Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 2000

Viva la Raza! Viva Valdez!

Luis Valdez is often considered the father of Chicano theater. It hasn’t been an easy mantle to carry or a smooth road to ride.

On the way from picking cotton at age six (in Delano, California) to his current 2-year residency at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (supported by a Pew Charitable Trust grant), Valdez has been alternately glorified and vilified.

His theatrical journey was conceived in little “actos” (political playlets which he created and performed) for migrant farm workers during the grape strike of 1965, under the banner of El Teatro Campesino, of which he is founder and artistic director. The company garnered an Obie Award in 1969 and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards in 1969 and 1972. A rapturous reception greeted his Zoot Suit (L.A., 1977), which later became the first play by a Chicano ever to appear on Broadway (though it was sadly short-lived). His riveting 1981 film version of “Zoot Suit” was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Musical Picture, and his next film, “La Bamba” (1987) the Ritchie Valens story, was a box office hit.

Then, in 1994, the same year he won the Aguila Azteca (Golden Eagle) Award, the highest honor bestowed to non-citizens by the Mexican government, he met with vociferous opposition from the Latino community, because he chose an Italian-American (Laura SanGiacomo) to play Frida Kahlo in a high-profile movie about the Mexican painter’s life.   The film was never made.

Stung but undaunted, Valdez continued writing and directing for film and TV, and also became a founding professor of the Center for Teledramatic Arts and Technology at California State University, Monterey Bay.

In 1997, he agreed to a re-mounting of Zoot Suit at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, where he’s now directing the world premiere of his first new play in 14 years, The Mummified Deer (October 27-November 19). The ceremonial Yacqui deer dancer makes repeated, magical appearances in the play.

Since the death of both his parents in the mid-1990’s, Valdez is getting in touch with his Yacqui heritage. The Yacqui, a Northern Mexican tribe, are unique because they successfully fought off the Spanish and Mexicans, attaining a measure of autonomy, unlike the other indigenous tribes that were almost totally decimated.

The events of the play correspond to 1906-7, when the Valdez family crossed from Sonora, Mexico, to Arizona. The piece “traces a lot of family history, without being totally biographical,” says the warmly voluble Valdez. “There are secrets in this family, as there are in every family. We are all immigrants and we’ve all come smarting from some incident that forced us to leave the ancestral homeland: religious or racial differences, rape or war. And within families, there are differences of skin color or parents playing favorites. All this creates internal tension. Many people don’t even know the stories and secrets in their family.”

After his parents’ death, Valdez went back to the ancestral pueblos, and learned that “many of my ancestors were rounded up and shot on the spot, enslaved and sold on the auction block, for $60 a head. I poured all these elements into one family [in the play]. The revelation of the secret is the family history.”

On his personal journey, Valdez was struck by the Deer Dancer, a pre-Columbian element of the Yacqui Easter ceremony. “It represents the wilderness world, the flower world, and it, too, gets sacrificed. The ceremony is enormously simple, very colorful and profoundly moving. There are self-made masks and props and dancing. It’s a passion play, but very stylistic, with almost a cartoon quality. I see the roots of my own kind of theater there. Being Yacqui has had an influence on my theater work, and it gives me tremendous satisfaction to know this.”

Up to now, the Yacqui most familiar to us has been Don Juan, in the peyote-influenced writings of Carlos Castaneda [NOTE: tilda over the ‘n’). “There are no magic mushrooms in this play,” Valdez quips. “But he did pick up on the sensibilities of this reality and the other reality of the Yacqui. In that culture, when you die, you go to the flower world.”

When Valdez’s main character, 84 year-old Mama Chu, lies on her deathbed, she is on the border of the two worlds, so she can see ghosts, and the ancestral spirit of the deer dancer.

Magical elements are not new to the work of Luis Valdez. But something else in this play is. For the first time, his major characters are women — three generations of “very strong, very expressive women… I really tried to touch my mother through this play. I tried to see the world through her eyes.

“It has all been a very emotional exploration for me. Very much a personal cleansing, and at the same time a revelation. It was cathartic, in terms of my family history and dealing with the grief of losing my parents. I’m trying to address the American experience in a fresh new perspective. That’s been my whole life’s work. There are many commonalities and universalities here. And when it touches our lives, that’s the stuff of theater.”


See Luis Valdez and a scene from The Mummified Deer on Pat Launer’s next KPBS radio and TV theater/variety show, “Center Stage” (October 30 at 6:30pm on KPBS 89.5 FM; November 2 at 10pm on KPBS TV/channel 15, cable 11).

©2000 Patté Productions Inc.