The year is 2030 and Mexican-Americans are pariahs, fired from their jobs, barred from schools, extra-judicially arrested and confined to jail, and swiftly deported to Mexico. Any demonstration of Mexican-American cultural pride is snuffed out by an American government headed by a president whose vitriol erodes freedom, equality, and justice—the pillars of democracy.
This futuristic world is the setting of the opening scene in, "¡Viva La Causa! (Long Live the Cause!)", El Teatro Campesino’s latest production, opening on Friday, June 24 and running through July 17, at the theater group’s playhouse in San Juan Bautista.
Founded by a then-20-something-year-old playwright and actor, Luis Valdez, during the 1965 Delano Grape Strike, El Teatro Campesino (ETC) was established to buttress la causa, a movement led by the late labor organizer, Cesar Chavez, and his National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) to improve farmworkers’ lives and working conditions and wages.
A one-page leaflet, typed by Valdez in both English and Spanish, proclaimed ETC’s birth and stated that the theater company “would be OF, BY, and FOR the men and women (and their families) involved in” the strike. A casting call-of-sorts went out, too. “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,” the leaflet declared.
El Teatro Campesino (the farmworkers’ theater) and Valdez eventually moved beyond the fields, touring college campuses during the Chicano Civil Rights Era, traveling to France where they gained a European following, performing on Broadway (the first Latino theater company to do so), mobilizing farmworkers to vote following the passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), and walking the red carpet in Hollywood.
Since 1971, Valdez and ETC have called San Juan Bautista home, and for the last 35 years the one-time packing shed located at 705 Fourth St. in San Juan has served as Valdez’s creative space, as well as place where artistic talent has been nurtured and groomed under his tutelage.
A two-act play, ¡Viva La Causa!, is as much a celebration of ETC’s storied history as it is validation of the theater company’s mission of providing audiences with an authentic and raw depiction of the human experience, while empowering future generations to create their own worlds, both on stage and in real-life.
¡Viva La Causa!, is spearheaded by third-generation teatristas, Emily Morales and Christy Sandoval. A teatrista is a practitioner of teatro art who wears many hats, including that of playwright, director, actor, musician, and teacher to name a few. In a nod to how far ETC has come in breaking the class ceiling, the two 20-something-year-olds are the first female directors and producers of a ETC production, titles that both share in the program’s credits.
In a joint interview with BenitoLink, Morales and Sandoval explained that the creative process began last December, when ETC’s Producing and Artistic Director, Kinan Valdez, sat the pair down and talked about a teatro retrospective honoring his father’s legacy and the theatre company’s 50th anniversary.
More conversations followed. Soon, Kinan was delivering lessons on ETC’s origins and its work to Morales, Sandoval, and about six other of their peers, some of whom were fairly new to the theater company, and others who, like the co-directors and producers, had been with ETC for at least a decade.
Providing both historical context and background information for the retrospective was important, as half-a-century has passed since ETC performed its first acto (one-act play) on the back a truck parked adjacent to a struck field in Sept. 1965.
Facilitated by the younger Valdez, brainstorming sessions began. Comfortable in the direction they wanted to head, Morales, Sandoval and their team set out in creating a piece that paid tribute to ETC’s history, while adding their own unique touch to the work.
Writing the script "was a collaborative and respectful process,” said Morales, whose experience as a classroom facilitator in San Benito County's Artists in School program was very helpful in the project.
She added that though Luis and Kinan weren’t involved in the script’s creation, the two were always available for fact-checking, guidance, and support. Neither father nor son has seen the final product, Morales noted.
In addition, ETC’s archival vault was made accessible for the retrospective. Papier–mâché puppets, 8-millimeter film, scribbled notes, and a trunk plastered with !Huelga! (strike) bumper stickers, once again found the light of day and became integrated into, ¡Viva La Causa!.
“We dug through the archives," said Sandoval, who serves as ETC’s Education Program Director. She noted that on one occasion the team found an unfinished scene from a play, allowing for creative license to take root.
