are feeling.

So what's new, right? Plays have been doing that for thousands of years. True, except that the major emphasis in the acto is the social vision, as opposed to the individual artist or playwright's vision. Actos are not written; they are created collectively, through improvisation by a group. The reality reflected in an acto is thus a social reality, whether it pertains to campesinos or to batos locos, not psychologically deranged self-projections, but rather, group archetypes. Don Sotaco, Don Coyote, Johnny Pachuco, Juan Raza, Jorge el Chingón, la Chicana, are all group archetypes that have appeared in actos.

The usefulness of the acto extended well beyond the huelga into the Chicano movement, because Chicanos in general want to identify themselves as a group. The teatro archtypes symbolize the desire for unity and group identity through Chicano heroes and heroines. One character can thus represent the entire Raza, and the Chicano audience will gladly respond to his triumphs or defeats. What to a non-Chicano audience may seem like over simplification in an acto, is to the Chicano a true expression of his social state and therefore reality.

Jorge Huerta (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5770

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 dedicated to the exposure of socio-political problems within the Chicano communities of the United States. His output includes plays, poems, books, essays, films and videos, all of which deal with the Chicano and Mexican experience in the U.S. [Before discussing Zoot Suit, Bandido!, and I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!], I would like to briefly trace the director/playwright's development, placing him and these plays in their historical context.

Luis Valdez was born to migrant farmworker parents in Delano, California, on June 26, 1940, the second in a family of ten children. Although his early schooling was constantly interrupted as his family followed the crops, he managed to do well in school. By the age of twelve, he had developed an interest in puppet shows, which he would stage for neighbors and friends. While still in high school he appeared regularly on a local television program, foreshadowing the work in film and video which would later give him his widest audience. After high school, Valdez entered San Jose State College where his interest in theater fully developed.

Valdez's first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, was produced by San Jose State College in 1964, setting the young artist's feet firmly in the theater. Following graduation in 1964, Valdez worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe before founding El Teatro Campesino. Valdez became the Artistic Director as well as resident playwright for this raggle-taggle troupe of striking farmworkers, creating and performing brief comedia-like sketches called "actos" about the need for a farmworker's union. The acto became the signature style for the Teatro and Valdez, inspiring many other teatros to emulate this type of broad, farcical and presentational political theater based on improvisations of socio-political issues.

Within a matter of months El Teatro Campesino was performing away from the fields, educating the general public about the farmworker's struggle and earning revenue for the Union. By 1967 Valdez decided to leave the ranks of the union in order to focus on his theater rather than on the demands of a struggling labor organization. As a playwright, Valdez could now explore issues relevant to the Chicano beyond the fields; as a director, he could begin to develop a core of actors no longer committed to one cause and one style alone.

Although he and his troupe were working collectively from the beginning, the individual playwright in Valdez was anxious to emerge. Discussing the process of writing plays outside of the group, Valdez recalled: "I used to work on them with a sense of longing, wanting more time to be able to sit down and write." In 1967, the playwright did sit down and write, creating what he termed a "mito," or myth, that condemned the Vietnam war, titled Dark Root of a Scream. This contemporary myth takes place during a wake for a Chicano who died in Vietnam, an excommunity leader who should have stayed home and fought the battle in the barrio. The dead soldier becomes symbolic of all Chicanos who fought in a war that the playwright himself objected to. "I refused to go to Vietnam," Valdez said twenty years later, "but I encountered all the violence I needed on the home front: people were killed by the farmworkers' strike."

In 1968 the Teatro was awarded an Obie, off-Broadway's highest honor, and the following year Valdez and his troupe gained international exposure at the Theatre des Nations at Nancy, France. In 1970 Valdez wrote his second mito, Bernabé. This one act play is the tale of a loquito del pueblo (village idiot), Bernabé, who is in love with La Tierra (The Earth) and wants to marry her. La Tierra is portrayed as a soldadera, one of the women who followed and supported the troops during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Bernabé is a wonderfully written play that brings together myth and history, contemporary figures and historical icons. The allegorical figure of La Luna, brother to La Tierra, is portrayed as a Zoot Suiter. This is Valdez's first theatrical exploration of this 1940's Chicano renegade, foreshadowing one of his most powerful characters, El Pachuco, in Zoot Suit. Bernabé tells its audience that Chicanos not only have a history of struggle but are that struggle. Bernabé "marries" La Tierra and becomes a whole person; he symbolically represents all men who love and respect the earth.

