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Luis Valdez: Cesar Chavez and theater for the people

Playwright speaks on getting involved in the farmworker movement, his early plays and the birth of El Teatro Campesino.

Continued from Part One.

From an early age, playwright, filmmaker and El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez wanted to create theater for migrants, to entertain and educate.

“The idea of trying to do something about the world using theater is a bit of a pipe dream. It may seem superficial, it may seem like a luxury, it may seem silly,” Valdez said. “But at the bottom of all of that is something serious. The motivation of the human heart and the transformation of the mind are only possible through the arts.”

Valdez yearned to be involved in the farmworker movement and saw the Delano Grape Strike as trying to close one of the loopholes left in the 1930s labor movement, and as part of a much bigger historic problem. 

“Labor got organized in this country, industrial unions were formed to the exclusion of the farmworker. Black, Filipino, Chinese, Mexican, whatever. They were out,” Valdez said. “The way that farm work has been envisioned across human history is ‘these are the serfs, these are the peons.’ They are [seen as] barely human. The color of their skin doesn’t matter. You go to Africa, it’s the same story. You go to Europe, it’s the same story. You go to China, etc. The people who do the hard labor in the field are like slaves.”

Luis Valdez (Courtesy ETC).
Luis Valdez (Courtesy ETC).

When agriculture was established in California, starting in the Santa Clara Valley, among the first wave of workers were Chinese.

“Agribusiness discovered in the 1920s there was this unending flow of wage slaves that could be brought from Mexico,” Valdez said, “and that’s how my parents ended up in California. They were transported free of charge from Arizona to Delano by the owners.”

As mentioned in Part One, he met Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association with Cesar Chavez, and pitched his idea of a workers theater. Huerta liked the idea and Valdez asked, “Can you set up a meeting?”  

Huerta replied that Chavez was going to be in San Francisco the next week for a rally in the Mission District.

“I was ready for him, but again he was mobbed by all kinds of people. He was a rising star,” Valdez said. “I was reluctant but I hung around, hung around. And then he took off for Oakland and I hopped in one of the cars in his caravan.”

It was late at night and the group stopped at St. Elizabeth’s Church.

“He was attending a cursillista, a program for married couples,” Valdez said. “They were singing a lovely song and then he spoke. Finally, about 11, 11:30 at night I was the last one to talk to him.”

Chavez recognized him and said, “yes, Dolores told me about you.” Valdez explained his idea to create a theater of, by and for farmworkers. He recalled Chavez’s response:

“‘Well, I’ll be honest with you. There’s no actors in Delano. There’s no money to do theater in Delano. There’s no stage, no time to rehearse. We’re on the picket line night and day. Still want to do it?’ And I said absolutely. What an opportunity!”

Chavez and Valdez talked on the ride back to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco and the following week Valdez moved back to Delano.

“It was the most important move in my life,” he said. “Going back to my birthplace, but going back to do what I was inevitably going to do. Twenty years of accumulating momentum to do what I was going to do.” 

Luis Valdez speaking with Cesar Chavez on right (Courtesy ETC).
Luis Valdez speaking with Cesar Chavez on right (Courtesy ETC).

Valdez already had some ideas: “actos,” short plays, on the themes of the labor movement and workers’ rights.

“The actos would have two or three people in them, four at the most,” he said. “The pieces had to be very pointed, very quick, very visual to make that point.”  

Arriving in Delano, Valdez discovered what he was up against.

“The early actos were conditioned by the limits placed on us. In the first place, we were out on the picket line, literally. Cesar was right, there was no time to rehearse, no rehearsal space. The rehearsal space we had was really the kitchen of the pink house where everybody slept in bedrooms or on the floor. We’d keep it quiet between nine at night and noon and then we could have the space to ourselves to work out stuff. We had to improvise. It was very tight.”

When the time came to perform, things were even tighter.

“The acting space we had outside was the top of a panel truck, about the size of a large kitchen table. One or two people, that’s it,” Valdez said. “The limits of our physical space limited the size of the actos.”

The actos were simply staged: characters wore cardboard signs around their necks and sometimes wore masks made from papier-mache.

“When I came from San Francisco, the mask maker for the San Francisco Mime Troupe made some masks for me,” Valdez said. “One was a pig mask and then there was a calavera—a death mask—and I already had an idea for three grapes.”

In 1965, Valdez created a work still in El Teatro Campesino’s repertoire today. The pig mask came in handy for a piece called “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito,” or  “The Two Faces of the Boss.”

“It involves a boss and a worker, the worker is a scab,” Valdez said. “A third character is a rent-a-fuzz, a private guard. And that’s it, three people.”

