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El Teatro Campesino: Fifty Years and Counting

El Teatro Campesino was established in 1965 during the Delano Grape Strike. Fifty years later, its founder, Luis Valdez, continues creating thought-provoking productions and nurturing talent from the theater company's playhouse in San Juan Bautista
Luis Valdez speaks about the history of El Teatro Campesino. Photo courtesy of Donna Silva (DLynn Photography).
Luis Valdez speaks about the history of El Teatro Campesino. Photo courtesy of Donna Silva (DLynn Photography).

Surrounded by black-and-white photos, colorful theater posters, and a kaleidoscope of other memorabilia documenting 50 years of existence, hang two framed, one-page leaflets. Their inconspicuous location and weathered condition belie the storied history that typed word gave birth to, including an instrumental role in the farmworkers’ movement led by Cesar Chavez, the inspiration that cultivated generations of artists, and a home base in San Juan Bautista that continues providing an atmosphere of creativity.

Typed in both English and Spanish, the leaflets announce the formation of a farmworker’s theater in Delano, Calif. Aware that he was in the arid San Joaquin Valley surrounded by those who stooped under the weight of poverty and not sitting at an office desk in one of New York City’s established stage companies, the leaflets’ creator, Luis Valdez, defied the rules of Broadway by declaring, “IF YOU CAN SING, DANCE, WALK, MARCH, HOLD A PICKET SIGN, PLAY A GUITAR OR HARMONICA OR ANY OTHER INSTRUMENT, YOU CAN PARTICIPATE: NO ACTING EXPERIENCE REQUIRED.” 

Interested farmworkers affixed their signatures on a sheet of paper below the leaflets, and attended an informational meeting that night. It was Monday, Nov. 1, 1965—the day El Teatro Campesino (ETC) was born.

Forty-six days earlier, on Sept. 16, Chavez and his fledging farmworkers’ union, the National Farm Workers Association, voted to join the grape strike initiated by the largely Filipino, Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Shouts of “¡Viva la causa!” (Long live the farmworkers’ cause!) and “¡Viva la huelga!” (Long live the cause!) reverberated from the church where the vote occurred through the ubiquitous vineyards of Delano where farmworkers toiled for menial wages under the scorching sun.

Valdez, a then-20-something-year-old playwright and actor, had approached Chavez a few months before, expressing an interest to join the NFWA and to create a theater company from its membership. Valdez convinced Chavez that on the stage farmworkers could find their voices that the clouds of dust, the acrid air of pesticides, and grower indifference often silenced. Chavez supported the idea, but made clear that the theater was Valdez’s responsibility.

The informational meeting held on that November night was an inauspicious beginning for a theater company that has existed for half a century. 

Eager to explain ETC’s mission, Valdez jumped onto a counter in the NFWA’s cramped headquarters’ office that evening. Those in attendance listened as Valdez underscored the leaflet’s statement that the theater, “would be OF, BY, and FOR the men and women (and their families) involved in” the Delano Grape Strike. When he finished, Valdez took questions. One woman raised her hand. 

“‘When does El Teatro start? Is it tonight?’ “ Valdez, in an interview with BenitoLink, recalled the woman asking. He quickly realized that the crowd had mistaken the meeting for a scheduled performance. 

Undeterred by the confusion, Valdez called a second meeting the following week at the NFWA’s fabled Pink House, a building behind the union office where he arrived with rectangular signs of cardboard, each threaded with twine. One read, “Esquirol” (scab), scribbled on another was the word, “Huelguista” (striker), “Patroncito” (boss) and “Contratista” (labor contractor) completed collection of low-budget props.

“I wanted to hang these on people, and they didn’t want to,” Valdez said. Alas, Augustin Lira, ETC’s first official member, volunteered to wear the “Esquirol” sign. Playing the part, Lira began hurling insults at the striking farmworkers. A second volunteer put the “Huelguista” sign over his head. 

