Luis Valdez on Cesar Chavez, El Teatro Campesino and the Christmas play La Pastorela
Luis Valdez, whose Christmas play La Pastorela just opened at Denver's Su Teatro, first met Cesar Chavez when he was six, growing up among the migrant workers of Delano, California, where the United Farm Workers movement took root in the nonviolent strikes and grape boycotts of the '60s and '70s.
Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino.
It was in that atmosphere that Valdez formed El Teatro Campesino, performing political actos in the streets, alongside Chavez and his marchers. The young upstart, who'd studied playwriting in college and learned the ropes of street theater as a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, brought the power of education to the table, creating a transformative wing of American theater while creating community through art. As Su Teatro's Tony Garcia says, there would be no Chicano theater without Luis Valdez.
"Teatro Campesino was literally born on the picket line almost fifty years ago in 1965," Valdez says. "In those days, California was a different place -- it was like a hurricane of change. I saw it as an opportunity to participate as a volunteer on picket line, but also to bring what I learned along the way.
El Teatro Campesino performing acts during the grape strikes.
"I volunteered for a few weeks and got elected to be a picket captain, and this gave me the ability to mold the picket line," Valdez recalls of those days with with Chavez. "In his honest way, he told me that there was no money to do theater in Delano, and there was no time, when people were on the picket line night and day. But I got into singing songs and then staging plays on truckbeds. These were farm workers I recruited, not actors, using techniques I knew, and we evolved. During the farm workers' march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966, we had rallies every night in different farm towns, and Cesar asked me to run the rallies."
Valdez took the opportunity to intersperse the speeches with street theater. "This was the same time as the Selma to Montgomery march -- civil rights was in the air, and it was a time of tremendous social change," he says. "For the Mexican- and Filipino-American farm workers, it was their first opportunity to mobilize en masse. The march was followed by a grape boycott, and it was effective. It took five years, but in the end, all 33 growers we were boycotting signed contracts."
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