Starring twelve performers, the two-and-half hour production takes audience members through five different locations within the theatre’s playhouse. Varying in duration and often occurring in a space specifically suited for the performance, each scene will bridge the past, present, and future, while at times calling on audience participation, a hallmark of ETC’s artistic form.
For example, in a section of the playhouse’s museum decorated with memorabilia from “Zoot Suit,”—a critically acclaimed play crafted by Valdez that he later directed and produced as a movie—two actors, one portraying a young Valdez and another portraying El Pachuco, one of the play’s central characters, exchange dialogue as the playwright struggles with his creation amid criticism from the voice inside his head and who occupies the stage with him.
In another scene from the first act, a collection of string puppets, used in various ETC productions throughout the years, will perform two actos, “No Saco Nada De La Escuela” (I Don’t Get Anything Out of School) and Los ABCs (The ABCs). The marionettes become distillers of “Chicanismo,” teaching audience members to be proud of their Mexican-American heritage and urging them to be political active, especially amid an America where racism and discrimination lurked around every corner.
The circuitous route through the theatre’s playhouse appropriately ends on the main stage, where a modern-twist on Valdez’s play, ”Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution," takes place. Wanting the audience to be surprised, the co-directors/producers were tight lipped about the second act.
In the summer of 1975, ETC traveled from its home base in San Juan Bautista south to Salinas to join Chavez and his farmworkers’ union in their efforts to educate and mobilize farmworkers for a historic vote taking place that September. For the first time, free-elections were coming to the fields and orchards of California, the result of then-governor Jerry Brown signing the ALRA into law in June ‘75.
At the unveiling of the multi-media project, “Democracy in the Fields,” in April, Valdez explained in an interview with BenitoLink that nearly half a dozen actos, including, “How Far Can You Make a Worker Jump,” were produced and performed specifically for “El Voto” (The Vote) campaign.
Often performed on dirt driveways in the center of migrant labor camps, the actos introduced downtrodden workers to democratic principles and the importance of their participation in the process, while warning them about the false and misleading information being promulgated by their nemesis, the Teamsters Union.
Free from the confines of a stage, performers interacted with the audience, as art and reality became one. “There was no distinction between the actors and the audience,” Valdez said. Such an outcome was intentional.
“Farmworkers are very practical,” and often turn a deaf hear to ideologies, Valdez added. Involving them in the art was crucial for maintaining their attention and garnering their votes.
Theater art, “is like Mexican food,” Valdez stated. "It has to be really spicy and sustain you.”
Sandoval believes that “!Viva La Causa!” will appeal to everyone’s palette, providing theater goers with lively entertainment, a sense of nostalgia, and an educational experience.
“I hope they [the audience] will enjoy it. Most who attend will want to see a classic teatro style, but there will be something for everybody,” she said.
Morales is hopeful that the production will inspire the audience to learn more about their history and culture, adding that today’s political climate, with its talk of deporting undocumented persons and banning certain religious followers from entering the country, provided much of the fodder for the new work.
As both practitioners and teachers of teatro art, Morales and Sandoval envision a time when schools buses visiting the mission bring students to ETC's home to watch, “!Viva La Causa!."
In the fields surrounding Delano, Calif., El Teatro Campesino rallied around Chavez’s movement to support and aid farmworkers in their quest for a fair wage and equal treatment afforded to other American workers. Chants of “!Viva La Causa!” soon dissipated through grape trellises and into the country's consciousness, paving the way for a series of farmworker victories, including the nation's strongest, agricultural labor law.
Beginning on Friday, June 24, the phrase “!Viva La Causa!” will once again be heard, repeated by a new generation of actors and musicians from a theater company that has constantly reminded audiences through its art that the struggle for achieving and protecting fundamental human rights is timeless.
To purchase tickets for El Teatro Campesino's production, “!Viva La Causa!," visit the theater company's website. Because of the mobile and interactive nature of the production, seating is limited to 60 audience members per showing.
For more information contact ETC playhouse:
705 Fourth Street
P.O. Box 1240
San Juan Bautista, CA 95045