by Janice Albert
Luis Valdez: San Juan Bautista
is the home of El Teatro Campesino, Valdez' theater company
California, a town of 22,800 at the junction of highways 99 and
156 in Kern County is known to the world as the home of the United
Farm Workers Union, the organization built by Cesar Chavez. It
is also the birthplace of Luis Valdez, whose theater group El
Teatro Campesino, grew up in the San Joaquin Valley at the same
time and from the same root.
on June 26, 1940, Luis Valdez is the second of ten children born
to farm worker parents in Delano. At the time of the grape strike
Valdez had earned a degree in theater at San Jose State University.
His first full-length play, "The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa," was
produced there in 1964. Following graduation, he joined the San Francisco
Mime Troupe, a company that performs free, satirical theater on political
themes in the open air for audiences in the San Francisco Bay Area.
1965, Cesar Chavez organization was making headlines, and
Valdez moved south to become the Artistic Director as well as resident
for the newly formed El Teatro Campesino.
company performed for striking farmworkers, often in the fields on
the bed of a truck. Writing of his theater that year, Valdez says, "Our
most important aim is to reach the farm workers. All the actors are
farm workers, and our single topic is the Huelga." Perhaps 1966 will
be remembered as the year Anglo Californians learned this Spanish word
Teatros performances were brief10 to 15 minutesimprovised,
musical, wildly physical, spoken chiefly in Spanish with an occasional
riff in English, and broadly enacted, as in the style of the Italian
Commedia dell arte. Just as Commedia has its stock figuresthe
clown, the old man, the sweet young thingValdezs Teatro
had its character typesthe scab, the contractor, the grower,
and the striker. Or to put it another way, Esquiroles, Contratistas, Patroncitos and Huelguistas.
Writing for Ramparts magazine in July 1966, Valdez says, "We
use costumes and props only casuallyan old pair of pants, a wine
bottle, a pair of dark glasses, a mask, but mostly we like to show
we are still strikers underneath, arms bands and all. This effect is
very important to our aims. To simplify things, we hang signs around
our necks, sometimes in black and white, sometimes in lively colors,
indicating the characters portrayed."
1967, El Teatro left the fields and moved to Del Rey and Fresno before
settling in 1971 into a permanent home in San Juan Bautista.
the next few years, the developing Chicano movement engaged Valdezs
imagination and he began to write for a different kind of actor and
theater. His play Zoot Suit, based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder
trial of 1942-3, opened in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in July
1978 and ran for eleven months.
background of the Sleepy Lagoon trial lies in the well-documented history
of the Depression era Los Angeles Establishment at war with its Mexican
population. Carey McWilliams, in his book Southern California, An
Island On the Land, tells of the attempt by Los Angeles County
in the 1930s to rid itself of Mexicans through an extensive program
of repatriation. In 1932 alone, over 11,000 Mexicans were sent "home" at
county expense. State librarian Kevin Starr in his history of the 40s, The
Dream Endures, comments that "each so-called repatriationwith
its overt program of ethnic cleansing
scenes in Europe in relocation programs that would soon be seeking
a final solution."
a second group of young people could not be so easily brushed aside.
These were the American-born sons and daughters of Mexican parents.
Disenchanted and alienated from both homelands, these young people
often expressed a deep hostility for the dominant California culture.
In 1942, the Hearst papers led a newspaper campaign attacking "Mexican" juvenile
delinquency and "Mexican" crime. Carey McWilliams reports that "actually
the increase in juvenile delinquency among Mexicans was less than the
average increase for the community and below that for one or two other
special groups." Nonetheless, an inflamed public cried out for action.
play Zoot Suit tells the story of Henry Reyna and his friends
who are caught up in the chaos of these times and eventually become
the unfairly accused defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon trial. They served
eighteen months of their sentences before being freed by an appellate
court. Subsequently, newspapers dropped the word "Mexican" from their
reports, and substituted, instead, the term pachuco or zoot
suiter. In the style of Expressionist theater, Zoot Suit employs
a narrator, El Pachuco, who interacts both with the audience and the
characters on stage. El Pachuco also shows us his Aztec origin when
he becomes the nahual or the "other self" who comforts Henry
during his stay in solitary confinement. (This may be the first use
of San Quentin as the backdrop of a play on the American stage.)
1981, Valdez adapted Zoot Suit into a movie for Universal Pictures.
Viewers today can appreciate the historical background of the story
in addition to Valdezs hallmarks: language that mixes Spanish
and English, dramatic action interspersed with music and dance, a palpable
political intent, and the use of authentic actors in Chicano parts.
second film opened in 1987: La Bamba, the story of Ricardo Valenzuela,
known to the world of rock n roll as Ritchie Valens. This film,
which might be called the other half of the Buddy Holly story, follows
Ritchie from his Southern California high school days through his discovery
at a local concert arranged by his mother. The film ends after a concert
in Iowa when he accepts a ride with Buddy Holly on the airplane which
crashed, taking both to their deaths. Valens was only 17.
San Juan Bautista
Valdez has made history as the first Chicano writer to open a play
on Broadway, as the first Chicano to direct his own movie, and
he has led a movement that has helped Chicano theater develop in
many states. His own company continues to produce both original
work and Valdezs adaptations of more mythical folk dramas
at Christmas time in the Mission of San Juan Bautista. The company
alternates a revised version of a medieval shepherds play, La
Pastorela, with La Virgen del Tepeyac, a nativity story.
singing, the broad, impassioned acting style, and the exotic mixture
of colloquial Spanish and English draw visitors differing
in age, ethnicity and social class. Although
audiences must often drive long distances to visit this town on Highway
156 between Salinas and Hollister, these Christmas offerings often
address of El Teatro Campesino is 705 Fourth Street, San Juan Bautista;
telephone (831) 623-2444. Website: www.elteatrocampesino.com.
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