Art & Culture

Mayan drama comes to El Teatro stage this weekend

“Men of Rab’inal” is a contemporary adaptation of a 600-year old story.
From the dress rehearsal. Photo provided by Lakin Valdez.
From the dress rehearsal. Photo provided by Lakin Valdez.

A modern interpretation of a 600-year-old Mayan text is about to take center stage in San Juan Bautista this weekend.

Co-written, co-produced and co-directed by El Teatro Campesino resident artist and community member Lakin Valdez, “Men of Rab’inal: A Mayan War Dance in Time” makes its San Benito County debut on June 20 at the El Teatro Playhouse, 705 Fourth St., San Juan Bautista. The play runs through June 23.

“Men of Rab’inal” is based on the Mayan story “Rabinal Achí,” a four act, Pre-Columbian dramatic work set to song and dance that recounts the conflict between two Mayan prince-warriors, K’iche Achi and Rab’inal Achi, and their respective cities.

The contemporary version by Valdez and playwright Andrew Saito maintains the story’s original premise, while introducing a cast of historical figures who sought either to destroy or protect the native text. Valdez plays the role of K’iche Achi.

“A Mayan version of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,’” is how Valdez described his latest work in a recent telephone interview with BenitoLink. He was referencing the 1989 film about two less than enthusiastic high school students who travel from antiquity to the 20th Century, meeting the likes of Socrates, Joan of Arc and Sigmund Freud in preparation for a history class presentation.

In Valdez and Saito’s telling, a Mayan priest, Spanish conquistadors, an executive of the former United Fruit Company and armed factions of Guatemala’s bloody civil war appear onstage with the dueling princes.

Spurred by their fascination with “Rabinal Achí,” “Men of Rab’inal,” was written over a four-year period, according to Valdez, the youngest son of El Teatro Campesino’s founder Luis Valdez.

That period included trips to Rabinal, Guatemala, where Valdez and Saito conducted research and led theater workshops with local artists, who perform “Rabinal Achí” each January.

In the original story, several dancing characters remain voiceless. That is not the case in the new interpretation.

A consequence of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war was genocide against the country’s indigenous population. Hundreds of thousands died. Drawing from survivors’ testimonials, Valdez and Saito include a character based on a woman whose decision to save her daughter’s life led the young mother to leap to her death from a bridge.

In 2005, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated “Rabinal Achí” one of the world’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The distinction encourages local communities to both preserve and maintain their artistic expressions.

Valdez feels that “Men of Rab’inal,” which originally debuted in May at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, is an effort to expand that goal.

“Our play is an expression of connection between El Teatro Campesino and the people of Rabinal at preserving and honoring the historic record,” Valdez said.


More Information:

“Men of Rab’inal: A Mayan War Dance in Time”

Performances: June 20-23

Location: El Teatro Campesino, 705 4th St., San Juan Bautista

Tickets: $12-$25

Box Office: 831-623-2444

For more information visit:



Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. For over two decades, I've been a faculty member at San Benito High School, where I teach world history, Mexican-American history, and Ethnic Studies. I've been reporting for BenitoLink since 2015. 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.