Also in 1970, even as Valdez, the playwright, was scripting his individual statement about the Chicano and his relationship to the earth, Valdez, the director, was guiding the collective creation of an acto dealing with the war in Vietnam: Soldado Razo (Buck Private). Soldado Razo carefully explored some of the reasons young Chicanos were willing to go fight in Vietnam. Reflecting the influences of Bertholt Brecht's theories, the playwright uses the allegorical figure of La Muerte (Death) as a constant presence narrating the action, continually reminding his audience that this is theater and that the soldier's death is inevitable.

Soldado Razo complemented and expanded the earlier mito, Dark Root of a Scream, looking at the same issue but from a different viewpoint and in a distinct style. In Valdez's words, the acto "is the Chicano through the eyes of man," whereas the mito "is the Chicano through the eyes of God," exploring the Chicanos' roots in Mayan philosophy, science, religion and art. While Soldado Razo methodically demonstrates the eventual death of its central figure, Dark Root of a Scream begins after a soldier's death, exploring the cause from a mythical distance.

In 1971 the troupe moved to its permanent home base in the rural village of San Juan Bautista, California, where the Teatro established itself as a resident company. During this period Valdez began to explore the idea of adapting the traditional Mexican corridos, or ballads, to the stage. A singer would sing the songs and the actors would act them out, adding dialogue from the corridos' texts. Sometimes the singer/narrator would verbalize the text while the actors mimed the physical actions indicated by the song. These simple movements were stylized, enhancing the musical rhythms and adding to the unique combination of elements. The corrido style was to appear again, altered to suit the needs of a broader theatrical piece, La carpa de los Rasquachis (The Tent of the Underdogs).

Developed over a period of years, La carpa de los Rasquachis stunned the audience at the Fourth Annual Chicano Theater Festival in San Jose, California in 1973. This production became the hallmark of the Teatro for several years, touring the United States and Europe many times to great critical acclaim. This piece is epic in scope, following a Cantinflas-like (read "Mexico's Charlie Chaplin") Mexican character from his crossing the border into the U.S. and the subsequent indignities to which he is exposed until his death.

La carpa de los Rasquachis brought together a Valdezian aesthetic that could be defined as raucous, lively street theater with deep socio-political and spiritual roots. The style combined elements of the acto, mito and corrido with an almost constant musical background as a handful of actors revealed the action in multiple roles with minimal costumes, props and set changes. This was the apogee of Valdez's "poor theater," purposely based on the early twentieth-century Mexican tent shows, otherwise known as "carpas."

In an effort to define his neo-Mayan philosophy, Valdez wrote a poem, Pensamiento Serpentino, in 1973. The poem describes a way of thinking that was determining the content of Valdez's evolving dramaturgy. The poem begins:

        eres el mundo
        y las paredes de los
        buildings más grandes
        son nothing but scenery.

Later in the poem Valdez describes and revives the Mayan philosophy of "In Lak Ech" which translates as "Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me." The phrase represents the following philosophy:

        Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me.
        Si te hago daño a ti / If I do harm to you,
        Me hago daño a mí mismo / I do harm to myself;
        Si te amo y respeto / If I love and respect you,
        Me amo y respeto yo / I love and respect myself.

In the opening lines Valdez describes Chicano theater as a reflection of the world; a universal statement about what it is to be a Chicano in the United States. Recognizing the many injustices the Chicano has suffered in this country, the poet nonetheless attempts to revive a non-violent response. Valdez creates a distinct vision of a "cosmic people" whose destiny is finally being realized as Chicanos who are capable of love rather than hate, action rather than words.

While La carpa de los Rasquachis continued to tour, Valdez made another crucial change in his development by writing Zoot Suit and co-producing it with the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles. Once again at the vanguard, Valdez began the mainstreaming of Chicano theater, or, for some observers, "the infiltration of the regional theaters."

The director/playwright did not abandon El Teatro Campesino by getting involved with a major regional theater. The Teatro was still touring and Zoot Suit was co-produced by both theater organizations, thus including the Teatro in all negotiations and contracts. But this was a first step towards an individual identity that Valdez had previously rejected by working in a collective.

