Luis Valdez | Critical Essay by John Harrop and Jorge Huerta

This literature criticism consists of approximately 19 pages of analysis & critique of Luis Valdez.
This section contains 5,621 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by John Harrop and Jorge Huerta

Critical Essay by John Harrop and Jorge Huerta

SOURCE: "The Agitprop Pilgrimage of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino," in Theatre Quarterly, Vol. V, No. 17, March-May, 1975, pp. 30-9.

An American professor and critic, Huerta has written many books on Chicano literature and drama in addition to serving variously as founder, director, and actor in many Chicano theater groups in California. In the following essay, he and Harrop provide an overview of Valdez's career with El Teatro Campesino, focusing in particular on his development as a playwright.

San Juan Bautista is a very ordinary, small town in central California. Its chief attraction to outsiders is the Catholic Mission—one of those churches the Spanish priests dotted along the coast of California in their eighteenth century odyssey, with cross and sword, to claim the heathen Indian for Christ. An odd place to find Peter Brook and his International Centre for Theatre Research—among the arid hills where, for the mere wages of survival, expatriate Mexicans now work the land that once belonged to their ancestors.

But here, for six weeks in the summer of 1973, Brook and his acolytes came to work with and to learn from one of the most remarkable theatre groups now working in the United States. For San Juan Bautista is the present home of Luis Valdez and his Teatro Campesino—farmworkers' theatre—which, since it was founded in late 1965 to protest against the economic and spiritual exploitation of the Chicanos, has managed to retain its popular integrity while achieving an artistic stature that has won it awards in the United States and appearances at international festivals in Europe.

Valdez, the founder and guiding spirit of El Teatro, is himself the son of a migrant farm worker, and spent his youth fruit picking around central California while gleaning sufficient education to gain entrance to the California State College. Here an earlier interest in theatre (stimulated by a kindergarten play in which masks and physical movements had compensated for the fact that Valdez couldn't speak English) manifested itself again, and he wrote and had produced two plays during his undergraduate years.

Uncertain what his future would be after graduation, Valdez happened upon a performance by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and, immediately taken by their physically direct and dynamic style, he moved to San Francisco and joined the company. Those were the heady days when the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement were gathering momentum, and street theatre such as performed by the Mime Troupe (and the Bread and Puppet Theatre in New York), was beginning to be seen as a natural tool of non-violent protest. Theatre was being 'brought back to the people' on portable stages set up in parks; with marching bands and puppet shows in the streets; and with a broad and bawdy physicality that went for the guts and the heart.

While Valdez was with the Mime Troupe, the atmosphere of protest in America reached the migrant Mexican farmworkers in central California: they went on strike against wages and conditions in the grape fields. These were Valdez' fellow Chicanos—indeed, part of his family was striking—and he came down from San Francisco to join with Cesar Chavez' United Farmworkers Union in a protest march in Delano, California.

As a result of that experience, Valdez conceived the idea of a theatre which would support and further politicize the Mexican farmworkers in their struggle. In November 1965, with the blessing of Chavez, he held a meeting at which he broached the idea of a theatre to the striking workers. The first response was uncertain—chiefly because none of the workers had ever been to a theatre—and Valdez realized that to interest the workers he had to relate directly to their own experiences. So he had some signs made—Esquirol (scab), Huelgista (striker), Patroncito (grower) and Contratista (contractor)—and hung these around the necks of some of the workers, telling them to enact the characteristics of their signs. The results far exceeded his expectations:

The scab didn't want to at first, because it was a dirty word at that time, but he did so in good spirits. Then the two strikers started shouting at him, and everybody started cracking up. All of a sudden people started coming … they filled up the whole kitchen. We started changing signs around, and people started volunteering … imitating all kinds of things. We ran for two hours just doing that.

Thus was El Teatro Campesino born.

