Luis Valdez | Interview by Luis Valdez with David Savran

This literature criticism consists of approximately 23 pages of analysis & critique of Luis Valdez.
This section contains 6,622 words
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Interview by Luis Valdez with David Savran

SOURCE: An interview in American Theatre, Vol. 4, No. 10, January, 1988, pp. 15-21, 56-7.

In the following interview, Valdez discusses his career as a playwright and the roles of politics and mysticism in his work.

One month into the 1965 Delano grape strike, which solidified the power of the United Farm Workers, 23-year-old Luis Valdez met with a group of union volunteers and devised a short comic skit to help persuade reluctant workers to join the strike. He hung signs reading Huelgista (striker) on two men and Esquirol (scab) on a third. The two Huelgistas started yelling at the Esquirol and the audience laughed. Thus began Valdez's career as founder and director of El Teatro Campesino—a career that in the more than two decades since has thrust him to the forefront of the complex and politically charged Hispanic search for identity in the Anglo culture of the United States.

Riding the wave of growing Hispanic numbers and influence, Valdez has come into his own in no less than three media: his latest play, the comedy I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges, drew cheers in recent seasons at the Los Angeles Theater Center and San Diego Repertory Company; Corridos, a series of staged Mexican folk ballads, was videotaped and aired as a PBS-TV special in October; and La Bamba, a movie about '50s rock-and-roller Ritchie Valens that Valdez wrote and directed was released over the summer (in English and Spanish versions) to critical accolades and box-office success. "There was a time when I spoke only to Chicanos—now I want a national audience," Valdez admits. But the recent mainstreaming of his work has not obscured the continuity or clarity of Valdez's intention: to communicate the Chicano experience in all of its political, cultural and religious complexity.

That intention was shaped in El Teatro Campesino's early history and fired by its struggles. During the company's first years it was a union tool, performing in meeting halls, fields and strike camps. Drawing on commedia dell' arte and elements of Mexican folk culture, Valdez created actos, short comic sketches designed to raise political awareness and inspire action. Los Vendidos (The Sellouts, 1967), for example, attacks the stereotyping of Chicanos and government-sanctioned tokenism. A Chicano secretary from Governor Reagan's office goes to Honest Sancho's Used Mexican Lot to buy "a Mexican type" for the front office. She examines several models—a farm worker, a young pachuco (a swaggering street kid), a revolucionario and finally a Mexican-American in a business suit who sings "God Bless America" and drinks dry martinis. As soon as she buys the last, he malfunctions and begins shouting "Viva la huelga," while the others chase her away and divide the money.

At the same time that he was writing and performing agitprop for the Farm Workers, Valdez turned to examine his pre-Columbian heritage, the sophisticated religion and culture of the ancient Mayans. The Teatro settled in two houses in San Juan Bautistas in 1971, where they farmed according to Mayan practices and Valdez developed the second of his dramatic forms, the mito (myth), which characteristically takes the form of a parable based on Indian ritual. For Valdez the mito is an attempt to integrate political activism and religious ritual—to tie "the cause of social justice" to "the cause of everything else in our universe." Bernabe (1970) is a parable about the prostitution of the land. It opposes the pure, mystical love for La Tierra (the Earth) by the mentally retarded campesino of the title against its simple possession by landowners and banks. At the play's end Bernabe is visited by La Luna (the Moon, dressed as a 1942 pachuco), La Tierra and El Sol (the Sun) in the guise of Tonatiuh, the Aztec sun god. In a final apotheosis, the "cosmic idiot" is made whole and united with La Tierra, at last revealed to be Coatlicue, the Aztec goddess of life, death and rebirth.

In the 1970s Valdez developed a third dramatic form, the corrido (ballad), which, like the mito, is intended to claim a cultural heritage rather than inspire political revolution. The corrido is Valdez's reinvention of the musical, based on Mexican-American folk ballads telling tales of love, death and heroism. Zoot Suit (1978) is perhaps his best known corrido and was the first Hispanic play to reach Broadway, after a long and successful run in Los Angeles. Mixing narrative, action, song and dance, it is the story of members of a zoot suit-clad pachuco gang of the '40s, their wrongful conviction for murder and the "Zoot Suit Riots" that followed.