As advertised in the Los Angeles press, "On July 30, 1978, the Second Zoot Suit Riot begins," and it did. Zoot Suit played to sold-out houses for eleven months—breaking all previous records for Los Angeles theater. While the Los Angeles production continued to run, another production opened in New York on March 25, 1979, the first (and only) Chicano play to open on Broadway. Although audiences were enthusiastic, the New York critics were not, and the play was closed after a four-week run. Hurt, but undaunted, Valdez could have the satisfaction that the play continued to be the biggest hit ever in Los Angeles and a motion picture contract had been signed.

Zoot Suit marked an important turning point in Valdez's relationship with El Teatro Campesino as he began to write for actors outside the group. This experience introduced Valdez to the Hollywood Latino and non-Latino talent pool, suddenly bringing him into contact with a different breed of artist. With a large population of professionals at his disposal, Valdez's vision had to expand. No longer surrounded by sincere, but sometimes limited talent, Valdez could explore any avenue of theater he desired. The success of the Los Angeles run of Zoot Suit enabled our playwright/director to move more seriously into film making. Valdez adapted and directed Zoot Suit as a motion picture in 1981.

The collaboration with a non-Hispanic theater company and subsequent move into Hollywood film making was inevitable for Valdez; the natural course for a man determined to reach as many people as possible with his message and with his art. Theater was his life's work, it was in his blood, but so was the fascinating world of film and video.

With the financial success of Zoot Suit, Valdez purchased an old packing house in San Juan Bautista and had it converted into a theater for the company. This new playhouse and administrative complex was inaugurated in 1981 with a production of David Belasco's 1905 melodrama Rose of the Rancho, adapted by Valdez. This old fashioned melodrama was an ideal play for San Juan Bautista, because it was based on actual historical figures and events that had occurred in that town in the nineteenth century. Played as a revival of the melodrama genre, the play could be taken for face value, a tongue-in-cheek taste of history replete with stereotypes and misconceptions.

The experiment with Rose of the Rancho served as a kind of motivation for Valdez, inspiring him to write the second play in this collection, Bandido! which he then directed in 1982 in the Teatro's theater. This was Valdez's personal adaptation of the melodrama genre but with a distinctly Valdezian touch as we will see later.

Valdez wrote and directed Corridos for the 1983 season, producing this elaboration of the earlier exercises in San Francisco's Marine's Memorial Theater, a large house that was filled to capacity for six months. The San Francisco production garnered eleven awards from the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle before moving on to residencies in San Diego and Los Angeles.

All of his interaction in Hollywood and his own sense of history inspired Valdez to write the final play in this collection, I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!, first produced by El Teatro Campesino and the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986. This production represented the beginning of yet another phase for Valdez and his company. El Teatro Campesino was no longer a full-time core of artists, living and creating collectively under Valdez's direction. Instead, the company began to contract talent only for the rehearsal and performance period. El Teatro Campesino became a producing company with Valdez at the helm as Artistic Director and writer. After great success in Los Angeles, Badges! was co-produced with the San Diego Repertory Theater and the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Florida. While the Teatro continued to produce, Valdez began to focus his efforts more on writing and directing films.

Valdez directed La Bamba, the sleeper hit of the summer of 1987, finally opening up the doors that had been so difficult to penetrate for so many years. "When I drove up to the studio gate," Valdez related, following the success of his film, "the guard at the gate told me that the pastries were taken to a certain door. The only other Mexican he ever saw delivered the pastries." That same year our playwright adapted and directed the earlier Corridos into a PBS version titled Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution, starring Linda Rondstadt and featuring himself as narrator. This production won the Peabody Award, the Pulitzer Prize of broadcasting.

Following the success of La Bamba and Corridos, Valdez continued to work on other projects for television and film as he also took his position as the leading Chicano filmmaker in Hollywood. Ever the activist, Valdez helped form the Latino Writers Group, which he hoped would pressure the studios to produce films written by Latinos. "The embryo is the screenplay," he said. "The embryo, in fact, is what is written on the page. This is where you begin to tell the difference between a stereotype and reality."

In 1991, Valdez adapted and directed La Pastorela, or Shepherd's Play for a great performances segment on PBS. This television production is based on the traditional Christmas play, which El Teatro Campesino has produced in the mission at San Juan Bautista for many years. That same year, Valdez and his wife, Lupe, co-scripted a motion picture based on the life of Frida Kahlo, for production in 1992. Plans were also underway for a revival of Bandido! in San Juan Bautista during the 1992 season as well as a re-mounting of Zoot Suit for a national tour.