Las Dos Caras, with Luis Valdez on the far right (Courtesy ETC).
Las Dos Caras, with Luis Valdez on the far right (Courtesy ETC).

The props were simple, as a photograph from the time shows. The boss had the pig mask, carried a whip and a cigar, a sign around his neck that read “Patroncito.” The worker carried long-handled shears and a sign around his neck read “Farmworker.” 

Valdez described the play: “The dialogue is basically between the boss and the worker. The boss is concerned that no one talks to the worker, that he doesn’t go with Chavez.

“To prove how well he’s treated, the boss exchanges places with the worker. He allows him to become the boss for a bit. So he gives him the mask and the cigar and the whip. Then the guard comes in and drags the boss out.”

The play works at broad comedy, with the boss alternately embracing and distancing himself from his workers. Valdez usually played the part of the boss in the performances.

“When we had the improvisation sessions with workers, I found most of them couldn’t do the boss. They could do a scab, they could do a striker, cause they’d learned enough about that. But they couldn’t do the boss. I said ‘you gotta learn how to do the boss. It’s really important.’’

It was something Valdez had learned from his college years and in the theater scene in San Francisco, when he often found himself “the only Mexican in the room.”

“It was a baptism by fire, but I learned how to be the boss. I was trying to teach that to the workers: taking possession of your own destiny, taking possession of your own space. It’s an object lesson I have had to learn, relearn and teach others throughout my whole career.”

Such role reversals figure into a lot of Valdez’s works.

“That exchange of personalities is still very alive,” he said. “I have one line when the boss takes away the mask, where he says ‘How about it? Do I look like a Mexican?’ The thing is, underneath the mask we’re all the same.” 

Luis Valdez performing (Courtesy ETC).
Luis Valdez performing (Courtesy ETC).

The success of the truck roof performances gave Valdez a place at the Friday night meetings attended by Chavez, farmworkers and other organizers.

“When we started to perform at the Friday night meetings, we had a tiny 10-foot by 10-foot space. We were meeting in a little hall that held no more than 100 people. It was packed to the rafters,” Valdez recalled. “Sometimes we could get 150 people with them standing in the back on chairs to be able to see. We’d come out of the kitchen into our little space and there would be kids sitting on the floor. Cesar was usually in the front row.”

Valdez’s next production used three masks he’d brought with him from San Francisco. He intended to cast three women in the roles of grapes, but met with an unexpected difficulty.

“We couldn’t get any women to participate,” he said. “Men would not allow their wives or daughters to perform with us. Women were interested and they told us that. But they would say ‘my husband or my parents would never let me.’”

There were also other pressures on women to not perform.

“We had this one acto which involved just the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe,” Valdez said. “We had a slide projector, high tech for us at the time. We had a slide of the Virgin and we could manipulate the lens to make her flutter and a voice would come over a speaker. We wanted a worker in the field to do the voice, to be a symbol of the struggle. The day before the show, she came and said she couldn’t do it. The women in the field were laughing at her, saying she was a mother and not a virgin. So we couldn’t do it. We couldn’t use a man’s voice.”

The lack of women in the early productions led to accusations of sexism against Valdez and El Teatro Campesino in later years, but Valdez said, “organizationally we weren’t sexist, we just could not get past the sexist barriers that existed in reality.”

There was one bright side for Valdez, though, when he found a woman willing to take part in his actos.

“The first Chicana who would regularly perform with us was Lupe, who became my wife,” he said.   

Lupe and Luis Valdez (Courtesy ETC).
Lupe and Luis Valdez (Courtesy ETC).

With a shaky start in the fields on the top of a panel truck and in a tiny hall, El Teatro Campesino was born, becoming the first Latino theater company in America. Valdez wrote at the time, “Cesar Chavez’s non-violence is one of the most violent forces around, porque es positiva y porque comienza con dios (because it is positive and because it starts with God).”

Working hand-in-hand with Chavez and other farm labor organizers, Valdez helped define the farmworkers movement. Valdez also brought a new understanding of the world to the workers themselves, which became the foundation of El Teatro Campesino’s philosophy: “Tú eres mi otro yo. (You are my other self.) We are mirrors to each other,” Valdez said. “I was trying to tell Chicanos that to be Chicano does not mean you hate the white man or hate somebody else. To be Chicano simply means you love yourself, that’s all. You love who you are and where you come from, and that allows you then to love other people for what they are and for what they bring to the table.”

He added, “I have always believed that as an artist, the arts give me the ability to bring something to the table. I just don’t bring my needs and demands. I bring beauty, I bring wisdom, I bring laughter, I bring joy.”

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.