In 1965, Luis Valdez returned to his hometown of Delano to pitch an idea to United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez: a theater by and for farm workers.
“In his characteristic mode, Cesar said, ‘I’ll be honest. There’s no money to do theater in Delano. There’s no actors, no place to perform, and we’re on the picket lines night and day. Do you still want to do it?’” recalls Valdez. “I said, ‘Absolutely, Cesar! What an opportunity!’”
More than half a century later, the theater company founded by Valdez, El Teatro Campesino (ETC), is one of the longest established Latin American companies in the nation. ETC is based in the rural community of San Juan Bautista, and its borders routinely expand to include Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“La Virgin de Tepeyac,” the company’s long-running holiday play, will be staged at the San Juan Bautista Mission and Valdez is directing a production of his own play “Valley of the Heart” which concludes its run this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum. CTG, the original producer of Valdez’s “Zoot Suit,” is a long-time partner of El Teatro Campesino and has commissioned a new play from Valdez about the Delano grape strike which is due to be produced in the 2020 season.
Labor 411 recently spoke to the 78-year-old writer-director.
Labor 411: So much has changed both in the artistic climate and in the world of organized labor since the founding of El Teatro Campesino. Do the arts and the farm workers still intersect?
Luis Valdez: We’re in San Benito County, virtually at the mouth of the Salinas Valley so we get farm workers from the entire area. We moved to this area to be closer to the action and we continued to work with the unions. We still do from time to time attend union rallies and perform for functions and we performed at engagements in Delano and all over the state, so that part of it continues. We continue to serve the idea of a worker’s theater, a theater that is devoted to the working classes of the world. We try to represent that reality in every way we can through our plays and thorough our films and videos.
Labor 411: Do people still think of theater and labor as being natural partners?
LV: It occurred to me at the very beginning, more than 50 years ago, that El Teatro Campesino – AKA the Farm Workers Theater – was an oxymoron. For one thing, “worker” and “theater” are not two terms that are linked together very often and even more so “farm workers” and “theater.” Theater is more generally envisioned as an urban phenomenon and, if you will, an upper middle-class privileged art form and it’s not something that poor people are supposed to have access to.
People were performing in villages eons ago. That’s where the link to El Teatro Campesino exists. Within Mexican culture, there’s a long tradition of teatro campesinos and I learned that, in college that during the latter part of the Mexican revolution, the government began to send out teatro campesinos into the villages. That inspired me to find my path in life as a theater artist. My opportunity came when I joined Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and became a volunteer for UFW. It so happened the strike occurred in my birth place in Delano and a large part of my family was involved, on the one hand as strikers and on the other as strike breakers. I had scabs and strikers on my family on both sides.
Labor 411: From that initial proposal to Cesar Chavez, how did the company grow?
LV: We had people begin to perform on the picket lines, getting up on paneled trucks and flatbed trucks to try to distract the workers in the field and to give them visuals that they could relate to. El Teatro Campesino literally was born on the picket lines. After that, we began to perform at the Friday night weekly meetings. Cesar would give us 10-15 minutes at the end of the meeting to sum things up and bring spirits up. We introduced songs and short skits based on the issues of the day and I was just working directly with farm workers who had no experience whatsoever and we were improvising everything.
It was really kind of loose until the following spring in the spring of 1966. The union launched a march to Sacramento during the fallow period in the agricultural cycle and the union essentially asked the Teatro to organize the rallies every night. They provided us with a flatbed truck and the big red, white and black banner with the black eagle, some rudimentary lighting and a sound system. So every night at the end of a 20-mile march, because we were going from town to town, we would perform. For 25 consecutive nights, El Teatro Campesino performed for thousands of farm workers. By the time we got to Sacramento 25 days later, we had performed for thousands of farm workers in towns all across the San Joaquin Valley and El Teatro Campesino had achieved a certain tightness and cohesiveness it never had before. We were literally a little troupe by then.
Labor 411: The company recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. How do you see El Teatro Campesino’s role today?
LV: I think as long as we continue to be vital, it will continue to feed the evolution of not just Latino theater but what I call the new American theater at the same time which is more embracing of people of color in every way – not just actors but also playwrights and directors and producers. We’ve seen significant progress, but it’s never enough. We’re still fighting for social equality and equal opportunity for all, but I think it take a certain basic kind of dogged dedication to the cause.
Labor 411: Can you talk about some of the projects El Teatro Campesino and you personally have in development?
LV: We continue to evolve new plays and we have ongoing educational programs that the younger actors perform for students in elementary schools and in high schools and they put on small plays, “actos,” which they write themselves or they put on puppet plays that become standards that we developed over the years having to do with historical events or local situations. We have young playwrights developing their own plays and we have readings of new works by members of the company.
My most recent play, “Valley of the Heart,” is at the Mark Taper Forum in association with El Teatro Campesino because we originated the play here in our playhouse in 2013 and developed it over the last five years. San Jose Stage has commissioned me to write a new play in association with El Teatro Campesino which will hit the boards next April in San Jose called “Adios Mama Carlota.” It’s the story of Maximilian and Carlotta and their empire in Mexico when the French occupied Mexico in the 19th century. It’s kind of a reflection of what’s happening in the country today. I felt there was a parallel there that needed to be examined.
I’ve also been commissioned to write a new play by the Mark Taper Forum about the grape strike, but the focus is on the Filipino farm workers who started the strike.
Labor 411: What are your thoughts on the current state of organized labor?
LV: One of offshoots of my experience in Delano was that I got to see some of the last gasp of organized labor trying to help the United Farm Workers. I was there when [UAW President] Walter Reuther came to march with us, and it was amazing that the UAW reached out to us in Delano in our moment of greatest need. The AFL-CIO sent their people and did what they could, but the fact is that we were fighting the Teamsters, so the internal contradiction within the labor movement came to bear. It became obvious that the state of organized labor in America was not healthy and it’s even worse off today. This is why we’re seeing the decimation of democracy in a lot of areas where it should be vibrant.
I believe in the labor movement and I believe in unions. I’m a member of several unions, not just UFW but also DGA, WGA and SAG in Hollywood. These are big unions because they’re active industries and they can afford to struggle for better working conditions.
The problems for the farm workers are still the same. We still need union contracts and protection for farm workers. Nature is nature. It still gets cold and hot. Again, I’m thinking that unionization and the creation of unions is a living breathing issue that must be tended to from generation to generation.