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Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez (born June 26, 1940) is an award-winning American playwright, director, screenwriter, and political activist. Luis Valdez's plays pioneered the social-political Chicano movement and founded El Teatro Campesino, expanding theater access in the Hispanic community of California. Luis Valdez's El Teatro Campesino is regarded as one of the most prominent and important theater movements in Chicano theater and arts.

Luis Valdez: Biography

Luis Valdez's biography begins in 1940. He was born to migrant farmworkers Francisco and Armeda in Delano, California. The second oldest of ten children, his family frequently moved to follow seasonal farm work. Consequently, Valdez attended many schools as a child. Ultimately, the family settled in San Jose, California.

Luis Valdez, Portrait of Luis Valdez in a theater classroom, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Luis Valdez brought Chicano theater to the mainstream.

Valdez’s interest in theater began in grade school. He helped organize plays and hosted puppet shows in his home garage. He was part of the drama department at James Lick High School and performed in many productions. Upon graduation, he earned a scholarship to San Jose State University and studied English. Valdez’s first work, The Theft (1961), a one-act play, won a playwriting competition. In 1963, the drama department at San Jose State University produced his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa. This helped provide the experience Valdez needed to launch his most famous theater project, El Teatro Campesino, the farmworker's theater.

Luis Valdez: El Teatro Campesino

Valdez formed El Teatro Campesino, a theater company, to help unite farmworkers during the Delano strike by farmworkers. The plays focused on the history and culture of Californian Latin American people, known as Chicanos.

El Teatro Campesino was inspired by Valdez’s experience with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Valdez wanted to create a uniquely Chicano theater tradition. He met fellow Chicano Agustín Lira with his theater background and experiences and wanted to create a cultural wing of the United Farm Workers labor union. Originally, they produced plays to entertain strikers, but they rapidly became a tool to organize labor and promote the cultural awareness of the Chicano people.

El Teatro Campesino helped inspire a national movement of Chicano theater troupes performing its signature, one-act plays, called actos. Through satire, comedy, and improvisation from farmworkers, they sought to bring awareness to their condition and inspire social action. Valdez believed that theater could be used as a tool to achieve social justice and improve the human condition.

Valdez was the artistic director and resident playwright until he left in 1967 to write and direct his own works, while still closely working with the company. Typically, Mexican-American people would study and be cast in classic plays written by Spanish playwrights. Valdez wanted to challenge this by expanding theater and arts to include the Chicano experience and reach mainstream media.

Luis Valdez, El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Valdez bought a building with the money he made from Zoot Suit to move El Teatro Campesino to San Juan Bautista, California.

Luis Valdez: Plays

Valdez is known for writing many plays. Los Vendidos (1967) and Zoot Suit (1978) are two of his most significant. Later, we will explore other plays in his published book collections.

Los Vendidos (1967)

One of the last actos that Valdez wrote for El Teatro Campesino, and one of their most well-known, is Los Vendidos. The story follows Honest Sancho, who owns a store that sells robots of different stereotypical models of Mexican and Mexican-American robots that were played by live actors. Miss Jiménez is a secretary for California Governor Ronald Reagan and is looking to purchase a model that can appeal to low-income Latino people. Valdez intentionally plays up the stereotypes to show the absurd, yet very real, perception of the Chicano community by non-Chicano people. It was first performed at the Brown Beret headquarters at Elysian Park in East Los Angeles.

The Brown Berets, known as the Boinos Cafés in Spanish, are a social justice organization that began during the Chicano movement of the 1960s. They campaigned for issues that affected the Latin American community and pushed for education reforms. They formed part of the coalition that led the Third World Liberation Front strike and student protests in 1968. The Brown Berets opposed the Vietnam War, fought for the civil rights of the Latino people, and advocated for the cultural awareness of Chicano culture.