From this beginning Valdez gathered a small group to work with each other each evening after the day's picketing. This group evolved what they called 'actos'—short scenes dealing with some specific element of the strike. The actors started with a real life incident, character or idea, and improvised around this in commedia dell'arte fashion, using no scripts or scenery. For simplicity of communication and ease of identification they kept the original idea of wearing signs around their necks to indicate the characters or attitudes bring represented. Props or costumes were used only as a basic reinforcement of character or situation. Valdez was careful not to disguise the fact that the actors were themselves strikers engaged in the same cause as the people for whom they were performing. He was also concerned not to alienate his audience by requiring any political or theatrical sophistication: the actors always appealed directly and simply to the immediate experience of the striking farmworkers.

Typical of the early actos was Three Grapes. A green, a ripe, and a rotten grape come onto the stage and squat. Each wishes to be picked by a scab who has not joined the strike: but each time the scab attempts this he is driven away by a striker with a 'Huelga' (strike) sign. Finally all the grapes become rotten. The scab then realizes that the grower has lost his economic power and joins the strike. The simple lesson gets across: if a grower cannot harvest his crop he must concede to the strikers.

The actos always contained a great deal of physical business and broad humour. The farmworkers are a straightforward, simple, and ebullient people: they respond to largeness of style and comic situations. So Valdez used comedy for its direct appeal—and because, as he said, 'you can't do tragedy on the back of a truck.' The social points came across through the comic situations and the broad but recognizable reality created by the actors:

When I speak about comic and dramatic images, I'm speaking about visions of reality. Our comic images represent the reality that he (the farmworker) sees. It's not a naturalistic representation: most of the time it's a symbolic, emblematic presentation of what the farmworker feels. But we can't be stuffy about it, so we use slapstick. Very often the slapstick is the image.

A particularly powerful example of what Valdez meant by 'emblematic presentation' occurs in another early acto called The Fifth Season, where Summer is represented by an actor wearing an old shirt covered in dollar bills. To the farmworker Summer is the time when the fruit on the trees turns to money. The orchards and vineyards are heavy with clusters of dollars, there for the picking. But the dream of paradise is never realized: nor could it be in the present relationship of the workers to the growers. So the workers laugh at the image of Summer not because it is funny in itself, but because they recognize the irony of the situation—that the joke is on themselves.

For several months after its establishment, El Teatro picketed during the day and worked on the actos during the evening, giving weekly performances for the strikers in Delano. Then, in April 1966, Valdez and his actors joined the great march of strikers from Delano to the state capital of Sacramento, performing nightly in all the small towns on the route. This experience both honed their technique and extended their repertoire. It also gained them a wider reputation, which led to their first commercial performance at the Committee Theatre in San Francisco, on 2 May 1966.

For the next year El Teatro lived in Delano, but toured Chicano population centres throughout California to raise support and funds for the continuing strike. The first national tour came in July and August 1967, when the company performed in union halls across the United States—and in the courtyard of the Senate building in Washington, at the Newport Jazz Festival, and at the Village Theatre in New York. [On July 24, 1967] the Wall Street Journal spoke of their 'provocative, lively, and entertaining theatre,' and Newsweek of their 'ardent and sometimes grim gaiety' [July 31, 1967]. The Newsweek critic went on to say:

The young people of El Teatro are full of racial pride, social and political fervour, and … they know exactly what they mean. As in the old Everyman morality plays, each character has a clear identity, is caught in a sharply defined situation, and is presented with a clear choice of destinies.

All of the New York critics drew parallels between the impact of El Teatro Campesino and that of the Federal Theatre and Labour Union Theatre in the 1930s, when economic and social distress had turned theatre into a powerful political weapon.

The New York tour, for which the company received an Obie, established it nationally, and confirmed that this kind of theatre, though still based in and geared to the aims of the striking Chicano farmworkers, was capable of a dynamic relationship with a much broader spectrum of people. This faced Valdez with an important decision:

The strike in Delano is a beautiful cause, but it won't leave you alone … it's more important to leave a rehearsal and go back to the picket line. So we found we had to back away from Delano to be a theatre. Do you serve the moment by being just kind of half-assed, getting together whenever there's a chance, or do you really hone your theatre down into an effective weapon?

