LUIS VALDEZ was 25 when he founded El Teatro Campesino, the farm workers’ theater. That was five decades ago, and Valdez is not slowing down a bit. The father of Chicano theater in the United States—he calls himself the grandfather since his sons became playwrights—was bitten by the acting bug as a small boy in his native Delano, a farming town in Kern County that two decades later would see some major social history being made.
Valdez was the second of ten children born to a migrant farm-working family. He was himself a farm worker from age six. His first grade teacher in the tiny town of Stratford showed him how to turn a paper bag into paper mache for masks and puppets. He organized plays through his elementary school years and entertained with puppet shows in the family garage. Following the rotating crops meant attendance at many different schools. In high school he acted in numerous plays. The peripatetic family finally settled down for good in San Jose where he graduated from James Lick High School then won a scholarship in math and physics to attend San Jose State University. Soon he switched majors to English.
His gregarious, outgoing and jovial personality tends to mask the seriousness of his lifetime of work. While at San Jose State, he won a play-writing contest with his one-act play The Theft in 1961. Two years later, his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Poncho Villa, was produced by the drama department and debuted at the university. In honor of the 50th anniversary of El Teatro, the Western Stage is currently presenting Valdez’ Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution. Corridos are popular narrative songs and poems, often with social relevance including news of the day and moral commentary that can be traced back at least to the European era of troubadours and minnesingers in the 12th century. They and Italian commedia dell’arte are crucial foundations to Valdez’ mature skills as a playwright.
The Delano strikes against table grape growers that began in 1965, initiated by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee led by Filipino organizer Larry Itliong, and then joined in sympathy by César Chávez and the National Farm Workers Association, opened up an opportunity for Valdez. The merging of the two into the United Farm Workers Union—UFW—was finally recognized by the AFL-CIO in 1972 with game-changing impact. Valdez was in the right place at the right time in staging actos—short one-act scenes—to entertain and inform the farm workers who suffered the consequences of the long boycott.
Once formed as the cultural arm of the UFW, El Teatro went on tour from its base in Fresno. In the audience for a performance at UC Santa Cruz was Manuel Santana who, after the show, invited the company to his restaurant in Aptos and graciously fed them all. “That’s when I met Manny,” Valdez says. “We were grateful. And he was obviously a lover of the arts. You could see it in his tasteful décor and choice of colors.” In 1970, Santana (left) acquired some property in San Juan Baustista, “almost a whole block. It had an old adobe at the corner of Washington and Third Street, a small melodrama theater, big enough to hold 50 patrons, and Manny was looking for someone to run it,” Valdez explains. “In 1969, on our honeymoon, my wife and I visited San Juan. We loved the town. We decided to accept the playhouse.” At the time, Valdez was also teaching at Fresno State University. “I found my [actor] brother Daniel was available and he moved his family to San Juan. We began recruiting actors from Salinas, Santa Clara, San Benito and Monterey. My wife and I came in the summer of 1971. We had a coalition of Chicano students setting up small shows.” Santana, who was famous for his big visions and ideas, planned to open his restaurant, Jardines de San Juan. “Manny and his sons were laying brick out in the plaza of the garden,” Valdez remembers. “In 1971 we did our first virgin play—La Virgen del Tepeyac—and we expected to have a full house, but so many people came that we had to do four shows consecutively that evening. That convinced me that we had to use the mission church. The monsignor opened the doors and we packed the church for one show.” The company now occupies its own playhouse on Fourth Street.
Jardines de San Juan officially opened in 1977. Santana, who went on the board of the Cabrillo Festival in the early ‘70s was key in bringing the festival to San Juan. “Manny brought a lot of major artists here,” Valdez says, mentioning Dave Brubeck and John Cage. “He envisioned musicians strolling in the streets. He said the potential of San Juan was treasure. After he died [in 2008] his family decided to display his artwork in the Santana Gallery there.”
Valdez stepped back from running El Teatro hands-on in the late ‘60s, began working in film in 1970, and went on to a major career as a playwright and director in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Chicago, among other major metropolitan cities. In 1978, his play Zoot Suit began a 46-week run at the Mark Taper Forum in LA, opened on Broadway the following year and was made into a film, directed by Valdez and starring Edward James Olmos as El Pachuco, in 1981. Valdez wrote and in 1987 directed his film La Bamba, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie Valens, the rock legend from Watsonville who died at 17 in a plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper. The film was Valdez’ entrée into mainstream America and it opened doors to major influence in the arts nationally.
Valdez still works with young artists and actors at El Teatro as well as in other cities, recently including San Diego. He is a founding faculty member and director of CSU Monterey Bay’s Teledramatic Arts and Technology Department. He is credited with assisting in the development of a university program that prepares students in the entertainment industry: filmmaking, writing, sound and cinematography. He served and advised President Clinton. “I also have a speaking schedule, all over the country, and university residences reaching out to a new generation,” he says. He is a council member of the National Endowment of the Arts, and founding member of the California Arts Council from which he received the Governors Award. His honors include the Presidential Medal of the Arts and the Aguila Azteca Award.
“The arts are not so remote from people,” he says. “They easily engage children as well as people of low income. They’re immediately available to energize your life and put you in contact with yourself. Everybody can understand food. And music in the same way. There should be more opportunity in every community to do creative work. Theater is a creator of community and vice versa.”