The interaction was as spontaneous as it was electric, illuminating the room with laughter and transforming a oft-reticence group into an animated bunch who imitated their farmworker life through the art form that ETC was to be built upon—the acto.

A leading authority on ETC’s artistic forms, Jorge A. Huerta, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, explained in a telephone interview with BenitoLink, that the acto is an effective tool for social change, “as any issue can be turned into an acto.”

Short, improvised, and satirical, the acto entertained the weary strikers, while educating them on the issues surrounding the strike, like understanding the ossified power structure that thrived from their labor. 

Under Valdez’s leadership and direction, members of the theater company honed their craft at night. The next day they performed on the back of a pick-up, parked adjacent to a struck field. 

In ETC’s first acto, Las Dos Caras del Patroncito (The Two Faces of the Boss), Pedro, a farmworker laboring amid the grapes, is interrupted by his boss, who arrives on stage wearing a pig-mask. The boss derides the destitute worker for wanting to improve his lot by throwing his support behind Chavez and the strike. 

The boss argues that housing and feeding farmworkers and providing for a spendthrift wife is much more difficult than toiling in the fields. Hoping to teach his worker a lesson, the boss demands that Pedro wear the pig-mask. Initially hesitant, Pedro takes the mask and metamorphoses from a meek, obedient, and exploited worker into a domineering, abusive, and shameless boss. 

With the role-reversal complete, both characters learn that whether one is stripped of power or endowed with privilege, one’s humanity is not less or more than another’s.

As Valdez had predicted to Chavez, El Teatro Campesino led to farmworker empowerment.

In the spring of 1966, Valdez took his show on the road, following Chavez and nearly 100 others as they marched more than 300 miles north from Delano to Sacramento. Along the way, the theater company provided nighttime entertainment for the marchers encamped in towns that dotted the CA-Highway 99 corridor, the route taken to the state capitol. 

Among those who came out to watched the company in Cutler, Calif. was Lupe Trujillo, Valdez’s future wife. For the then-college student, it was a powerful and transformative moment. “The first time I ever saw a live performance was on that flatbed truck,” Lupe said in a phone interview with BenitoLink. “To see a reflection of yourself on stage, to have that kind of power…, to fight for social justice, it was empowering for a young woman who had never thought of those issues before and then all of the sudden there was a cause greater than yourself that you wanted to participate,” she added.

Thousands of others were touched, too. While Chavez steady himself with a walking stick and nursed his calloused feet, El Teatro  found its legs. 

After the march, Valdez received requests from college students around the country. Tours followed, and the ETC's popularity increased.

A casualty of ETC’s new found fame was its prolonged absences from Delano. In addition, the organization had developed a degree of autonomy from the NFWA. Some, including Chavez, began to doubt the theater company’s commitment to la causa. Believing that purging the union of the faithless would reinvigorate the striking farmworkers, Chavez cleaned-house. 

Preparing for another tour, Valdez and ETC were essentially given an ultimatum by the union’s leadership, either stay and prove their loyalty or leave.

In 1967, the small troupe packed up and headed out of Delano, though its support for those left behind remained steadfast, as it continued staging actos, while sending donations from its earnings to the union’s headquarters.

Searching for a new home, the company eventually landed in Fresno, where it established itself as the vanguard of Chicano Theater, exploring topics beyond the fields, like the educational system that ignored the history and experiences of urban, Mexican-American youth.

Scores of brown-colored actors descended on the Central Valley city, including César Flores.

Disillusioned with his career as an engineering designer in the aerospace industry in Southern California, Flores -- in his 20s -- returned to college and studied drama. Despite his talents, lead roles escaped him. Frustrated, Flores confronted his instructor, who matter-of-factly said that he was the wrong color. 

But there was hope, the instructor explained to his dejected student. To the north was a theater company that starred people like him. Flores got in his car and followed the beacon to Fresno. His visit was an epiphany. “I found what my calling was,” Flores said in a telephone interview with BenitoLink.