So, in September 1967, Valdez moved the company away from Delano and its direct link with the Farmworkers' Union, and established El Centro Campesino Cultural in Del Rey, California.

The initial success of El Teatro had been based on a bitter truth: its work was rooted in the everyday facts of the farmworkers' lives. Now Valdez wished to keep this truth—the life blood of the worker—running through his theatre, but to reach out beyond the strike to deal with the life of the Chicano in more general terms of his human rights and self respect.

In coming to this expanded theatrical consciousness, Valdez was aware of several facts concerning the cultural identity of the Chicano. First the Spanish had come and deprived the Mexican Indians of their Mayan and Aztec ancestry—had colonized them, robbed them of their pride and wealth, and in return imposed upon them a Christianity which had taught them meekly to accept second-class citizenship in their own country. Later, the Spanish masters had been exchanged for American, and pressures to take on a set of Anglo values.

More than this, many Chicanos living in the USA are not immigrants, but living in a land which is ancestrally theirs, and while there is no separatist movement on the part of the Chicanos in these territories, there is a strong movement to resist anglicization and to retain ethnic traditions. It was to this understanding of the true Chicano cultural and spiritual identity that Luis Valdez turned in taking El Teatro to Del Rey and establishing a Chicano cultural centre, to explore the music and political history of the Chicanos as well as the drama. The new purpose was to embrace and revive the culture of their ancestors, and to create a pride in being a Chicano.

Valdez recognized that to deal with these broader and more abstract issues in his theatre would require a greater technical sophistication on the part of the actors, who would now have to deal with and communicate ideas which, while related to, were no longer a direct part of their immediate experience. He therefore instituted a training programme for the company, on similar lines to those which many 'new' theatre groups were undertaking in the later 'sixties.

There was a great deal of ensemble work—trust and sensitivity exercises—plus work upon physical movement and, above all, a sound technical base for the improvisational work which still formed the starting point of El Teatro's creative efforts. Of one of their exercises, Valdez wrote that it 'must clearly establish characters and their relation to each other. Such things as language, movement, and the strict adherence to the reality of inter-relationships are important. Disciplined clean characterizations are the objective.' Again, 'The emphasis is upon wit and quick thinking, as well as movement, characterization, and stage presence.'

Thus, while clarifying and disciplining the work of the company, Valdez was concerned to retain the great ebullience, energy, and fundamental truth of their work. While becoming conscious of the need for theatrical technique, El Teatro never lost the sense of being a people's theatre, performed by and for the Chicano people—aesthetics never got in the way of direct communication.

What Valdez achieved was a strengthening of impact due to the disciplined channelling of the energies of his troupe, and a cleaner and quicker way of making the point, due to the greater clarity of the stage action. The earlier reliance upon signs hung around actor's necks gave way to more use of masks and the actor's own physicality. The use of props was subtler, and there was a more sophisticated sense of theatrical rhythm and timing. But the vivid sense of humour, the broad physical style, the energy spilling from the stage to sweep up the audience, and, at root, the sharing of fundamental truths by actor and audience, continued to be the hallmark of El Teatro Campesino.

After the move to Del Rey and subsequently (in 1969) to Fresno in the central farmland of California, the broader consciousness and capacity of El Teatro became apparent in the actos of that period. The earlier pieces were clearly geared towards the strike. Three Grapes has already been described, and other actos of the first period were Huelgistas (The Strikers), Las Dos Caras del Patroncito (The Two Faces of the Boss), and Papellecion (Playing Games). These actos were all very short, and to the immediate point. Papellecion, for example, has a grape grower with a sign, 'Smiling Jack', who tells his picker how much he loves his Mexican workers. As he talks, the sign changes to 'Liar', 'Gringo', 'Jackass', and finally 'Huelga', as the worker comes to see through the platitudes of the boss.