Valdez's impressive career can be separated into the following four periods: Phase One, the director/playwright of the original group of farmworkers; Phase Two, a Teatro Campesino independent of the Union; Phase Three, a professional Teatro and co-productions such as Zoot Suit; and the current, Fourth Phase, Luis Valdez, the filmmaker alongside El Teatro Campesino, professional productions across the country and community-professional productions at home.

Zoot Suit is the logical culmination of all that Valdez had written before, combining elements of the acto, mito and corrido in a spectacular documentary play with music. Unlike any of his previous plays or actos, however, Zoot Suit is based on historical fact, not a current crisis.

By illuminating an actual incident in the history of Chicano-Anglo relations in Los Angeles, Zoot Suit does not have the immediacy of an acto about today's headlines. The politically aware will know that the police brutality and injustices rendered in this play are still happening; others may lose the point. Most significantly, this play illuminates events that had a major impact on the Chicano community of Los Angeles during World War II, incidents that are carefully ignored by most high school history books.

Like the acto, Zoot Suit exposes social ills in a presentational style. It is a play that is closer to the docu-drama form, owing more to Brecht than to Odets as the action reveals the events surrounding the infamous Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942. By employing a narrator, Valdez is discarding a totally representational style in favor of this more direct contact with his audience. El Pachuco's almost constant presence, underscoring Henry's inner thoughts and tribulations, skillfully captivates the audience and serves as a continual commentator on the action.

Just as La Muerte did in Soldado Razo, El Pachuco will stop the action entirely in order to make a point, telling Henry (and the audience) to listen again when the judge rules that the "zoot haircuts will be retained throughout the trial for purposes of identification …" It is a kind of "instant replay" that is only used once for maximum effect. Countering the figure of El Pachuco is the allegorical character of The Press which descends directly from the acto as well.

Like the corrido, there is a musical underscoring in Zoot Suit, placing the events in a historical context by employing the music of the period. El Pachuco sings some of the songs, as in a corrido, setting the mood through lyrics such as those that introduce the "Saturday Night Dance" in Act One, Scene Seven. While El Pachuco sings, the actors dance to the rhythms he creates, transforming from youthful fun to vengeful intensity gone wild by the end of the scene.

Some of the songs are original while others are traditional Latin or Anglo-American tunes, such as Glenn Miller's "In The Mood." Unlike the corrido, in which the music was played by live musicians, however, the music is prerecorded. The choreography is also more like that of a musical comedy during the dance numbers, staged with historical authenticity to enhance the theatricality and further engage the audience.

Most importantly, this play places the Chicanos in a historical context that identifies them as "American," by showing that they, too, danced the swing as well as the mambo. Valdez is telling his audience that the Chicanos' taste for music can be as broad as anyone's. He is also revealing a cross-culturalism in the Chicanos' language, customs and myths. As Valdez so emphatically stated when this play first appeared, "this is an American play," attempting to dispel previous notions of separatism from the society at large. He is also reminding us that Americans populate The Americas, not just the U.S.

Valdez will not ignore his indigenous American ancestors, either, employing elements of the mito very subtly when the Pachuco is stripped of his zoot suit and remains covered only by an indigenous loincloth. This image suggests the sacrificial "god" of the Aztecs, stripped bare before his heart is offered to the cosmos. It is a stunning moment in the play, when the cocky Pachuco is reduced to bare nakedness in piercing contrast to his treasured "drapes." He may be naked, but he rises nobly in his bareness, dissolving into darkness. He will return, and he does.

The character of El Pachuco also represents the Aztec concept of the "nahual," or other self as he comes to Henry's support during the solitary scene in prison. Henry is frightened, stripped emotionally bare in his cell and must rely on his imagination to recall the spirit of El Pachuco in order to survive. The strength he receives from his other self is determined by his ability to get in touch with his nahual.

The documentary form of the play is influenced by the Living Newspaper style, a documentary theater that exposed current events during the 1930's through dramatizations of those events. The use of newspapers for much of the set decoration, as well as the giant front page back-drop through which El Pachuco cuts his way at the top of the play is an effective metaphor for the all-pervading presence of the press. When Dolores Reyna hangs newspapers on the clothesline instead of actual laundry, the comment is complete.

