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Hispanic Heritage

Luis Valdez

Born 1940
Playwright, Film Director

Legitimately called the father of Chicano theater, playwright and director Luis Valdez has given this movement a voice since 1963, when his first play was staged by the drama department at San Jose State College. From there he went on to found El Teatro Campesino in 1965, a touring farm workers ' theater troupe. El Teatro Campesino produced one-act plays, often without stage, script, or props, that dramatized the circumstances of migrant workers and ignited a national Chicano theater movement, or teatro chicano. Valdez has written, co-written, and directed many plays depicting the Hispanic experience, including La Carpa de los Rasquachis (1973), El Fin del Mundo (1976), Zoot Suit (1978), and Tibercio Vasquez (1980). He also directed the box-office smash movie La Bamba in 1987.

Valdez has received numerous honors and awards for his work. These include an Obie in 1968, as well as Los Angeles Drama Critics awards in 1969, 1972, and 1978, and an Emmy in 1973. In 1983 the San Francisco Bay Critics Circle awarded him Best Musical. He was also honored that same year by President Reagan's Committee on Arts and Humanities. He has received honorary doctorates from Columbia College, San Jose State University, and the California Institute of the Arts.

Theater Career Begins in College

Luis Valdez was born June 26, 1940, in Delano, California, to Francisco and Armeda Valdez. He was the second of ten children in a migrant worker family that moved from harvest to harvest in the central valleys of California. Due to this peripatetic existence, he attended many different schools before the family finally settled in San Jose. Graduating from high school there, he then entered San Jose State College (now University) on a scholarship in 1960.

Valdez did more than just earn a bachelor's degree in English at San Jose State. In 1961 his one-act play The Theft won a writing contest, and his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, was produced in 1963 by the school's drama department. After graduating in 1964, Valdez spent the next few months with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Its lessons in agitprop (agitation and propaganda) theater were valuable, for they laid the groundwork for his next venture.

In 1965 Valdez went to Delano, where he joined César Chávez in his effort to educate and organize migrants into a viable farm workers' union. It was in support of Chávez's movement that he put his theatrical talents to work to form El Teatro Campesino, a farm workers' theater troupe. The theater was used to educate and inform not only the farm workers, but the public as well. El Teatro Campesino toured the migrant camps with their actos, or (one-act plays) that explored political and cultural issues of concern to the movement. In 1967 Valdez left the union movement in an effort to broaden his theater's reach and to amplify its messages. The troupe toured the United States in 1967 and 1968, winning the Obie in 1968. The theater moved beyond agitprop and migrant concerns, delving into traditional Mexican theatrical forms. They staged musical corridas, or dramatized ballads, religious pageants, and peladitos, or vaudeville-type dramas featuring an underdog.

Valdez had established a Chicano cultural center in Del Ray, California, in 1967. In 1969 he moved both theater and cultural center to Fresno, where they remained for two years. While in Fresno, Valdez taught at Fresno State College, produced the film I Am Joaquin, and created TENAZ, the national Chicano theater organization with groups throughout the Southwest. Valdez moved the theater a final time in 1971, to San Juan Bautista, south of San Francisco. Combined now with the cultural center, it was called El Centro Campesino Cultural, and it became a fully professional production company. The company toured Mexico and Europe and staged productions in New York City.

Theater Movement Expands Nationally

The 1970s saw Chicano theater in full flower, thanks to Valdez and El Teatro Campesino. What began as a farm workers' theater in the migrant camps of Delano now exploded into a national Chicano theater movement. Theater groups sprang up with surprising speed on college campuses and in communities throughout the United States. Stressing ethnic pride and the preservation of cultural traditions, the groups adhered to Valdez's dictate that the theaters remain true to la raza — the grassroots Mexican. In so doing, they were wildly successful, and the theater's popularity grew and built upon itself. The theater movement reached its zenith in 1976. In the summer of that year the national Bicentennial was celebrated with five different Mexican theater festivals.

By the 1980s many theater groups had disbanded. Other, more successful groups, such as Denver's Su Teatro and San Antonio's Guadalupe Theater, took root as local repertory companies. Although the Chicano theater movement largely dispersed during this decade, its artists and directors did not disappear. The popular surge of Chicano theater created opportunities where few had existed before. Actors and theater directors were absorbed into the mainstream of professional theater in the various communities and universities as well as in television and film.