I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges takes on the political and existential implications of acting, both in theatre and society. It takes place in a television studio in which is set the suburban southern California home of Buddy and Connie Villa, two assimilated, middle-class Chicanos, "the silent bit king and queen of Hollywood." Their son, Sonny, who has just dropped out of Harvard Law School and has returned home with his Asian-American girlfriend, tries to find work in Hollywood, but despairs at having to become one of the many "actors faking our roles to fit into the great American success story." With Pirandellian sleight of hand, Valdez uses a director to interrupt the scene (which it turns out is an episode of a new sitcom, Badges!) in order to debate the social function of art. "This isn't reality," Sonny protests. But the director assures him, "Frankly, reality's a big boring pain in the ass. We're in the entertainment business. Laughs, Sonny, that's more important than reality."

Although closer to mainstream comedy than mystery play, Valdez's exploration of role-playing represents more a development of than a break with the technique of his early mitos. Both Bernabe and Badges eschew naturalism in favor of a more theatrically bold style, the earlier play drawing upon a naive former model and the later a sophisticated one. Bernabe, in keeping with the conventions of religious drama, opts for a simple, mystical ending, while Badges refuses the pat resolution of television sitcom by offering several alternative endings. Both examine the spiritual implications of material choices; both are celebratory despite their socially critical vision.

Deep connections are evident in Valdez's uniquely diverse collection of plays. As he shapes the experience of Chicanos into drama that speaks to all Americans, he is also examining the interrelationship between the political and the metaphysical, between historically determined oppressive structures and man's transhistorical desire for faith and freedom.

I spoke with Valdez in May 1987, in his El Teatro Campesino office in San Juan Bautista.

[Savran]: How did you get interested in theatre?

[Valdez]: There's a story that's almost apocryphal, I've repeated it so many times now. It's nevertheless true. I got hooked on the theatre when I was six. I was born into a family of migrant farm workers and shortly after World War II we were in a cotton camp in the San Joaquin valley. The season was over, it was starting to rain, but we were still there because my dad's little Ford pickup truck had broken down and was up on blocks and there was no way for us to get out. Life was pretty meager then and we survived by fishing in a river and sharing staples like beans, rice and flour. And the bus from the local school used to come in from a place called Stratford—irony of ironies, except it was on the San Joaquin River [laughs].

I took my lunch to school in a little brown paper bag—which was a valuable commodity because there were still paper shortages in 1946. One day as school let out and kids were rushing toward the bus, I found my bag missing and I went around in a panic looking for it. The teacher saw me and said, "Are you looking for your bag?" and I said, "Yes." She said, "Come, here," and she took me in the little back room and there, on a table, were some things laid out that completely changed my perception of the universe. She'd torn the bag up and placed it in water. I was horrified. But then she showed me the next bowl. It was a paste. She was making papier-mâché. A little farther down the line, she'd taken the paper and put in on a clay mold of a face of a monkey, and finally there was a finished product, unpainted but nevertheless definitely a monkey. And she said, "I'm making masks."

I was amazed, shocked in an exhilarating way, that she could do this with paper and paste. As it turned out, she was making masks for the school play. I didn't know what a play was, but she explained and said, "We're having tryouts." I came back the next week all enthused and auditioned for a part and got a leading role as a monkey. The play was about Christmas in the jungle. I was measured for a costume that was better than the clothes I was wearing at the time, certainly more colorful. The next few weeks were some of the most exciting in my short life. After seeing the stage transformed into a jungle and after all the excitement of the preparations—I doubt that it was as elaborate as my mind remembers it now—my dad got the truck fixed and a week before the show was to go on, we moved away. So I never got to be in the Christmas play.

That left an unfillable gap, a vacuum that I've been pouring myself into for the last 41 years. From then on, it was just a question of evolution. Later I got into puppets. I was a ventriloquist, believe it or not. In 1956 when I was in high school, I became a regular on a local television program. I was still living in a barrio with my family, a place in San Jose called Sal Si Puedes—Get Out if You Can. It was one of those places with dirt streets and potholes, a terrible place. But I was on television, right? [laughs], and I wrote my own stuff and it established me in high school.

