influential Chicano playwrights
Brehm, J., (2006). Luis Miguel Valdez. Magill’s Survey of American Literature, 1-6. Biography
One of the most influential Chicano playwrights of his time, Valdez created a drama dedicated to social progress and to the full exploration of Chicano identity.
Luis Miguel Valdez was born on June 26, 1940, in Delano, California, the second of ten brothers and sisters. His mother and father were migrant farmworkers, and Luis began working in the fields at the age of six. Because his family traveled to the harvests in the San Joaquin Valley, Luis received little uninterrupted schooling.
In an interview, Valdez discussed one significant, and ultimately fortunate, consequence of such a disruptive early life: His family had just finished a cotton harvest; the season had ended, the rains begun, but because their truck had broken down, the family had to stay put. Leaving school one day, Luis realized he had left behind his paper lunch bag, a precious commodity in 1946, given the paper shortages and the family’s poverty. When he returned to get it, however, he found his teacher had torn it up. She was using it to make papier-mâché animal masks for the school play. Luis was amazed by the transformation. Although he did not even know what a play was at the time, he decided to audition and was given the leading role as a monkey. The play was about Christmas in the jungle, and the following weeks of colorful preparation were exhilarating. A week before the show was to begin, however, his father got the truck fixed, and the family moved away. Valdez has said of the experience: “That left an unfillable gap, a vacuum I’ve been pouring myself into ever since.”
The pang of that early disappointment sparked a fascination for the theater and a wealth of creative energy that was to bring Valdez remarkable success in the years ahead. Despite his intermittent schooling, he won a scholarship to San Jose State College in 1960. There he studied theater history and developed a lasting enthusiasm for classical Greek and Roman drama. His own work also began to take shape, and his first one-act play, The Theft, won a regional playwriting award. In 1965, he directed his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, which audiences greeted warmly.
After receiving a degree in English in 1964, Valdez spent several months traveling in Cuba before joining the San Francisco Mime Troupe. In 1965, he returned home to Delano and joined the newly formed United Farm Workers Union under the leadership of César Chávez. During this time, Valdez began fully to explore drama as a vehicle for social justice. He developed a form suitable for his migrant-worker audiences: a short skit, or acto, designed to inspire Chicanos to political action.
These actos, often improvised on flatbed trucks for workers in the fields, proved so powerful as political weapons that Valdez’s life was threatened during the grape strike of 1967. Immensely popular with the workers, the actos aroused hostility in the growers, whose exploitative labor practices the plays satirized. Valdez has recalled being “beaten and kicked and jailed. . . . essentially for doing theater.” Still, he persisted, and the actos gained so much attention that the Teatro Campesino, or Farmworker’s Theater, toured the United States performing the works in 1967.
From then on, Valdez’s work began to reach increasingly larger audiences. He left the fields late in 1967 for Del Rey, California, where he founded the Centro Campesino Cultural. Between 1969 and 1980, the troupe toured Europe four times and won an Obie Award. Despite such acclaim Valdez remained true to his Chicano, migrant-worker roots. Moving the troupe to Fresno, California, in 1969, Valdez founded an annual Chicano theater festival and began teaching at Fresno State College. As its audience grew, the troupe became more technically sophisticated but continued its efforts to “put the tools of the artist into the hands of the humblest, the working people.” The troupe moved in 1971 to rural San Juan Bautista, from which it toured widely among college campuses, while remaining deeply involved with the concerns of its own community.
Having spent his entire career well outside mainstream, commercial theater, Valdez decided in 1978 to reach for a still larger audience. The result was Zoot Suit, a Broadway-style dance musical about the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the riots that followed in Los Angeles in 1943. Though still quite political, the play succeeds in being genuinely entertaining, particularly in its film adaptation. Like Zoot Suit, Bandido! (1981) and “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” (1986) both reach for more general audiences and explore the Chicano struggle for identity against the limiting stereotypes imposed by an Anglicized history and American media. Such plays, as well as the successful 1987 film La Bamba, which Valdez wrote and directed, speak not only for Chicanos but also to white audiences, forcing them to reexamine their preconceptions about who Chicanos really are. These works also testify to Valdez’s extraordinary journey from migrant farmworker to one of the most vital Chicano voices in American drama.