Flores commuted from Orange County to Fresno on weekends to bask in Valdez’s creativity, before joining ETC full-time, a relationship that’s lasted over 40 years.

“It changed my whole life,” Flores said of the ETC’s impact. “It got rid of a lot of insecurities I had. It gives you so much empowerment, it’s unbelievable.”

Today, Flores, a San Juan resident, serves as a liaison between ETC and The Western Stage in Salinas, imparting the  knowledge he’s gained with ETC to would-be actors and facilitating a forum where Valdez’s work often takes center stage.

Lupe Trujillo from Cutler was attending Fresno State College when El Teatro arrived. Moved by her experience during march, she decided to enroll in La Raza, a seminal course in Mexican-American studies taught by Valdez. 

He encouraged his students to perform with the theater company. The college coed didn’t hesitate, performing with ETC for more than a year. Following her graduation, she was asked by Valdez to join ETC on its tour through France in 1969. She accepted, changing the trajectory of their lives.

“We fell in love,” she said of her summer with Luis. The couple was married when the company returned from the first of several trips to France. (Last August, the Valdezs’ celebrated 46 years of marriage).

By 1971, the Valdezs’ had started a family, as Lupe gave birth to the first of the couple’s three sons. That year El Teatro Campesino performed at University of California, Santa Cruz. After the performance, the company dined at Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant in Aptos, where it endeared itself to the establishment’s owner, Manny (Manuel) Santana.

Santana had just purchased a property in San Juan that he hoped to turn into a restaurant, Valdez explained. The acquired site that Santana later transformed into Jardines de San Juan included a small  theater. Santana wanted El Teatro to become its occupants. Appreciative of Santana’s patronage, Valdez was torn between an artist’s yearning for independence and the security a place of permanence provides for a starving artist.

“We weren’t necessarily ready to operate a theater and stay in one place. But what we were looking for was a home where we could investigate our art form…we needed a place to evolve artistically,” Valdez said.

The transition from the Central Valley to San Juan occurred slowly. Theater workshops were held by the company at first, often facilitated by Daniel Valdez, Valdez’s younger brother. Staged productions followed in the building that became known as, La Calavera (The Skull). 

A veteran of walking red-carpet events, Valdez admitted that San Juan hardly rolled out the welcome mat for his theater company.

“We did not get a good reception here,” Valdez stated. “There were people who were very afraid of us…they thought we were Cesar Chavez coming to town."

Valdez explained that if residents had understood Chavez’s strategy at the time, the fear probably would’ve been partially assuaged, as his union targeted large agribusiness firms, often leaving the type of small-family owned farms that comprised the San Juan Valley alone.

Valdez feels that opposition to El Teatro's presence was largely fueled by “half-racist, half-political, and half self-interest” sentiments.

Despite the challenges faced outside, ETC thrived inside La Calavera’s walls. Talented actors arrived in droves eager to be under Valdez’s tutelage. One such actor was Rosa Maria Escalante.

Escalante first met Valdez at University of California, Berkeley, where she was a student in one of his classes.

Growing up in Calexico, Calif., she excelled on the stage. At Berkeley, she majored in cultural anthropology and minored in drama—her true passion. Like César Flores, Escalante found her drama courses stifling, for white students were generally cast in lead roles. “My instructors really didn’t know what to do with me,” Escalante said in a telephone interview with BenitoLink.

And like Flores, Escalante’s exposure to El Teatro Campesino was revelatory. However, convincing her parents that she wanted to act was another matter.

Escalante explained that in conservative Mexican households, such as her parents, acting on stage crossed the lines of social propriety, especially for a woman.

Despite the perceived damage to her reputation, Escalante arrived in San Juan after her graduation from university in 1973. She’s never left, and she remains an active ETC member.

Reflecting back on her time with the theater company, she described the gender inequality she encountered after arriving in San Juan. Female actors were often type cast as the village whore or abused wife, she noted. 