The new work looked at the Chicano in a wider social perspective. No Saca Nada de la Escuela dealt with the problems of young Chicanos in American schools, where the language and cultural barriers have left them at the bottom of the class, and encouraged a poor self-image and delinquency. Los Vendidos (The Sell-Outs), which was given a national television presentation by NBC, dealt with problems of those Chicanos who had tried to reject their backgrounds and became anglicized, or at least to call themselves 'Mexican-Americans.'

The inequities in the draft system in the United States during the Vietnam War were also dealt with by El Teatro. The play in which this was done, Soldado Razo (The Chicano Solider), was concerned with the death of a Chicano soldier in Vietnam. It treated the 'macho' syndrome and the other forces which conspired to send him there, the absurdity of one brown slave being sent thousands of miles to kill other brown victims, and the total ugliness of the Vietnam circumstance. This was perhaps the first complete example of the new consciousness underlying the work of Valdez and El Teatro. While still based in the truth and uniqueness of the Chicano situation, it proclaims its relationship with the larger anti-war movement in the United States, and its brotherhood with all colonized peoples.

Soldado Razo also illustrates the evolution of the company's work in production terms. The fundamental physical elements of the early actos are retained. There is no attempt to create an artificial physical environment. The stage is bare, with the exception of a simple curtain suspended from a pole upstage centre, and above the curtain is a huge sign—El Teatro Campesino de Aztlan. The emphasis is still upon actors, and actors who are people like their audiences. But the simple cardboard signs have now disappeared, to be replaced by fully fleshed-out characters created with broad and simple strokes.

A further element has also appeared. Symbolic figures, masked and costumed, create a universal environment within which particular characters work out their individual destinies. In Soldado Razo, Valdez employed Death as his narrator, a kindly-ironic skeleton in a monk's robe, whose mocking eye fell upon actors and audience alike.

A triple consciousness is now operating in El Teatro's work: a sense of a particular man in a local situation (the Chicano); a universal man in a world situation (the poor, or underprivileged, or oppressed), and those spiritual, cosmic, and mythological forces of man's primitive psyche which give him a common humanity. In a review of Soldado Razo [that appeared September 23, 1971], the drama critic of the Los Angeles Times wrote: 'Agitprop theatre? I guess so, if we need a definition, but equally close to Everyman and the great medieval chronicles. Something very complicated, and very simple, and very rare is going on….'

On another occasion, the Los Angeles Times spoke of the work of El Teatro Campesino as being 'a stunning mixture of Brechtian presentation and Chicano folklore,' [July 5, 1971], and as Valdez has himself referred to El Teatro's style as 'somewhere between Brecht and Cantinflas,' a brief comparison with Brecht might provide insights into Valdez' own work. The most apparent relationship is in the similarity of the early actos to Brecht's Lehrstucke. Both are short pieces with a didactic purpose in which the actors present characters rather than assume them. Both are geared to completely simple presentation—for Brecht in the classroom, for Valdez on the back of a truck. Both are meant to politicize an audience and inspire them to action.

But here, perhaps, any close analogy ends, for whereas Brecht's impact was geared to the intellectual and rational, based upon the dialectic of Marxism from which he also derived the structure of his pieces, Valdez' appeal is much simpler and more visceral. He has said: 'For our political and personal salvation we don't have to scurry to Marxism or Socialism. We can go to our own roots.'

Certainly, Valdez wished to heighten his audience's understanding of experience, but it was an understanding to be gained with body and soul, rather than through an intellectual process. Nor was the structure of Valdez' actos based upon any intellectual conceit: it came wholly from the necessities of the circumstances in which the actors first worked. It had the basic appeal and technique of the earliest forms of popular theatre.

Valdez' simplicity was a response to fundamental human reactions and beliefs, while Brecht's was more calculated, disciplined, and cerebral. Brecht's choice of a parabolic form and destruction of theatrical illusion was self-conscious, whereas Valdez simply took what he found and gave it theatrical impact. Above all, Teatro Campesino eschewed the revolutionary humourlessness of Brecht's didactic pieces—it took its cause seriously, but never itself. Valdez remained close to Cantinflas while Brecht had ignored Hanswurst.

