Cesar Flores agreed to meet for a BenitoLink interview at Vertigo in San Juan Bautista and talk about his career as an actor and director. As co-director, he is currently working with director Lorenzo Aragon on the play, “Bandido!” written by Luis Valdez, which opens Sept. 10 at The Western Stage in Salinas.
Much of Flores’ 45-plus year acting career has been spent working alongside Valdez, the creator of El Teatro Campesino, in San Juan Bautista. “The whole emphasis of Teatro has been to communicate and educate the community-at-large,” Flores says.
Flores is returning to The Western Stage for his 13th season. His contributions have been as an actor and most recently as a co-director.
Flores (bottom left corner) talks to the cast at Hartnell.
“My role is to be the liaison between El Teatro Campesino and The Western Stage here at Hartnell College in Salinas,” he says. Flores says he believes there is a great need to keep the voice of the Latino community alive. “Through Teatro, we have worked as a catalyst, getting people and organizations together."
Flores came north from Orange County, as a former electro-mechanical designer in the aerospace Industry to work with El Teatro Campesino 1971. At that point in his life, his memories of this region were of living in Army tents with his family in the orchards in the vast cropland of Gilroy.
His mother, a Texas born migrant farmworker, was at a dance in a Clare, Michigan labor camp when he was born in 1942. As a young man, Flores joined the U.S. Air Force. Although he hadn’t shown a particular aptitude for mechanics, it was his lowest score when tested by the military, he was assigned to aircraft and missile maintenance and became an F-105 jet fighter mechanic. “The G.I. Bill made it possible for me to get a college education, which was something beyond my dreams,” Flores says.
In the mid-60s, while trudging through aerospace college courses, Flores tried an evening theater class at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif. “I think I was looking for a vehicle to merge myself into,” he says, “and I was hooked.” After being involved in theater for a while, Flores asked his teacher and mentor, Bill Purkiss, “Why can’t I get good parts?”
“You’re not a good fit,” said Purkiss, who then told Flores about Luis Valdez, a fellow theater student at San Jose State, who was doing theater working with Cesar Chavez and The United Farmworkers. He arranged for a field trip to attend a Teatro Festival/Conference at Cabrillo College.
“We went and I just felt like, this is where I belong,” says Flores.
Since that time, Flores has become a leader, a teacher and an accomplished performer. His Western Stage productions as an actor include “Rain of Gold,” “A Mexican Carol,” “Sunsets and Margaritas,” “Anna in the Tropics," “La Llorona,” “Let the Eagle Fly,” “American Song,” and “Grapes of Wrath.” He recently directed, “Tu Eres Mi Otro Yo,” a Spring Fest Workshop, and co-directed Valdez’s "Corridos." Among his film credits are, “Cutting Horse,” “August Evening,” “The Mendoza Line,” and a documentary called, “This So-Called Disaster.”
This weekend, “Bandido!” will open at The Western Stage. Flores says about the project, “We have a good cast. I work with them on their cameos and different scenes and then we put it all together.”
“Today in American theater, there are all kinds of kids and we are trying to help them find their gut feelings,” he says. “Some are spouting lines and have no idea what they are saying …We break it down and help them understand it. Then it turns into natural stuff."
“I love it,” Flores says, his eyes lighting up. “We go into the play and everybody’s nervous and the sheer magic of theater takes over.”
This is pure Flores, a core member and veteran of El Teatro Campesino for more than 40 years. After all those years in the business, he is still in love with what he does.
“The arts has the power to break artificial barriers, especially for youth,” he says. Suddenly energized by just the thought of it, he talks about passing on useful tools to his students and helping them make mental connections on stage.
“These kids are open for input,” he says. “You know, you have an actor who is shy and overweight, he wouldn’t say anything and now he’s singing a solo on stage! Amazing to see the growth of the individuals. Theater gives you so much self-worth.”
Flores talks about how much drama has advanced and sets its own scene, its own reality, that society then adopts. “Art breaks down negative barriers,” he says.
A lot of the theaters with which Flores works with today are colorblind, he says, citing the example of a black actor playing a policeman in an era where it just wouldn’t have happened. “And no one notices. No one cares. To the audience, he’s a policeman.” “Have things changed? I believe they have. Is Teatro part of why it has changed? You bet. We have created a new genre of American theater,” Flores says.
“I have received recognition from the California Legislature Assembly as a role model for young people striving to achieve their highest potential," Flores notes, setting the context of his life. “From dirt floors and picking food in the fields. You have to believe in yourself and you can achieve it.”
Today, Flores is 74 years old. In Japanese culture, the masters of a hard-earned skill are honored citizens. Recognizing the sheer energy Flores has poured into youth, he deserves a similar note.
“I see every day as an adventure. I’ve got another 20 years to do what I do and then I go over to the other side and see what’s happening there,” he says.
Giving just one more pitch for his art, Flores adds, “Theater gives you a chance to look at yourself. Are you strong enough to open up? BOOM! And you feel it on a gut level, on an emotional level and you become one.”
Pausing, Flores says, “I had a rough childhood but I feel very fulfilled.”