Escalante pressed Valdez for different roles to play, and over time her entreaties paid off. However, she admits that gender equality within ETC is “a growing situation.” 

Described by Valdez as a “maestra” (teacher), Escalante mentors many of the company’s young talent, especially its female actors, who she encourages to seek roles outside ETC, like she has, to broaden their repertoire and to always speak up for themselves.

A retired local teacher, Escalante is indebted to El Teatro for the “tremendous impact” it has had on her life and the a high degree of self-assuredness she walks on and off the stage with.

As a new generation arrived with Escalante, Valdez and Lupe were busy raising a future generation of would-be ETC members. Six-month-old Anahuac came with his parents to San Juan in 1971. His brothers, Kinan and Lakin, later completed the Valdez brood.

For Valdez, San Juan was the ideal home for his sons to grown up in. “It’s a wonderful place to live…a wonderful place to raise a family.”

As Valdez nurtured his sons, El Teatro Campesino evolved under his hand, too. 

In 1979, Valdez debuted his critically acclaimed play, "Zoot Suit," in Los Angeles, and then on Broadway.

A work of fiction, the production is set in wartime Los Angeles, and it’s on based on the real-life murder of a 22-year-old Mexican national, the ensuing mass trial of mostly Mexican-American defendants, and legendary Zoot Suit riots that erupted in the city’s streets in 1943.

As he had done in the acto, Valdez used the production as a vehicle for social commentary, as well as a medium for educating his audience about the overt racial and discriminatory environs of war torn L.A.

The play’s success led to a film adaptation by in 1981. Produced by Universal Pictures, the movie version was nominated for a Golden Globe, according to ETC’s website. 

According to Prof. Huerta of UCSD, Zoot Suit was a turning point for Valdez and his theater company, as it was “culmination of everything done before.”

From the earnings of "Zoot Suit," Valdez purchased a vacant warehouse in San Juan. The building, located at 705 Fourth Street, was gutted and renovated into a playhouse that is often referred to as, “the house that Zoot Suit built.”

The added space, complete with a private office for writing, fueled Valdez’s creative juices.

In 1981, Valdez debuted the play, "Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution," a production that  “follows the heroes and history of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920,” according to The Western Stage’s website. Later adapted for television on PBS, the play won the prestigious Peabody Award in 1987.

In that same year, Valdez once again extended his reach to Hollywood with the release of the film, "La Bamba." Written and directed by Valdez, the biopic chronicles the meteoric rise and untimely death of Ritchie Valens, largely regarded as the first Chicano rock star. The film included cameos by several ETC’s members, and some scenes were shot on location in San Benito County.

The expansion of Valdez’s work coincided with an infusion of young, new talent into El Teatro Campesino’s ranks.

In a recent telephone interview with BenitoLink, 35-year-old Jacob Padrón recalled the first time he saw a ETC production. He was a young boy attending "La Virgen del Tepeyac," one of the two-cycle plays that run during the winter holidays at Mission San Juan Bautista. The cast included his mother. “I was transfixed and blown away,” Padrón said of his mother’s performance.

Not long after, Padrón joined the company. From his elementary years through his teens, he appeared in several cycle-plays. After high school, he attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where he studied film and theater.

The social activism spurred by Valdez’s mentorship led to Padrón’s involvement in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, where he served HIV and AIDS victims. He eventually returned to theater, attending Yale University’s School of Drama, where he felt the responsibility to inform his mostly  white classmates about Valdez’s work. “It was almost like proselytizing,” Padrón said.

Today, he is a line producer for the famed Public Theater of New York, an off Broadway company dedicated to Shakespearean productions.

Paying tribute to Valdez’s legacy, Padrón founded the Sol Project. Beginning next winter, the project will pair twelve Latino/a playwrights with several, off Broadway companies. He hopes to inspire a movement by giving the playwrights “the visibility they deserve.”