From the earliest and simplest actos to the complex sophistication of “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” nearly three decades later, Valdez’s plays have displayed a remarkable consistency of theme and purpose. Certainly, his work has evolved in scope, depth, and technique, but his basic objectives have remained constant: to expose social injustice, to satirize the oppressors, and to dramatize, in all of its fullness and variety, the struggle to achieve a viable Chicano identity.
Born into a family of migrant farmworkers, Valdez knew firsthand the effects of oppression and exploitation. It was therefore quite natural that his first short plays would deal with the struggles of the farmworkers to unionize. These early actos were improvised using a unique collaborative method: Valdez would simply ask striking workers to show what had happened to them during the day. Employing masks or crude signs to indicate different characters — workers, scabs, growers, and so forth — the strikers, under Valdez’s direction, produced skits of engaging immediacy, broad humor, and a pointed political message. Their purpose was to raise consciousness, deflate the opposition’s authority, and point to a solution. Yet the plays were quite entertaining as well, often transforming and releasing the workers’ immediate feelings of fear and frustration through comedy and withering satire.
Though some of the actos, such as Vietnam campesino (1970), can seem too bluntly didactic, Valdez learned much from them about making theater a vehicle for inspiring social action. He also sensed, eventually, the need to ground the Chicano experience in something more enduring than immediate political struggle. He returned to the ancient wellsprings of Aztec and Mayan culture to provide such a groundwork for the contemporary Chicano identity.
In his introduction to Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature (1972), Valdez frames the problem of Chicano marginalization explicitly:
His birthright to speak as Man has been forcibly stripped from him. To his conqueror he is patently sub-human, uncivilized, or culturally deprived. The poet in him flounders in a morass of lies and distortions about his conquered people. He loses his identity with mankind, and self-consciously struggles to regain his one-to-one relationship with human existence. It is a long way back. . . . Such is the condition of the Chicano.
That “long way back” took Valdez to pre-Columbian Mexico. What he found there were the achievements of Aztec and Mayan civilization, their astonishing developments in medicine, art, poetry, hygiene, urban planning, and religion, all of which he compares favorably to their European counterparts of the time. To combat the degradation of centuries of Anglo racism, of being seen as “foreigners in the continent of their birth,” Valdez wants to reconnect Chicanos to an ancient, proud, and venerable culture. Chicanos must, in his view, revive this connection and rethink their history if they are to maintain an identity in Anglo society.
Valdez attempts this reconnection in a variety of ways. In Bernabé (1970), he creates a character, the village lunatic, who physically and metaphorically marries La Tierra (the Earth) and thus reestablishes the Mayan reverence for it. In Zoot Suit and Bandido!, Valdez reexamines history from the Chicano and Mexican perspective. Thus Tiburcio Vasquez, whom history had portrayed as a mere bandit working the California countryside from 1850 to 1875, becomes in Bandido! a revolutionary bent on political rebellion. Zoot Suit retrieves for the American conscience an overlooked period of intense racism culminating in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the riots that followed. Both plays try not only to set the record straight but also to discover a source of pride for Chicanos in a history that has been unjustly debased.
The consequence of Chicanos being cut off from the life-giving power of their history and culture is brilliantly dramatized in “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!,” in which Valdez explores the deeply problematic nature of assimilation into Anglo culture. In their desire to fit in with middle-class America, the members of the Villa family find themselves silenced and marginalized. Bit-part actors who rarely receive speaking roles, Buddy and Connie Villa have achieved a comfortable success, but their only connection with their own culture is the stereotyped Mexicans they portray on film. Their son, who enrolled in Harvard Law School at age sixteen, represents the possibility for the epitome of Anglo success. Yet he rebels against this assimilation and drops out of school, only to discover just how rigid the limitations are for Chicanos who reject an Anglo identity.