Both Brecht's Lehrstücke and Valdez' actos turned to historical circumstances, and to folklore or myth. But whereas with Brecht these were neither a part of his own sensibility nor that of the audience for which he was writing, Valdez had the advantage of finding his ideas within the spiritual ethos of the Chicano people. He could continue to make use of contemporary experience, but go beneath that to touch common beliefs and attitudes based in the experiences of a still-believed Christian religion, and a Spanish colonial culture. Beneath this again, Valdez believed he could make a direct appeal to the Mayan and Aztec culture which was the deepest part of the Chicano spiritual identity.

During the years from 1969 to 1971, while this broadening of El Teatro's purpose from the concentration upon Huelga to that of Raza (national identity) was taking place, and the company was moving to its present home in San Juan Bautista, it took part in the Seventh World Theatre Festival in Nancy, France, toured Mexico, and was constantly involved in tours on behalf of the farm-workers throughout the south-western United States.

In 1970 the company also made its first film, I Am Joaquin, based upon an epic poem by Corky Gonzales. The film won first prize at both the San Francisco and Monterey Festivals. But perhaps the most significant event in El Teatro's early history took place in May 1970, when it sponsored the first Chicano Theatre Festival in Fresno, California. Since 1968 small companies had sprung up in Chicano areas in the United States, emulating El Teatro Campesino in their attempt to politicize and raise a Chicano consciousness. Thirteen companies attended that first festival, which has been repeated in each subsequent year.

As a result of the success of these festivals, Luis Valdez has been instrumental in creating Tenaz (El Teatro Na cional de Aztlan), to establish communication between the companies, to provide a means for sharing material, and, above all, to hold workshops at which members of El Teatro Campesino could share their skills with the newer companies which, at first, were founded upon enthusiasm and commitment, but scant theatrical ability. There are now more than 75 companies across the United States, and the work they are doing, catalyzed and encouraged by El Teatro Campesino, is helping to create a Chicano consciousness, dignity, and sense of purpose.

While the Teatros spawned by El Teatro used the acto form originated by Valdez, he himself, after 1971, created what he called the mito, moving further in the direction of myth and symbolism, and relating to the great religious sense and spiritual intuition deep-seated within the Chicano self. Valdez became ever more convinced that the Chicano must grasp his indigenous heritage as the spiritual key to his existence and purpose in life.

The mito was a theatrical form with roots in the many-layered culture of the Chicano. It drew upon Aztec ritual, Mexican folklore, and Christian drama. The auto sacramentale structure was familiar to many Chicanos, and Valdez used elements of this in a conjunction with the basic folk-ballad form of the Chicano—the Corrido, 'handed down from generation to generation … a living part of the Chicano's cultural heritage. Love, hate, jealousy, courage, pride—all of the universal themes of man's existence on earth are expressed in these songs.'

El Teatro took some of these well known ballads and acted them out to the accompaniment of the guitar and singing, and then incorporated this into the mito structure. Thus the mito became the playing and singing of a narrative idea, which was illustrated by emblematic symbolism and ritual taken from the medieval religious drama, the whole being salted by the vigorous, earthy humour which had formed a dynamic element of the secular medieval theatre.

The mito was still geared to the making of direct points about the everyday experience of the Chicano, while this was now seen in the much wider perspective of a total Chicano sensibility. To educate the Chicano to a fuller understanding of himself, to ennoble him in his own eyes, this was the function of the mito, in which Valdez was using traditional religious forms to proselytize a contemporary religion—La Raza.

The levels of consciousness at work in the mito are well illustrated by the setting Valdez calls for in his play The Dark Root of a Scream. This play followed Soldado Razo, in which Valdez was moving towards his new form. The stage directions ask for:

a collage of myth and reality. It forms, in fact, a pyramid with the most real artifacts of barrio life at the broad base and an abstract mythical-religious peak at the top. Above these scenes (of barrio reality) some images are made of iron and the hard steel of modern civilization—guns, knives, automobile parts; others reveal a less violent, more spiritual origin—molcajetes, rebozos, crucifixes, etc. Finally, the very top of the pyramid is dominated by ancient indio images: conches, jade, the sunstone, feathered serpent heads.