By the time I graduated, I had pretty well decided that writing was my consuming passion. Coming from my background, I didn't feel right about going to my parents and saying, "I want to be a playwright." So I started college majoring in math and physics. Then one day late in my freshman year I walked to the drama department and decided, "To hell with it, I'm going to go with this." I changed majors to English, with an emphasis on playwriting, and that's what I did for the rest of my college days.

In 1964 I wrote and directed my first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa. People saw it and gave me a lot of encouragement. I joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe the following year, and then in '65 joined the Farm Workers Union and essentially started El Teatro Campesino. The evolution has been continuous since then, both of the company and of my styles of playwriting.

During that period, what was your most important theatre training—college, the Mime Troupe?

It's all important. It's a question of layering. I love to layer things, I think they achieve a certain richness—I'm speaking now about "the work." But life essentially evolves that way, too. Those years of studying theatre history were extremely important. I connected with a number of ancient playwrights in a very direct way. Plautus was a revelation, he spoke directly to me. I took four years of Latin so I was able to read him in Latin. There are clever turns of phrases that I grew to appreciate and, in my own way, was able almost to reproduce in Spanish. The central figure of the wily servant in classical Roman drama—Greek also—became a standard feature of my work with El Teatro Campesino. The striker was basically a wily servant. I'd also been exposed to commedia dell' arte through the Brighellas, Arlecchinos and Pantalones. I saw a direct link between these commedia types and the types I had to work with in order to put together a Farm Workers' theatre. I chose to do an outdoor, robust theatre of types. I figured it hit the reality.

My second phase was the raw, elemental education I got, performing under the most primitive conditions in the farm labor camps and on flatbed trucks. In doing so, I dealt with the basic elements of drama: structure, language, music, movement. The first education was literary, the second practical. We used to put on stuff every week, under all kinds of circumstances: outdoors, indoors, under the threat of violence.

There was a period during the grape strike in '67 when we had become an effective weapon within the Farm Workers and were considered enough of a threat that a rumor flashed across the strike camp that somebody was after me with a high-powered rifle. We went out to the labor camp anyway, but I was really sweating it. I don't think I've sweated any performance since then. It changed my perspective on what I was doing. Was this really worth it? Was it a life-and-death issue? Of course it was for me at the time, and still is. I learned that in a very direct and practical way. I was beaten and kicked and jailed, also in the '60s, essentially for doing theatre. I knew the kind of theatre we were doing was a political act, it was art and politics. At least I hope I wasn't being kicked for the art [laughs].

What other playwrights had a major impact on you in those days?

Brecht looms huge in my orientation. I discovered Brecht in college, from an intellectual perspective. That was really the only way—no one was doing Brecht back in 1961. When Esslin's book, Brecht: The Man and His Work, came out in 1960, I was working in the library, so I had first dibs on all the new books. Brecht to me had been only a name. But this book opened up Brecht and I started reading all his plays and his theories, which I subscribed to immediately. I continue to use his alienation effect to this day. I don't think audiences like it too much, but I like it because it seems to me an essential feature of the experience of theatre.

Theatre should reflect an audience back on itself: You should think as well as feel. Still, there's no underestimating the power of emotional impact—I understand better now how ideas are conveyed and exchanged on a beam of emotion. I think Brecht began to discover that in his later works and integrated it. I've integrated a lot of feeling into my works, but I still love ideas. I still love communicating a concept, an abstraction. That's the mathematician in me.

How has your way of writing changed over the years?

What has changed over the years is an approach and a technique. The first few years with the Teatro Campesino were largely improvisational. I wrote outlines. I sketched out a dramatic structure, sometimes on a single page, and used that as my guide to direct the actors. Later on, I began to write very simple scripts that were sometimes born out of improvisations. During the first 10 years, from '65 to '75, the collective process became more complicated and more sophisticated within the company—we were creating longer pieces, full-length pieces, but they'd take forever to complete using the collective process.

