Me and Mr. Valdez, my Chicano Hero

Since 2006, I have had the privilege of teaching Chicano/a Studies at New Mexico State University. In this course we examine the history, culture, and identity of Chicanos. In order to do so, we must understand on a basic level, what a Chicano/a is.

After hearing my students’ experiences concerning Chicano culture and identity, both good and bad, I proceed to define the term “Chicano/a” as a person of Mexican origin who has developed a social, political, cultural, historical, and linguistic consciousness, has embraced his/her mestizo/Indigenous roots, and has decided to self-identify as a Chicano/a. Being Chicano/a is something to be proud of.

The next exercise students engage in is to provide a list of people they consider to be our Chicano/a heroes. Unfortunately, the list is short. The students almost always name the same people, including César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Selena Quintanilla, Edward James Olmos, George López, Oscar de la Hoya, and Ritchie Valens (Valenzuela). They are usually hard-pressed to think of anyone beyond that. Then, I proceed to tell them the story of how I met one of my Chicano heroes.

Two years ago I was set to attend a conference in Prescott, Arizona. A few months before registering for the conference the anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, and anti-Chicano movement began to gain traction through the right-wing political machine in Arizona’s state government. The main reason I had decided to attend this conference was because the keynote speaker was Luis Valdez, the founder of El Teatro Campesino and director of the first major Hollywood film about a Chicano, La Bamba. However, due to the political fiasco, Chicanos had begun boycotting Arizona. Fortunately, Arizona reduced some of the harsh language in the proposed laws, and Mr. Valdez decided to attend and, consequently, so did I.

“Zoot Suit” cast members dance in the Mark Tapor Forum, Los Angeles, CA. UCLA Library Special Collections.

Mr. Valdez’s talk was enlightening, inspiring, and left his audience speechless. He talked about the history of Arizona and the Southwest U.S. and the millions of years of existence of this land and how over time its beautiful rock formations were slowly molded into the earth. In essence, the people of Arizona live in an ancient place and the newly misguided xenophobic laws disregarded these facts of nature. He said that Arizonans could not claim ignorance about our history, but rather it was ignore(ance); they ignored our history. Luis Valdez’s mission was to ensure that society could no longer ignore our rightful place in this land.

Recently, I had the pleasure of learning more about Mr. Valdez’s personal story and the formation of El Teatro Campesino as he served as the keynote speaker at NMSU’s Hispanic Faculty/Staff Caucus 2012 Leadership Summit “Adelante: Leading Through the Arts.” His talk was entitled “Up From the Roots: The Flowering of El Teatro Campesino.” In 1965, he approached César Chávez about using the United Farm Workers (UFW) as a platform to start a teatro in Delano, California employing the striking farm workers as the actors to portray their dire working conditions. He related it to the Mayan concept of zero or nothing, which the Mayans saw as having a value. In their advanced counting system the numbers began with zero, represented by a shell and comes full circle with the symbol of a flower. Mr. Chávez told Mr. Valdez that there were no actors, no stage, and no time to rehearse as the workers were on the picket line day and night. But he asked the young Valdez if he still wanted to attempt to build a theater around the UFW’s cause. Mr. Valdez accepted and was excited for the opportunity to create something from nothing, just as Mr. Chávez did with the UFW.

With no time to rehearse and no physical theater space, Mr. Valdez took the stage to the people and literally made theater on the picket lines. In 1965 General Motors still manufactured sturdy vehicles that could support heavy weight without denting. Valdez secured a big panel truck and used the roof as a stage. However, the theater company was not there to entertain, but to engage the workers, especially the scabs, those who broke the picket lines. Their job was to educate the workers so that they would not break the strike and could therefore create leverage in their struggle for farm workers’ rights. It was important work to fight for dignity even when there were little resources to do so, but theater became one of their most effective weapons. War may seem like an unlikely metaphor for this struggle, but it was accurate. On one occasion someone pointed a gun to Mr. Valdez’s head while performing on the picket line, and he had to decide if it was worth dying for doing theater. After taking a breath and thinking for a moment, he concluded that it was indeed worth it because that is who he was. Theater was worth dying for, and even more important, living for. He has dedicated his life to theater ever since.

Luis Valdez and Gordon Davidson with Edward James Olmos and the cast of “Zoot Suit” in L.A.
UCLA Library: L.A. Times Photographs Collection.

Since its humble days in the Delano UFW strikes, El Teatro Campesino has come a long way. The troupe has performed throughout the U.S. and Mexico and completed six major tours across Europe. They staged Zoot Suit on Broadway, the first play written by a Latino to be presented there. Aside from traditional modern theaters, El Teatro Campesino has also performed in ancient Greek and Roman amphitheaters and at the foot of the Pyramid of the Moon in Teotihuacán, México. Soon El Teatro Campesino will be completing its 50th year of existence and, despite all of its success, it is still located in the heart of the San Joaquín Valley in the town of San Juan Bautista, CA. 

The ever-present teacher, Mr. Valdez often ends his talk with the following question, “To whom does the future belong?” To which he responds, “The future belongs to those who can imagine it.” Perhaps the question I pose to my students at the beginning of the semester about our heroes, looking back into the past, has been too limiting. Maybe I should ask them to imagine our heroes of the future, as well. Fortunately, for us, we do not have to start from nothing. The flowering of El Teatro Campesino is in full bloom. Now we can add to our list a hero for all of us. Gracias, maestro Valdez.

Fall 2012
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