Published in In Theater

It’s not a very long trip from Delano, California to San Diego. But it’s been some journey for Luis Valdez. On the way from picking cotton at age six to his current residency at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (supported by a Pew Charitable Trust grant through TCG), Valdez has gone through more than the usual trials and triumphs.   Often considered the founder of Chicano theater, Valdez first created and performed “actos” (little political playlets) for his 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 in 1969 and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Awards in 1969 and 1972.   valdez earned accolades for “Zoot Suit,” which originated in L.A. (1977) and later became the first play by a Chicano ever to appear on Broadway. The 1981 film version of “Zoot Suit” was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Musical Picture.

1987 was a good year for Valdez.   “La Bamba,” the Ritchie Valens story, was a box office hit. His play, “Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution,” won a George Peabody Award when it aired on PBS. “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges,” which originated at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, completed a successful national tour.   He kept very busy — writing, touring, directing “The Cisco Kid” for Turner Network TV.  

Then, in 1994, the same year he won the Aguila Azteca Award (Golden Eagle), the highest honor bestowed by the Mexican government to citizens of other countries, the same year he premiered “Bandido” at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., he met with staunch and vociferous opposition from his own Latino community, because he chose an Italian-American (Laura San Giacomo) to play Frida Kahlo in a high-profile movie about the Mexican painter’s life. The film was never made.

Stung but undaunted, Valdez went on to other (academic and electronic) pursuits. He became a founding professor of the Center for Teledramatic Arts and Technology at California State University, Monterey Bay. He’s creating another film, a Latino version of “Eat Drink Man Woman,” and he’s just reworked and directed “Bandido! The American Melodrama of Tiburcio Vasquez, Notorious California Bandit,” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre (through October 17).

Days before the opening, he had time to talk, tell stories and laugh. He laughs a lot. He’s a wonderful raconteur.   And he has terrific stories to tell.

Pat Launer (PL):   It seems that you like to write plays and then put them away for awhile, not letting anyone else near them. You did that with “Zoot Suit,” which you finally released (to the San Diego Repertory Theatre) two years ago, almost 20 years after you’d written it.   Looks like you’ve done the same with “Bandido.”

Luis Valdez (LV): I consider theater like wine. It has to be aged to reach full maturity. ‘Bandido’ needed time to get the right nuances and flavors. I did the first production of it with Teatro Campesino, then I packed it away in a cardboard box for 12 years. Last year, we workshopped it again. And now I’m taking another look at it. I wanted to direct it again before I let it go.

PL: After 35 years of making theater, you’ve developed your own, very physical style of theater. What were your influences?

LV: Before I started El Teatro Campesino, I was with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and before that, at San Jose State University, I developed an interest in Brecht, Piscatur, Meyerhold, and the Mexican popular theater of the ’20s, and the Federal theater of the ’30s. Theater for the farmworkers had to be very direct and physical.   It evolved into a whole approach and technique.

PL: With all the current flap about the lily-white fall TV season, do you think things have gotten better or worse for Latino/Chicano performers?

LV: What really irks me is that people see El Teatro and they just focus on the ethnicity, saying, ‘Oh, this is Chicano theater.’ We had six major consecutive tours of Europe in the ’70s and ’80s, and each time, we struck a chord that’s being reflected in the work in those other countries.   They understood the whole labor issue and every country could relate to the immigrant issues.

PL: Tell me a little about your own family background, your parents’ immigrant experience.

LV: Both my parents were born on the border between Sonora, Mexico and Arizona, near Nogales. They were bilingual Americans. My grandparents were also born close to the border, in Sonora. In the 1920s, my parents moved to California for the migrant labor.   California was developing the cotton industry then. I experienced some of that in the ’40s; I saw the mechanical cotton-picker wipe out many jobs. There were 10 kids in my family; I had 5 brothers and 5 sisters.   I’m number two, the second brother.   Danny (who serves as co-musical director for the current production of “Bandido!”) is nine years younger. My mother went to school through 8th grade. My father had to drop out in 5th grade; at 12 years old, he was the oldest kid, and had to become the sole support of the family when his father died. He was basically self-educated. He read lots of books.   His passion was California.   I never would have written “Bandido” without him. He introduced me to Tiburcio Vasquez.

