The Definitive Expose on Luis Valdez the Father of Chicano Theater
By Belinda Quesada
For Latinos, there are just a handful of role models that have lasted as long and accomplished as much as Luis Valdez.
He has conquered Hollywood, Broadway, and was recently recognized by President Barack Obama as one of twelve distinguished Americans to receive the National Medal of Arts award in a recent White House ceremony. Acknowledged “For bringing Chicano culture to American drama. As a playwright, actor, writer, and director, he illuminates the human spirit in the face of social injustice through award winning stage, film, and television productions.” https://www.arts.gov/news/2016/president-obama-award-national-medals-arts
So how does Luis Valdez feel after the whiplash election of president-elect Donald J. Trump? Upon reflection, Luis quotes Benito Juárez, 26th President of México who said, "Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respite al derecho ajeno es la paz;" meaning “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the light of others is peace.”
Never silent on social injustice, Luis continues, “I believe that the negatives in life can convert into positives and sometimes in shockingly obvious ways.” A Trump Administration will result in the enlightenment of millions of Americans, through the inevitable result of mistakes and misjudgments by a bumbling new president. However, I still believe that the constitutional spirit of the American republic is strong enough to internally resist and prevent the power grabs of a potential dictator. In short, I expect that Trump will initially be stumped by the overwhelming challenges of the presidency, particularly in foreign affairs. Whether he grows or collapses in office remains to be seen. But all Americans cannot afford to lower their guard for the foreseeable future.”
Órale pues. Spoken like the thoughtful, intellectual giant he is.
The Father of Chicano Theater
In Northern California’s Silicon Valley, they are immensely proud of Luis Valdez and have adopted him as their native son. It is where the Valdez family visited and eventually settled where Luis spent his formative teen years and graduated from college. San José has always held a special place in his heart.
For those who are unfamiliar with Chicano history or too young to remember, Luis is much more than the founder and artistic director of the internationally renowned El Teatro Campesino (ETC) theater in San Juan Bautista, California. He is an activist, playwright, author, actor, director, and lifelong educator.
This Chicano theater was quite literally born on the farmlands and fields of California. Last year, they celebrated their 50thanniversary. ETC has remained a mecca for creative storytelling, super talented actors, and a shrine to Chicano history that has to be seen to be believed. http://elteatrocampesino.com.
Acknowledged as the father of Chicano theater, Luis has achieved many first in his illustrious entertainment career.
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda or John Leguizamo, Luis Valdez was the first Mexican-American to write and stage a play on Broadway, that musical drama was “Zoot Suit.” A dramatic, original musical about the social injustice of the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial set in 1943, Los Angeles.
The highly successful play ran eleven months at the Mark Taper Forum theater in Los Angeles. Next, Luis shocked conventional Hollywood by taking the production straight to the Big Apple, New York City. This my friends was huge.
While the NY Broadway production did not break box-office receipts or last more than a month; it accomplished the unthinkable: A Chicano/Latino production, starring a predominantly Latino cast and about a predominately Latino subject matter. Outstanding by any measure. When it opened on Broadway, the President of México sent Mariachis to serenade their opening night performance. Can I hear a grito and get an amen?
Luis has gone on to write, direct, and produce dozens of other original productions for film, television and the stage; including La Bamba, El Corrido, The Cisco Kid, Corridos, Día de Los Muertos, La Virgen del Tepeyac, Popol Vuh, Valley of the Heart, and many more. http://www.imdb He continues his creative genius to this day with a new production coming in 2018. Another Valdez truism that he has believed all his life that imagination and inspiration are the basic tools needed to succeed.
Early Years of Poverty
Luis was born into extreme poverty to loving parents, Francisco and Armida Valdez. Literally born in the barn on the farm where his parents worked and many farm workers would stay, sometimes multiple families occupying one small space. The family worked tirelessly in the fields as migrant workers. There were ten children in all because that’s what you did back then. Family was everything. There were no birth control pills and all able bodied family members worked to help one another.
His first brother, Francisco (Pancho/Frank) was 3 years older. and brother number two, Manuel, was next. Born with congenital intestinal problems, Manuel only lived about a year and a half. Makes you wonder about the extreme toxic working conditions. Back in the 1940’s, farm workers did not have worker’s rights, much less knew anything about the dangers of pesticides. Who did back then? Now there are education programs and labor laws against human rights violations, and much more. Astonishingly just four short months ago, farmworkers won the legal right to receive overtime pay when working past their full eight-hour day. These rights were unconceivable back them.