Like most of Valdez's works, this play dramatizes a Chicano family in crisis. Henry Reyna is the central figure, but he is not alone. His familia is the link with the Chicano community in the audience, a continuing reminder that the Chicano is a community. Unlike the members of his family, however, Henry's alter-ego brings another dimension to this misunderstood figure. El Pachuco represents an inner attitude of defiance determining Henry's actions most of the time. El Pachuco is reminiscent at times of the Diablo and Diabla characters that permeated the corridos, motivating the characters' hapless choices as in Medieval morality plays.

El Pachuco's advice is not based on a moral choice, as in the corridos, but rather, on judgments of character. Mostly, El Pachuco represents the defiance against the system that identifies and determines the pachuco character. Sometimes, Henry does not take El Pachuco's advice, choosing instead to do what he thinks is right. At times, Henry has no choice, whether he listens to his alter-ego or to another part of himself, he will still get beaten. Interestingly, El Pachuco is sometimes more politically astute than the defendants themselves, allowing Henry an awareness his fellows do not have. In other instances, such as when the boys debate whether to confide in George, the boys' instincts are better for the whole and Henry must ignore El Pachuco's advice.

Now available in video, the motion picture of Zoot Suit is a vivid record of elements of the original stage production, because it was filmed in the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood where it had played. The motion picture recreates and reconstructs the play. At times we watch the action unfolding as if we, too, are one of the hundreds sitting in the audience, watching the play; then suddenly the characters are in a realistic setting, as in a sound stage and we are enveloped in social realism. Just as the Pachuco continually reminds the audience that "this is just a play" in the stage version, the film also prompts us to remember that this is a demonstration of actual events, urging us to think about it as we watch the action moving back and forth between realities. Zoot Suit is also a rewriting of history, as is the central issue of the next play, Bandido!

Bandido! is an exploration and expurgation of old clichés about the early California bandits. Valdez's intent is to alter history by demonstrating his version of the exploits of one Tiburcio Vásquez, the last man to be publicly hanged in California. The play is therefore didactic like an acto or a docu-drama but goes beyond those forms to become a "melodrama within a play." The playwright creates a construct in which audience sees Vásquez through different eyes. Vásquez is sympathetic when observed through the playwright's eyes and a stereotype when seen through history's distorted characterization.

The key to a successful production of Bandido! lies in an understanding of the satiric nature within the form of the play. Valdez's introductory notes state the challenge to director and actors most clearly: "The contrast of theatrical styles between the realism of the jail and the trompe l'oleil of the melodrama is purely intentional and part of the theme of the play … their combined reality must be a metaphor—and not a facile cliché—of the Old West." The actors must therefore represent real people in the jail scenes and stereotypes of those characters and others in the melodramatic scenes.

Valdez is no stranger to stereotypes, as is illustrated in one of the playwright's most enduring acto, Los vendidos (The Sellouts), which he first wrote in 1967. In this very funny and popular acto, the playwright turns stereotyping around, making the audience reassess their attitudes about various Chicano and Mexican "types." We laugh, but also understand that the characteristics exposed are a reflection of Anglo perceptions and, yes, even sometimes our own biases as Chicanos. In both Los vendidos and Bandido! the playwright is portraying these characters with a clear understanding that they are stereotypes.

The characterization of Tiburcio Vásquez will vary according to the point of view of who is re-creating him on stage. If he is perceived as "real" in the jail scenes and a stereotype in the melodrama, the audience will distinguish the playwright's bias. They might also understand that their own biases come from the Hollywood stereotype of a "bandido." The actor, too, must delight in demonstrating the exaggeration, commenting upon his character even as he explores the exaggerations. This is a Brechtian acting technique, asking the actor to have an opinion about his character's actions and choices. Within the construct of the melodrama within the play, this can be effectively displayed.

Valdez clearly thinks of Vásquez as a social bandit, a gentleman who never killed anyone but who was forced into a life of crime by the Anglo invaders of his homeland. The playwright's goal here is to make Tiburcio Vásquez more than a romantic figure cloaked in evil, to present us with a reason for his actions instead of only the results.