Zoot Suit (1978)

Zoot Suit originally premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and was one of the first Chicano plays to be performed on Broadway. The play is a mix of fiction and history. Zoot suits were worn by Black people and Latinos, and in California, the descriptor was made synonymous with gang members by many white people, the police, and the news media. The play is based on the Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials. Over a dozen Mexican-American people were arrested despite a lack of evidence or connection to the crime. The play explores the discrimination of zoot suit-wearing Chicano men and the social injustices inflicted upon the Mexican-American community.

Luis Valdez: Books

Valdez’s most successful and critically acclaimed plays were compiled and released as books in the 1990s.

Luis Valdez Early Works: Actos, Bernabe and Pensamiento Serpentino (1990)

Published by Arte Publico Press, this book collects Valdez’s earliest works, a full-length play, and a narrative poem. The actos were the foundation of El Teatro Campesino, so these short, one-act plays served to reflect the reality of everyday Chicano life. Bernabe blends a Chicano farmer’s reality with a spiritual connection to the elements, viewed from the perspective of Bernabe, who has an intellectual disability. Pensamiento Serpentino was created in the spirit of the mito (myth), a longer-form play that is meant to explore and create mythology built upon the Chicano roots of Aztec and Mayan cultures. Valdez detailed his vision of neo-Mayan philosophy with the embodiment of Chicanos, who strive to become people of love and action.

Luis Valdez, a mosaic tile tribute in Mexico, StudySmarterFig 3 - Luis Valdez is honored as a father of Chicano culture, which has its origins in Mexico.

Zoot Suit and Other Plays (1992)

While Zoot Suit, Bandido!, and We Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges had very successful theater runs, they were not published until this collection. Zoot Suit was the culmination of Valdez’s experience in El Teatro Campesino. Bandido! sought to alter the popular historical image of the Mexican bandit. We Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges explores the television and film roles typically offered and played by Mexican-American people through satire and exaggerated performances.

Luis Valdez: Quotes

The following quotes reflect Valdez's experiences growing up as Mexican-American that provided the inspiration for his work.

People would call us "dirty Mexicans." I remember going to a movie in Reedley where we weren't allowed to sit in the Anglo section. We were told by the ushers to sit with the rest of the Mexicans, because this section was reserved for whites. Those are things you never forget."4

The stereotype of Mexican-American people pinned them as farmworkers and manual laborers. The racially charged adjective “dirty” refers to this stereotype. Often people of Mexican descent are hidden, living in separate communities and performing difficult labor that is not visible to citizens in everyday life. Segregation of peoples of white, mixed, and Mexican, or indigenous descent dates back to the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Luis Valdez exposed this vestigial, yet very present, racial hierarchy in his plays.

We were and still are recreating our own reality. Our vision is that we have been a hard-working, courageous people. There have been three prevalent images of the Chicano in this country— 1. the pachuco, a violent, urban vato loco; 2. the farmworker, a passive peon, Don Juan-Yaqui brujo type; and 3. el Spanish grandee or Latin lover type.”4

Valdez was well aware of the stereotypes his theater company sought to combat. Initially, his plays with El Teatro Campesino aimed to bring awareness to the farmworker's labor movement. Once he left El Teatro Campesino, he worked with other theater companies to increase the visibility of Chicano culture in a positive light that reflected the nuances and richness of their world.

My approach to political theater is that the way to the mind is through the heart. If you can touch the heart, then people will come to the ideas themselves. The American idea of social equality and human respect has to be constantly defended from generation to generation. What happened to the Japanese is echoed tragically in what's happening to Latinos on the Mexican border.”5

Valdez noted a parallel between the detention of migrant Latino families on the Mexico–United States border and the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s. As a very young child, Valdez remembers his family living on a ranch he believed to be their own. Later, he learned that they bought the land after it had been taken away from the previous Japanese owners. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forced the Japanese-American people into internment camps. Valdez feels the same thing is happening with the holding cells at the US border.