In the summer of 1940, Luis was born, baby boy number three and six months after Manuelito’s passing. In a freak accident in the barn when he was about a year old and just learning to walk, Luis was scalded with hot water on his back and head. Burned severely, he was rushed to the emergency room at the local hospital. Since there were no burn units back then, they released him the next day in to the care of his parents.
Terrified and probably fearing she might lose another son, his young mother who was only twenty years old, cradled little Luis on her chest every night for a year until his skin grew back. It must have been torturous for both mother and son and a sacrifice for all family members.
Recently when he lost his oldest brother Frank to Cancer, Luis reminisced about their special bond growing up. “We were very, very, close for many years. We were dirt poor, but he and I loved to talk about the meaning of life. He was an intellect and a philosopher and loved to discuss ideas. I am so fortunate to have had my brother on those dark nights’ way back when, when we were struggling to survive. He lifted me up and allowed me to see life on a whole different level. I love and respect him for that.”
A favorite ‘dicho’ or expression Valdez uses is ‘the way to the mind is through the heart’ and now you know why. At age 76, he remains humble and appreciative of a life well spent with Lupe, his loving companera and biggest fan of nearly 50 years. Together, they raised a family of three boys, inspired thousands of others through creative arts, social justice causes, and education while staying true to their Chicano roots.
More on Trump
Valdez admits it has been a brutal year and a half with some of the worst and most divisive politics he’s ever witnessed.
As a pacifist and lifelong social justice champion, Luis reflects, “what amazes me is how blissfully ignorant people are of their own history. I see how that in America a playwright, an American of Puerto Rican mixed background, can create a play (a musical) that is able to reveal a piece of American history about the first United States Secretary of Treasure, Alexander Hamilton, is a beautiful thing. For better or worse, he has done it.”
“I’m a nut about history and knowing how politics work. If anything, politics have revealed the popularity of Donald Trump and has been reduced down to what the guy looks like or sounds like. It has demeaned the role of president by acknowledging someone like Donald Trump. When I was on the National Council of the Arts Board in Washington some years back, I got to see first-hand how politics work. I’ve seen how deals are struck and people make compromises every day. American has to find it’s heart. Get past the racism and hate speech.”
“We all have to turn negatives into possible. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, if it gives you avocados, make guacamole!” laughs Luis.
What’s Next For El Teatro Campesino
Fiercely intelligent and passionate about American and Mexican history as well as the Chicano experience. ETC is staging their next play the biennial, “La Virgen del Tepeyac” is a must see for the entire family. The original play, adapted to theater by Luis, has run for nearly four decades. It is a traditional holiday favorite seen only at the historical and beautiful Old Mission San Juan Bautista. (One of the 21 Spanish Missions remaining in California.) The play dramatizes the four Apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Indian messenger Juan Diego in the early 1500’s. Accompanied by perfect acoustics, glorious music, beautiful costumes, and Aztec dancers; it is a stunning recreation not to be missed. “La Virgen del Tepeyac” runs from Nov. 27-Dec. 20th. http://elteatrocampesino.com/la-virgen-de-tepeyac/
Next, traveling to Southern California where the super stardom all began at the famous Mark Taper Forum theater. Luis has been invited to return some 40 years later to restage his very powerful, award-winning dramatic musical, “Zoot Suit.”
If you loved it the first time around or never saw it, now is your chance to see the rival. It is the play that re-introduced and solidified our love of Chicanismo culture, dress, and music. It launched many successful Latino acting careers and put Luis Valdez on the Hollywood map. The play broke box office records and branded the Pachuco culture for new generations. Because of this play, Luis went on to write, direct, and produce countless original feature films and television and theater productions.
“Zoot Suit” runs from January 31st – March 12, 2017. (On Friday, Nov. 18th, for one day only. Buy one ticket and receive one ticket free! Pues apúrate, if you are in the Los Angeles area. Go now!) https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/mark-taper-forum/2017-18/zoot-suit/
Always a strong believer in collaboration, El Teatro Campesino has a partnership with San José Stage Company. Valdez has been commissioned to write new play. Look for, “Adiós Mamá Carlota,” premiering 2018. http://www.thestage.org/season1617/season1617.php
Valdez on Valdez
Valdez knows he’s blessed and for him it has never been about the money or the fame; it has been about the work. He believes he is simply beginning another new phase in life. And would like to be remembered as part of the continuum and believes in ‘The Wave’ principle. http://www.elliottwave.com/Free-Reports/Introduction-to-the-Wave-Principle
Explaining, “we are all a part of the wave. It is a regenerative faith. If a baby is born, it doesn’t matter how much money it has or where it is born. You are given life. It is up to you to make due and create your own life. El Teatro Campesino was born out of nothing; it was born on a picket line. If I can help others and illuminate the human spirit, then I have lived a good life.