Valdez's first play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, featured a young Chicano social bandit named Joaquín, symbolic of that better known "bandido," Joaquìn Murrieta. Labelled a pachuco by the police, Joaquìn steals from the rich to give to the poor. Neither Joaquìn nor Vásquez are clearly understood by the authorities, but they fascinate their communities. As Pico says to Vásquez in the second act: "You've given all of us Californios twenty years of secret vicarious revenge."

The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa offers hope for the community through unified social action, although the fate of Bandido!'s central figure is predetermined by history. Valdez knows that nobody can change the inequities of the past, but offers the suggestion that the future can be altered for the better, if misrepresentations of the Chicano are altered.

It is not that Valdez is attempting to completely whitewash Vásquez, either. When the Impresario asks him, "Are you comic or tragic, a good man or a bad man?" Vásquez responds: "All of them." To which the playwright might respond: "Aren't we all comic and tragic, good and bad?" It is perhaps the degree of evil that fascinates our playwright here, that degree always determined by who is being asked. Thus, the opposing views of this comic, tragic, good and bad man.

Valdez's style here is reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello, the Italian playwright and novelist whose works often turn reality inside out, leaving the reader or observer to ponder the nature of reality. Again, the Impresario states the obvious when he tells Vásquez, "Reality and theater don't mix, sir," as we watch a play that is watching its own melodrama.

Above all, Bandido! is theatrical, offering the audience a delightful mixture of songs and dances that narrate the story as in the corrido, as well as characters that can be hissed or cheered as they would have been in the nineteenth century. Melodramas were extremely popular in Mexican theaters and carpas of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in this country, a fact that histories of U.S. theater neglect to report. In other words, the genre belongs to all of us.

What makes this play truly Valdezian, however, is the fact that it is not simply a play presenting us with villains and heroes in conflict. The conflict is the melodrama itself—the distortion the Impresario wants to present for profit. "The public will only buy tickets to savour the evil in your soul," he tells Vásquez, a truism that cannot be denied. It is more fun to watch the villain than the hero in an old fashioned melodrama. In Valdez's play, however, the villain is the Impresario, precursor to a legion of Hollywood producers. If history cannot be changed in either Zoot Suit or Bandido!, the next play looks to the future as the only hope.

The Valdezian questioning of reality reaches its pinnacle in I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges! In this play the playwright presents us with a world that resembles a hall of mirrors, sometimes catching this picture, other times another view. One never knows for certain if what we are observing is real or an illusion. Instead of Bandido!'s "Melodrama within a play," we are now given a much more complex vision as Valdez explores the different levels of reality between the world of the stage and the realm of television. Like Zoot Suit, this play was written for a fully-equipped theater. Furthermore, it requires a realistic set, designed to look like a television studio setting, including video monitors hanging above the set to help the audience understand its transformation into a "live studio audience."

Badges! focuses on a middle-aged Chicano couple who have made their living as "King and Queen of the Hollywood Extras," playing non-speaking roles as maids, gardeners and the like. The couple have been very successful, having put their daughter through medical school and their son into Harvard. They have, in effect, accomplished the American Dream, with a suburban home complete with swimming pool, family room and microwave.

The major conflict arises when Sonny, alienated from the Ivy League reality, comes home from Harvard unexpectedly and announces that he has dropped-out. To make matters worse, he decides he will become a Hollywood actor. His parents, his girlfriend and the audience know his fate will be the same as his parents', playing "on the hyphen" in bit parts as thieves, drug addicts and rapists. Or will he? Like Zoot Suit, I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges! does not give a distinct ending, but rather, leaves the solution up to the audience members to decide.

While Zoot Suit takes us from a presentational style to a representational style as a play, Bandido! explores both styles transferring from the "real" Tiburcio Vásquez to the melodramatic version: Vásquez through the eyes of Luis Valdez and Vásquez through the eyes of Hollywood and dime novels. Badges!, on the other hand, takes us on a much more involved journey, by remodeling the theater to look like an actual television studio with all of the paraphernalia of the medium. To add to the effect, when the action begins it begins as an actual taping in progress.

As soon as the action begins in Badges!, we begin to think of it as a play, performed in the style of a sit-com, not a taping, but rather, a play, until the final scene. This is when it becomes difficult to tell if what we are seeing is a part of Buddy and Consuelo's "sit-com," or if what we are witnessing is Sonny's "sit-com," or his "play," existing only in his mind.