Luis Valdez - Key takeaways

  • Luis Valdez is an award-winning American playwright, director, screenwriter, and political activist.
  • He is credited with pioneering Chicano theater and art.
  • He created El Teatro Campesino to support and organize farmworker labor.
  • At El Teatro Campesino he cultivated signature stage forms such as the acto and mito.
  • His most well-known play is Zoot Suit.

References

  1. Fig. 1 - Luis Valdez 2008 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luis_Valdez_Chicano_Playwright.jpg) by James Jeffrey (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jjeffreys/2317327080/) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
  2. Fig. 2 - El Teatro Campesino (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:El_Teatro_Campesino,_San_Juan_Bautista,_October_26,_2008.JPG) by Michael Patrick (n/a) is licensed by Public Domain (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en)
  3. Fig. 3 - Ma Rainey, 1923 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ma_Rainey,_1923.jpg)_-_02.jpg) by Cristiano Tomás (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Cristiano_Tom%C3%A1s) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/en:Creative_Commons)
  4. “An Interview with Luis Valdez”, Latin American Theatre Review. Spring 1982 issue.
  5. “A Japanese Family Relies on Mexican Neighbors in Luis Valdez's Valley of the Heart”, Theater Mania (2018 Nov 7).

Frequently Asked Questions about Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez is an award-winning American playwright, director, screenwriter, and political activist.

Luis Valdez believed that theater could be used as a tool for social justice and to improve the human condition.

Luis Valdez created El Teatro Campesino.

Luis Valdez is important because he helped pioneer Chicano theater and art.

Luis Valdez used theater to help organize and fight for labor rights.

Final Luis Valdez Quiz

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Who is Luis Valdez?

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Luis Valdez is an award-winning American playwright, director, screenwriter, and political activist.

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When was Luis Valdez born?

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June 26, 1940

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Valdez was the son of

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migrant farmworkers

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As a child Valdez

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frequently moved around until settling into San Jose, CA

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Valdez’s interest in theater began

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 in grade school

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Valdez’s first work was

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The Theft

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El Teatro Campesino was inspired by Valdez’s experience with the 

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San Francisco Mime Company

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El Teatro Campesino's signature form of play was the

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acto

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Valdez left El Teatro Campesino in

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1967

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One of the last plays that Valdez wrote with El Teatro Campesino was

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Los Vendidos

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Zoot Suit was one of the first 

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Chicano plays to debut on Broadway.

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Latino people wearing zoot suits were made synonymous with...

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gang members by many white people, the police, and the news media.

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Pensamiento Serpentino was created in the spirit of 

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the mito (myth), a longer-form play that is meant to explore and create mythology built upon the Chicano roots of Aztec and Mayan cultures. 

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Bandido! sought to 

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alter the popular historical image of the Mexican bandit

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Valdez noted a parallel between 

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the detention of migrant Latino families on the US-Mexican border 

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Zoot Suit is

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a play by award-winning Chicano playwright and poet Luis Valdez

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Zoot Suit has the honor of being

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the first Chicano play to be professionally produced

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What is Zoot Suit about?

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Zoot Suit is based on the Zoot Suit Riots and Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials. It explores young Chicano (Mexican-American) culture and identity.

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Zoot Suit’s debut was a significant moment because

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It marked when Chicano identity and culture reached mainstream America.

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What is the significance of the zoot suit?

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The zoot suit serves as an identifier for Henry and the young Mexican-American men.

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What historical events are the basis for the play?

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The Sleepy Lagoon Murder trials

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El Pachuco

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embodies the Pachuco sub culture of the Chicano community, wearing a zoot suit and acting as the conscious of Henry and narrator to the play.

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Henry Reyna is

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the young leader of the 38th Street Gang

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Rudy is

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Henry's impulsive younger brother

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Della is

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Rudy's ex girfriend

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Henry is falsely accused of

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murdering José Williams

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Alicia and George try to

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help clear the name of Henry and the 38th Street gang

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The three themes are

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Racial Profiling and Scapegoating

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The parents of Henry are

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Dolores

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The racist police officers are

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Lieutenant Edwards

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