Luis Valdez 1940-
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.
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 farmworkers 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. In 1994 he received the Aguila Azteca Award (Golden Eagle Award) from the Mexican Government. The following year he became a founding faculty member of the new California State University at Monterey Bay.
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, Vietnam campesino, and Soldado razo (The Chicano Soldier), deal with such subjects as the American school system's tendency to force cultural assimilation on minorities and the overrepresentation of Chicanos in the Vietnam War. Traditional Native American and modern issues converge in Dark Root of a Scream, 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 / Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges! and La Bamba, 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.
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. Summarizing Valdez's achievement, John Harrop and Jorge Huerta have declared that "dedication to theatre, to his people, and to all humanity has always been the guiding spirit and sustaining force of Luis Valdez."