The circumstances of this play are the wake for a dead Chicano soldier, killed in Vietnam, whose coffin is set at the top of the pyramid. The action concerns the response to the death of the solider, whose name is Quetzalcoatl Gonzales, from his family, three youths who were his friends, and the Catholic priest who has come to 'comfort' the family.

Moving in and out of the various levels of physical reality, the play touches upon the wasted lives of the youths, removed as they are from any sense of cultural identity; the passivity of the family who have settled for a colonized existence; and the stupidity and futility of the priest, whose fear of the Church leads him to reinforce the situation by explaining it as God's will. At the climax of the play a heartbeat is heard from the coffin and, when it is opened by the mother, feathers and Quetzalcoatl's heart are discovered. This final symbolism relates to the early Aztec sacrifices to the Sun God, when the heart was torn out of a living body, and to the significance of Quetzalcoatl as the redeemer of the Indian people—here still living, despite being killed by the colonizers.

In The Dark Root of a Scream, as in all his most recent plays, Valdez is attempting to reach the deepest levels of Chicano consciousness by his use of elements of Mayan and Aztec rituals, and their Christian equivalents. As was the case in all pagan societies, when the Indians of Mexico were converted to Christianity many of their rituals were simply overlaid with the new Christian sacraments. Thus, in the Mayan ritual of Quetzalcoatl, the God is sacrificed and rises again, so that the analogy with Christ can readily be made.

There is also a close analogy between the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Aztec's own earth mother Tonantzin. The first appearance of the Virgin, to Juan Diego in 1531, was on the very hill which was the traditional home of Tonantzin. El Teatro Campesino has treated this idea which closely binds the Christian Chicano to his pre-Columbian ancestors, and has adapted a play, La Virgen del Tepeyac, from an original manuscript of the appearance to Juan Diego, written in 1531.

The play opens with the corrido idea—a traditional song dealing with the adoration of Tonantzin, to which new lyrics have been written. This is followed by a dramatization of the arrival of Cortez, the destruction of the old religion, and the yoking of the Indians to Christianity. One of the climactic moments, and most powerful images of the play, is the appearance of the Virgin out of a symbolic womb made up of the slaughtered bodies of the Indians. Lofted high on a platform the Virgin speaks to Juan Diego and tells him that she has come to end the injustice.

El Teatro's play deals with the true economic nature of the Spanish conquest, under its cloak of religious conversion, and, more importantly, suggests that the Chicano can discover his true roots and spiritual identity through the symbol of the Virgin of Guadalupe-cum-Tonantzin. That same mother earth from which we must all derive our inner strength, a sense of unity and universal love.

Possibly the most complete example of the structure and impact that Valdez is now seeking is to be found in La Carpa de los Rasquachis (The Tent of the Underdogs), of which Valdez has said, 'It's everything we have ever done, with this whole extra dimension, the spiritual.' The play begins almost casually, with the members of the company coming on stage, clowning, chatting up the audience and erecting their 'tent' backdrop—a curtain made up of potato sacks and torn burlap. This suggests a basic simplicity and poverty—but more than that for the tent recalls those used by shows which toured small Mexican towns in the 1930s. The tent is the home of the under-privileged Rasquachi family in the play, and also houses the whole cultural history of the Chicanos. Three separate but inter-related levels of reality are thus established.

The play proper begins with the narrative musical choruses, which tie all the scenes together. Then a religious procession makes a formal entrance. Christ, with a halter round his neck, is led by a black-masked figure, overpainted with a white skeleton, wearing the helmet of the sixteenth-century Spanish Conquistadores. Devil-masked executioners surround the Christ-figure, who is ritualistically crucified.