In 1977 both Valdez and his brother Daniel had parts in the Richard Pryor film Which Way Is Up?. The following year, however, marked a more important milestone in Valdez's career. In 1978 he wrote, directed, and produced a play that would eventually serve as his springboard to film directing. The play was Zoot Suit, based on the 1942 Los Angeles Sleepy Lagoon case. Its production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles marked Valdez's breakthrough to mainstream theater. Zoot Suit ran successfully for two years in Los Angeles theaters, and it was produced at New York City's Winter Garden in 1979 — the first play written and produced by a Mexican American ever to play on Broadway. It was made into a film in 1982, which Valdez also directed. This version, however, was not as successful as the play.

In 1980 Valdez directed his play Tibercio Vasquez.Corridos followed, with successful theater and television productions. In 1984 Valdez wrote and produced the play I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, which ran successfully at the Los Angeles Theater Center in 1986. His greatest success came in 1987, when he directed the hit film La Bamba. The film depicted the brief life of Chicano singer Richie Valens, who helped pioneer early rock and roll.

Challenges Hollywood Stereotypes

In the wake of the tremendous success of La Bamba, Valdez has continued to direct productions illustrating the Hispanic condition. The New York Times observed in 1991 that "Valdez has a reputation as a cultural provocateur, thanks to his activism on behalf of the United Farm Workers of America, his authorship of works that challenge stereotypes of Hispanic Americans, and his fondness for bringing together performers of widely varying cultural backgrounds."

Two recent projects have demonstrated that cultural commitment. In 1991 Valdez directed a made-for-public-television version of the traditional folk tale La Pastorela The Shepherd's Play. A version of the Nativity story, La Pastorela changes the focus from the Three Wise Men to a group of shepherds making their way to Bethlehem. "La Pastorela is part of a tradition that is at least 1,000 years old," Valdez told the New York Times in 1991. He has adapted the play in order to appeal to a wider television audience. The result, with actors like Paul Rodriguez, Freddy Fender, and Linda Ronstadt, is a very modern version. John Leonard, writing in New York, described it with good humor as "the Nativity ... tricked up to look like a road-show amalgam of The Wizard of Oz and Cats. "

In 1994 Valdez directed a remake of the 1950s television series The Cisco Kid. Again Valdez modernized an old story, transforming Cisco (played by actor Jimmy Smits ) from a bandit into a respectable Chicano adventurer. The New York Times stated, "The Cisco Kid is part of a larger effort to counter 90 years of omissions and distortions in the way Latino characters have been depicted in westerns." The article continued, "Film makers like ... Valdez ... say they are trying to provide a humanized alternative to the hot-blooded lovers, Frito banditos, drug dealers, gang leaders, and other two-dimensional characters that [have] traditionally represented Mexican Americans on television and films."

Although the 1980s and 1990s have produced several films with a Latino focus, including La Bamba (1987), Stand and Deliver (1988), and Like Water for Chocolate (1993), the New York Times noted in 1994 that Hispanics "remain underrepresented in the film and television industry." The paper quoted John Trevino, chairman of the Directors Guild Latino committee, as saying, "In any given year, less than one percent of the directors with films in production are Latinos."

In spite of these disappointing numbers, they would probably be even smaller if not for Luis Valdez. Many Hispanic actors and theater directors owed their careers, directly or indirectly, to the pioneering efforts of Luis Valdez's El Teatro Campesino. Actor-comedian Paul Rodriguez acknowledged his debt in an interview with the New York Times in 1991: "The first time I ever saw the Teatro Campesino, I was just a chavalito hanging on to my mamma's hand, with my daddy saying, "This is important; you've got to watch this.' As a matter of fact, I'll credit the Teatro Campesino with first allowing myself to even dream of being in this business."

Books

Hispanic-American Almanac, edited by Nicolás Kanellos, Detroit, Gale, 1993.
Mexican-American Biographies, edited by Matt S. Meier, New York, Greenwood Press, 1988.
Who's Who in the Theater, 17th edition, edited by Ian Herbert, Detroit, Gale, 1981.

Periodicals
New York, February 7, 1994, pp. 6-61.
New York Times, July 28, 1991, pp. H25, H32; January 30,1994, pp. H32, H40.

Source: Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1995. Biography Resources Center, Gale, 1999.

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