Luis Miguel Valdez was born on June 26, 1940, in Delano, California, the second of ten brothers and sisters. His mother and father were migrant farmworkers, and Luis began working in the fields at the age of six. Because his family traveled to the harvests in the San Joaquin Valley, Luis received little uninterrupted schooling.
In an interview, Valdez discussed one significant, and ultimately fortunate, consequence of such a disruptive early life: His family had just finished a cotton harvest; the season had ended, the rains begun, but because their truck had broken down, the family had to stay put. Leaving school one day, Luis realized he had left behind his paper lunch bag, a precious commodity in 1946, given the paper shortages and the family’s poverty. When he returned to get it, however, he found his teacher had torn it up. She was using it to make papier-mâché animal masks for the school play. Luis was amazed by the transformation. Although he did not even know what a play was at the time, he decided to audition and was given the leading role as a monkey. The play was about Christmas in the jungle, and the following weeks of colorful preparation were exhilarating. A week before the show was to begin, however, his father got the truck fixed, and the family moved away. Valdez has said of the experience: “That left an unfillable gap, a vacuum I’ve been pouring myself into ever since.”
The pang of that early disappointment sparked a fascination for the theater and a wealth of creative energy that was to bring Valdez remarkable success in the years ahead. Despite his intermittent schooling, he won a scholarship to San Jose State College in 1960. There he studied theater history and developed a lasting enthusiasm for classical Greek and Roman drama. His own work also began to take shape, and his first one-act play, The Theft, won a regional playwriting award. In 1965, he directed his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, which audiences greeted warmly.
After receiving a degree in English in 1964, Valdez spent several months traveling in Cuba before joining the San Francisco Mime Troupe. In 1965, he returned home to Delano and joined the newly formed United Farm Workers Union under the leadership of César Chávez. During this time, Valdez began fully to explore drama as a vehicle for social justice. He developed a form suitable for his migrant-worker audiences: a short skit, or acto, designed to inspire Chicanos to political action.
These actos, often improvised on flatbed trucks for workers in the fields, proved so powerful as political weapons that Valdez’s life was threatened during the grape strike of 1967. Immensely popular with the workers, the actos aroused hostility in the growers, whose exploitative labor practices the plays satirized. Valdez has recalled being “beaten and kicked and jailed. . . . essentially for doing theater.” Still, he persisted, and the actos gained so much attention that the Teatro Campesino, or Farmworker’s Theater, toured the United States performing the works in 1967.
From then on, Valdez’s work began to reach increasingly larger audiences. He left the fields late in 1967 for Del Rey, California, where he founded the Centro Campesino Cultural. Between 1969 and 1980, the troupe toured Europe four times and won an Obie Award. Despite such acclaim Valdez remained true to his Chicano, migrant-worker roots. Moving the troupe to Fresno, California, in 1969, Valdez founded an annual Chicano theater festival and began teaching at Fresno State College. As its audience grew, the troupe became more technically sophisticated but continued its efforts to “put the tools of the artist into the hands of the humblest, the working people.” The troupe moved in 1971 to rural San Juan Bautista, from which it toured widely among college campuses, while remaining deeply involved with the...
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