The awesome silence attending this action is broken by lively mariachi rhythms, and we are swept into the life of poor Jesus Rasquachi, a Chicano farm-worker who is lured across the border to the United States by hopes of economic advancement and the collusion of corrupt customs officials and labour agents. The play follows the fortunes of his family through the typical experience of such a worker. One son becomes a dope addict, another a pusher; a brother becomes a dupe for an Anglo political machine, and is killed for his pains. Finally, a worn-out shell, Rasquachi dies on the floor of the welfare office while being forced to make belittling statements about himself in order to get the state's pittance.

The play is performed in Spanglish by the company of twelve players, who change hats and props with skilled panache and act with great physical agility and comic flair. Nothing escapes El Teatro's eye as it exposes all that it believes to stand in the way of the full realization of Chicano individuality. It satirizes equally the puffed-up machismo of posturing revolutionary activists, and the corruption of the Catholic Church—here symbolized by a bishop with a dollar sign upon his mitre.

As in The Dark Root of a Scream, the essence of the play is an appeal for a return to a kind of atavistic spirituality. As a reviewer put it:

El Teatro finally advocates a militant nonviolence, a compassion which is not synonymous with compromise, and a religious innocence which is not naivety. Transcendence for the Chicano cannot be attained through Catholicism, but rather through a uniting of the White Christ with the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl.

A scene exemplifying this idea takes place at the end of the play, when Quetzalcoatl is reborn, magnificent in his Indian dress, transcending the tattered, materialism around him. In his absence, there has been no peace, no hope for the Chicano. He brings an end to universal discord with a simple philosophy: you are my other self, if I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself. It is this philosophy that El Teatro is now attempting to live and to propagate.

Luis Valdez' move from active political involvement to a more personal and seemingly passive form of spiritual approach has brought criticism from some radical Chicano quarters. Valdez himself sees El Teatro's present orientation as a logical extension of its development from a theatre dealing with specific problems of the striking farmworkers, through the wider material problems of the Chicano minority to more fundamental human goals.

Now our acts are the acts of human beings living and working on this earth…. We are still very much the political theatre, but our politics are the politics of the spirit—not of the flesh, but of the heart.

In this search for spiritual rebirth, Valdez is greatly influenced by the myth of Quetzalcoatl, who has appeared in all the recent plays. The God of positive force, Quetzalcoatl was defeated by the God of negative force, Tezcatipoca, more than a thousand years ago. The rebirth of Quetzalcoatl is due, according to the Mayan calendar, towards the end of this century, when the world will once again enter a period of peace and positive dynamic. Valdez believes the current task of El Teatro to be the bringing of people to a spiritual understanding which will prepare them for Quetzalcoatl's return.

This purpose informs the life-style and work of the company in its communal existence in San Juan Bautista. It still 'combats poverty and oppression in the heart of the richest agricultural valley in the world,' but now does this in the context of La Raza and a wider universal brotherhood. El Teatro's roots are more than ever in a Chicano reality, for the capacity for powerfully simple religious belief is as much a part of the Chicano's daily existence as the soil from which he draws his living. The same hands pray and pick grapes with equal honesty. It is to the full consciousness of this reality that El Teatro now appeals.

While discovering a soul, El Teatro Campesino has not lost its vulgar energy. While affirming man's sublimity, it still laughs at his human absurdity. The theatre remains as funky, beautiful, coarse, delicate, commonplace, and cosmic as La Raza itself. Words written by Luis Valdez in 1970 connect the past with the present, and to the future of El Teatro:

Beyond the mass struggle of La Raza in the fields and barrios of America, there is an internal struggle in the very heart of our people. That struggle too calls for revolutionary change. Our belief in God, the Church, the social role of women—these must be subject to examination and redefining on some kind of public platform. And that again means teatro. Not simply a teatro composed of actos or agit-prop, but a teatro of ritual, of music, of beauty and spiritual sensitivity. A teatro of legends and myths. A teatro of religious strength. This type of theatre will require real dedication.

Such dedication to theatre, to his people, and to all humanity has always been the guiding spirit and sustaining force of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino.

(read more)

This section contains 5,621 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by John Harrop and Jorge Huerta
Follow Us on Facebook