Last Sunday marked El Teatro Campesino’s 50th anniversary. The celebration included an El Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) a procession through the streets of San Juan. An puppeteer encased in a nearly 20 foot skeleton led the group, followed by two white vans pumping Mexican rhythms out their side doors. 

At the rear was a band of musicians dressed as skeletons. The ensemble surrounded a flatbed trailer that became a stage on wheels for, “To the Promised Land,” an allegorical tale based on the Book of Genesis. 

In a nod to ETC’s beginnings, two characters arrived on stage dressed as skeletons and wearing a piece of cardboard around their necks. “Adan” and “Eva” were soon confronted by the devil who tempted them into eating the forbidden fruit. After each scene, the trailer slowly moved to the next location where another scene played out. Tourists and locals poured onto the street, following the production.  

In one scene, a water war was fought between brothers, “Cain” and “Abel.” The California drought and the nitrate levels in San Juan’s water supply were mentioned. In another scene, a character appeared in a pig-mask, wearing a disheveled blond wig and a sign that read, “Donald Trompetas.” A caricature of Republican presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, the character pointed to the audience members declaring to deport the illegals and criminals among them. The crowd responded with boisterous jeers.

The production concluded at the Alameda Park, where a lone trailer stood decorated in somber papier-mâché tombstones bearing names, like Syrian Souls and #BlackLivesMatter.

Valdez described his art as  New American Theater. He feels that descriptors, like Latino Theater or Hispanic Theater are too limiting. "America must reflect all of its faces," he told the assembled crowd at the conclusion of Sunday's procession. He wants his work to reflect that diversity without confining his creativity.

Overlooking San Juan beyond Washington Street is a large hill. Its million dollar view now belongs to ETC. Valdez envisions a future cultural center and housing for ETC’s members on the property. Perhaps a restaurant, too. “Casa del Sol” (House of the Sun), Valdez said when pondering a potential name.

Valdez hopes that ETC will remain in San Juan over the course of the next 50 years.. His second eldest son, Kinan, will oversee the theater for part of that time..“He [Kinan] shares the vision……understands it intrinsically. I have confidence and faith that he’ll carry the torch forward,” explained Valdez.

As the company’s producing artistic director, Kinan is honored by his father’s decision. “I’m very grateful that he has trust in me,” he said in a telephone interview with BenitoLink.

When measuring Valdez’s legacy and the reasons for his success, Miriam Pawel, author of The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, wrote in an email that “Valdez succeeded on his own terms, and in ways that allowed him to remain true to people and principles that mattered to him….he made decisions to reject more traditional, commercial paths to success, accepting the consequences of those decisions in order to preserve his independence.”

There’s no doubt that San Juan Bautista played an integral role in that success, for it shaped the evolution of Valdez for much of El Teatro Campesino’s 50-year history.

As he explained, the city’s Spanish and Mexican roots have always cultivated a sense of belonging for him. "It legitimizes me," he said.

Untethered by feeling like a stranger in a strange land, he created, from a single-page leaflet, a genre for those whose stories and experiences are often ignored, while paving the way for others who share his artistic passion.

To purchase tickets for El Teatro Campesino's upcoming productions, visit the theater's website

 

 

About:
Frank Pérez (fjperez)

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. I’m embarking on my 19th year at San Benito High School, where I teach world history and Mexican-American history. In addition, I'm moonlighting as a freelance journalist for BenitoLink. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.

Comments

Frank, have you ever thought about putting all these well-researched articles together into a history book? 

While I think there must be many history books in the farmworker's movement in general, any movement of that size usually has a lot of special and/or unique aspects such as the arts, the internal or external politics, etc. Perhaps you can identify one that has not been covered or only sparsely covered and expand it into a book.

If you like the idea, just don't tell your wife that I brought it up - I don't want to be blamed if spend all your spare time researching and writing, lol. It was good meeting you.

Marty Richman

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