Just as we saw Tiburcio Vásquez attempting to write the true version of his story, we now see Sonny Villa recreating his reality. "Is it real, or is it Memorex?" he asks, underscoring the premise of the play itself. Are we, the audience, a "live studio audience?" Are they really taping this? Did Sonny really rob a fast food restaurant? Questions mount as we watch Sonny's transformation, his angst or his drama.

What is real to Sonny is the fact that he must find himself within this society, the son of parents whose very existence has depended on portraying the marginalized "other." When Connie tells her son "I'd rather play a maid than be a maid," she makes a point but cannot escape the fact that maids are all she ever will play. Sonny knows that he, too, will not be given greater opportunities unless he writes and directs his own material, to his standards and not some Hollywood advertising agency's.

From melodrama-within-a-play to video-within-a-play, the playwright takes us on theatrical explorations that offer no easy solutions. The earliest actos offered clearly defined action: "Join the union," "Boycott grapes," etc. But what to do about distorted history or negative portrayals of Chicanos in the media? Can any of us, as Sonny Villa proposes to do, write and produce films and videos that cut through the biases of generations? Only a select few will ever have that opportunity and Luis Valdez is one of them.

Ultimately, these three plays present us with different aspects of the playwright himself. Valdez is the Pachuco of Broadway, the social bandit of the media and the brilliant student who will change the face of Hollywood portrayals of his people. He laughs at himself as much as at historians and Hollywood in these plays, exploding myths by creating others, transforming the way in which Chicanos and Chicanas view themselves within the context of this society. Each of these plays is finally about a search for identity through the playwright's quest for what is reality—past, present and future. "How can we know who we are," he continually asks, "if we do not know who we were?"

In the twenty-six years since he founded El Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez has made an odyssey few theater artists in the United States can claim. This course could not have been predicted, yet the journey was inevitable. Yes, Valdez has gone from the fields of Delano to the migrant labor of a theater artist, to the even more complex world of Broadway and Hollywood. But he has never forgotten his roots, has never abandoned the beauty of his languages, both Inglés and Spanish.

Nor has he forgotten about his people's troubles and triumphs.

Valdez taught us to laugh at ourselves as we worked to improve the conditions in our barrios and in our nation. In particular, he urges us to embrace life with all of the vigor we can muster in the midst of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. May these plays inspire others to follow in his footsteps.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291


Review of Aztlan; An Anthology of Mexican American Literature, edited by Luis Valdez and Stan Steiner. Choice 9 (January 1973): 1451.

Maintains that although the collection "is informative, dignified, and energetic, it is overbalanced by nonliterary matter."

Corliss, Richard. "Rock Fable or Teen Ballad?" Time 130, No. 7 (17 August 1987): 62.

Unfavorable review of La Bamba.

Garcia, Nasario. "Satire: Techniques and Devices in Luis Valdez's Las dos caras del patroncito." De colores Journal 1, No. 4 (1974): 66-74.

Explores how Valdez's early play Las dos caras del patroncito makes use of theatrical techniques and devices to satirize the relationship between farmworkers and their exploiters.

Garcia, Richard A. "Chicano Intellectual History: Myths and Realities." In A Decade of Hispanic Literature: An Anniversary Anthology, edited by Nicolás Kanellos, pp. 285-89. Houston: Revista Chicano-Riqueña, 1982.

Refutes Valdez's contention that the pachucos were the prototype of Chicano consciousness, asserting that "pachucos were not the precursors of the Chicano movement and Pachuquismo was not the source of the Chicano intellectual thought."

Milleret, Margo. Review of Luis Valdez—Early Works: Actos, Bernabé, Pensamiento Serpentino, by Luis Valdez. Theatre Journal 43, Vol. 4 (December 1991): 546-47.

Laudatory review.

Novick, Julius. Review of Zoot Suit, by Luis Valdez. The Nation 227, No. 3 (22 July 1978): 88, 90.

Mixed review of the 1978 Los Angeles production of the drama.

Steiner, Stan. "The Cultural Schizophrenia of Luis Valdez." Vogue 153, No. 6 (15 March 1969): 112-13, 143-44.

Overview of Valdez's life and career.

Tatum, Charles. Review of Zoot Suit and Other Plays, by Luis Valdez. World Literature Today 67, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 384.

Praises the collection as "an essential acquisition for anybody interested in contemporary Chicano literature."

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Valdez, Luis (Drama Criticism)