In 1946, six-year-old Luis Valdez tried out his costume for his first performance a few days away. They were the best clothes and shoes he had ever worn, topped with a papier-mache monkey mask he had helped make. Then his mother broke the news: the family had been evicted and were leaving town that day.
“My dad’s truck broke down so we couldn’t move on,” Valdez recalled. His parents were farmworkers, picking cotton and working the migrant path. “We ended up fishing in the river and we were living hand to mouth.”
Valdez, who would go on to be a famous playwright, filmmaker, and founder of El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, had missed his stage debut.
One day after almost drowning, Valdez’s mother sent him to attend school—first grade—just to keep him safe. He carried his lunch in a paper sack, and at the end of the school day he would bring the sack home again to be used the next day.
Then his paper sack vanished. When Valdez tracked it down, he discovered a teacher had torn it up, mixed it with water and paste, and used it to create masks for a school play. To calm the upset boy, the teacher showed him how to apply papier-mache to a monkey mask. Intrigued, Valdez tried out for the play and got his first role, but missed the debut.
Seventy-three years later, the memory is still painful.
“I cried and cried, but reality is reality,” he said. “But I took away three really important things. One was unrequited love for the theater that was unsatisfied. The second was the secret of papier-mache, so I knew I could turn newspapers and bags into masks. And the third was anger, residual six-year-old anger because we had been evicted from a labor camp.”
As a child, Valdez saw Circus Escalante, the traveling family circus company which toured the labor camps during the Depression. The performance left an impression on the young Valdez.
“It was a family,” he said, “and that impressed me immediately. The father was the ringmaster, the boys and girls were acrobats and clowns. When money was scarce, they worked in the fields. And that planted a seed when I was very young: it’s possible to be a performer among farmworkers and if you don’t get an audience you can go back to the fields. That became my security.”
While in high school, a visit to a movie house brought more inspiration. Valdez was already working with puppets and owned a used ventriloquist dummy. He had the opportunity to see famous Mexican ventriloquist Paco Miller and his dummy Don Roque.
“He was up on stage performing between movies. The audience was all solid campesinos and they were all cracking up. And that really stuck with me and it showed me there was the possibility and a need for performers for this audience.”
In 1953, the Valdez family moved to San Jose. Luis went to high school during the day and worked on his ventriloquist act in the evenings.
“We lived in the labor camp and I used to perform my act there,” he said. “We’d put up a campfire and I would get out my dummy. I did it once and they liked it so I did it again, and again. I could get out there and improvise.”
Valdez entered college on a math and physics scholarship. With an A average, science looked like a secure choice, but he followed his heart and switched to an English major.
“I loved the numbers, but there was this other ache and pain to deal with, the idea of doing theater,” he said. “I thought as an English major I could at least get a job as an English teacher.”
The dream of becoming an entertainer, following the migrant trail going camp to camp, was set. While in college, Valdez considered starting a theater company in Alviso, in an old dormitory where Chinese laborers had lived.
“It was a pipe dream,” he said. “We had no money and we had no idea. It was just the thought of doing theater in a rural area. It was a lot of wishful thinking, but it made me realize my goal should be becoming a playwright, reaching people that way.”
He wrote and directed his first full-length play, “The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa,” which debuted at San Jose State University in 1964. At a performance at the Northwest Drama Conference the next year, Valdez met two men who would go on to mentor him: author William Saroyan and John Howard Lawson, founder of the Hollywood Writers Guild. Both men were impressed, with Saroyan dubbing Valdez’s work “the first Mexican-American play, long overdue.”
Buoyed by the success of the play and the blessings of the two men of letters, Valdez moved to San Francisco hoping to get the play performed by the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a cutting edge theater company. Instead, he became a member of the troupe, writing and performing with them. At one of their free events, he was arrested at Lafayette Park in San Francisco. The arrest, for performing without a permit, was a watershed moment in the free speech movement.
Around this time, Valdez received a Spanish-language newspaper from Delano by way of his grandmother who lived there. The Delano Grape Strike was happening, marking the start of the farmworkers’ movement.
“I found it really shocking,” Valdez said. “I never expected anything to come out of Delano. It was like leaving the plantation; who would want to go back to the plantation? But I realized this time the plantation was in motion and I thought maybe this is it, this is where it could happen.”
Returning to Delano to see for himself, Valdez found himself caught up in events. It was the second week of the strike.
“I was amazed I was back in Delano, marching on the street where I was born,” he said. “The air was electric and for me, it was coming home in ways I had not expected.”
Though the time seemed right to propose performing for migrants, he was reluctant to speak with labor leader Cesar Chavez.
“I knew how wild the idea sounded and I didn’t have my pitch down. I finally decided not to talk to him; no way I could get close enough to him.” He left frustrated with the idea burning in his heart.
A little while later he met Dolores Huerta, who was co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association with Chavez. (Huerta, who helped organize the strike, also popularized the phrase “Sí, se puede.”)
Valdez brought his idea to Huerta while she was visiting San Jose.
“She loved it and said she’d talk to Cesar,” he said.
And so Huerta smoothed the way for Valdez to bring his dream of El Teatro Campesino, the Worker’s Theater, to Cesar Chavez.
Part two coming soon!