My mother was a spiritual counselor in her later years. Her roots went very deep into her Yacqui roots. She was very psychic. Clairvoyant.   Religious. She had an altar of hope in her home. There were no psychiatrists in the barrio.   My mother filled a tremendous need.   My latest play, “The Mummified Fetus” (due to premiere at the San Diego Rep next year) is about this, about my family’s immigrant experience. So I grew up with a very powerful mother. But she never interfered with our choices. When you start out as a migrant farmworker, anything is up. Everyone got an education at some level, with a heavy slash of the arts or sciences. My college scholarship was due to my strength in math. I majored in math and physics. The second year, I switched to English.

PL: When did you first you started performing?

LV: In 1956, when I was 16 years old and in high school, I was a ventriloquist.   I was in the first live TV broadcast in San Jose. I had two dummies.   One was Anglo, a Jerry Mahoney repaint named Allie Nelson, and the other was a mexican puppet I made out of balsa wood — Marcelino Pipin. It was a bilingual act; I switched back and forth between them. It was a shtick, nothing political. But I started to do it in labor camps, and that was the origin of Teatro Campesino.

PL: So I guess all that math and science comes in handy in your new digital/academic position at Cal State Monterey.

LV: It was such an outrageous proposition, it appealed to my sense of drama.   An Institute for Teledramatic Arts and Technology. We call it TAT.   It folds in theater, film, video, audio, TV and digital space, including CD-ROM and DVD. I came in, along with 12 others, as a full tenured professor.   I’m the only one in theater. We’re helping to define the utilization of technology tools to interface with the arts, without losing the uniqueness of theater. There’s a whole revolution taking place in telecommunications.   But writing and acting won’t change.

PL: How have you applied technology to your own work, and what will be the ultimate impact of the digital revolution on theater?

LV: Teatro Campesino has a CD-ROM we produced in house. It’s a history of 35 yearrs, with clips, documentation, photos, music and interactive programs. Teatro Campesino from the Fields to Hollywood. And we also have a website.

Digital technology allows us to be independent filmmakers. But it doesn’t cut out theater. There will always be character, action, plot, structure. Live delivery will be irreplaceable. But you can do narrowcasting through the Internet, to be received like teleconferencing, in any home.   We’re currently at the stage where TV was in the 1940s. This is a really exciting time.

PL: Back to your family for a minute. This production of “Bandido” seems to be a family affair.   Your brother’s involved, and two of your sons are in the show, one as the lead, Tiburcio, having just taken over after the original actor sustained an injury.

LV: My family pretty much all went into the same business.   I’ve been married to Lupe for 30 years.   She’s the business manager of El Teatro Campesino, buyt she’s also worked on creative projects with me. All three of our sons were born into theater and have evolved into fully trained actors. It’s very gratifying. The kind of work I set out to do cannot be done alone. It will take several generations. That’s okay with me. I can see spending the rest of my life in theater. The new generation, the Gen Xers, are already running Teatro Campesino.   My wife and I and about ten others, we’re the ‘veteranos.’   We just come in and do roles, though I’m still formally the artistic director of the company.   The idea of a theater family is a tradition around the world. It’s how theater companies evolved. We’re like a circus family. This has added to the glue of the family.

PL: Your sons have very interesting and atypical names. Could you talk about their origins?

LV: I was tired of the English-Spanish crux. The naming of names is part of the function of poets. A lifelong poetic gesture. We chose indigenous names. Kinan [pronounced key-NAHN, who plays Tiburcio Vasquez] is a Mayan word meaning ‘solar energy.’ Lakin [lah-KEEN, who plays Tiburcio’s right-hand man] means ‘another sun or sunrise. It’s a double entendre.   He was our third, and we were expecting a girl. Anahuac [ah-nah-WOK] is the Aztec name for ‘America,’ all of America, a place surrounded by water.

PL: With your sons taking over the reins of the company more, where do you see your attention primarily focused now?

LV:   As my sons take over more, I’ll probably have more acting opportunities. I used to act in every Teatro production. All told, we did about 300 productions of different pieces or adapations of same. We extend into TV, film and video. In 1969, we produced a 20-minute, 16mm film “I Am Joaquin.” It was the seed for Chicano film.

This is becoming a real good period of my life. It’s great to be mature, though with it comes all the attendant problems of aging.   But I remain very physical; it’s part of my work.   You have to move around a lot. It’s a very seasonal kind of industry. I guess I never stopped being a migrant.

©1999 Patté Productions Inc.