By 1975 I'd taken the collective process as far as I could. I enjoyed working with people. I didn't have to deal with the loneliness of writing. My problem was that I was so much part of the collective that I couldn't leave for even a month without the group having serious problems. By 1975 we were stable enough as a company for me to begin to take a month, two months, six months, eventually a year. I turned a corner and was ready to start writing plays again.

In 1975 I took a month off and wrote a play called El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World). We began to create it the year before and did it through 1980, a different version every year. The characters were people born of my experience, and they are still alive for me. Someday I'll finish all of that as a play or else it will be poured into a screenplay for a "major motion picture" [laughs]. Shortly after that, in 1977, I was invited by the Mark Taper Forum to write a play for their New Theatre for Now series. We agreed on the Zoot Suit Riots as a subject. Zoot Suit firmly reestablished my self-identity as a playwright. Essentially I've been writing nonstop since '75. That's not to say I didn't write anything between '65 and '75. Soldado Razo, which is probably my most performed play around the world, was written in 1970, as was Bernabe. The Dark Root of a Scream was written in 1967. These are all one-acts. But I used to work on them with a sense of longing, wanting more time to be able to sit down and write.

Now I'm firmly back in touch with myself as a playwright. When I begin, I allow myself at least a month of free association with notes. I can start anywhere. I can start with an abstract notion, a character … it's rarely dialogue or anything specific like that. More often than not, it's just an amorphous bunch of ideas, impressions and feelings. I allow myself to tumble in this ball of thoughts and impressions, knowing that I'm heading toward a play and that eventually I've got to begin dealing with character and then structure.

Because of the dearth of Hispanic playwrights—or even American playwrights, for that matter—I felt it necessary to explore the territory, to cover the range of theatre as widely as I could. Political theatre with the Farm Workers was sometimes minimal scale, a small group of workers gathered in some dusty little corner in a labor camp, and sometimes immense—huge crowds, 10,000, 15,000, with banners flying. But the political theatre extends beyond the farm worker into the whole Chicano experience. We've dealt with a lot of issues: racism, education, immigration—and that took us, again, through many circles.

We evolved three separate forms: the acto was the political act, the short form, 15 minutes; the mito was the mythic, religious play; and the corrido was the ballad. I just finished a full-length video program called Corridos. So the form has evolved into another medium. I do political plays, musicals, historical dramas, religious dramas. We still do our religious plays at the Mission here every year. They're nurturing, they feed the spirit. Peter Brook's response when he saw our Virgin play, years ago, was that it was like something out of the Middle Ages. It's religious for many of the people who come see it, not just entertainment. And of course we've gone on to do serious plays and comedies like I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges.

It seems that a play like Bernabe aligns the mito and the acto, the politics and the myth. It uses religious mysticism to point out the difference between simply owning the land and loving it. The political point is made by appeal to mystical process.

The spiritual aspect of the political struggle has been part of the work from the beginning. Some of that is through Cesar Chavez, who is a spiritual-political leader. Some people—say, the political types—have had trouble dealing with the spiritual. They say, "It's distortion. Religion is the opium of the masses." But it seems to me that the spiritual is very much part of everyday life. There's no way to exclude it … we are spirit. We're a manifestation of something, of an energy.

The whole fusion between the spiritual and the material is for me the paradox of human existence. That's why I connected with Peter Brook when he was here in '73—his question was, "How do you make the invisible visible?" To me myth is not something that's fake or not real. On the contrary, it's so real that it's just below the surface—it's the supporting structure of our everyday reality. That makes me a lot more Jungian than Freudian. And it distinguishes me, I think, from a lot of other playwrights. A lot of modern playwrights go to psycho-analysis to work out their problems. I can't stop there, that's just the beginning for me. I've had to go to the root of my own existence in order to effect my own salvation, if you will. The search for meaning took me into religion and science, and into mythology.

I had to sound out these things in myself. Someone pointed out to me the evolution a couple of years ago. The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa is theatre of the absurd. One of the characters, the oldest brother, is a disembodied head, huge, oversized. And he eats all of the food that the family can produce. So they stay poor. He has lice that turn out to be tiny little cockroaches that grow and cover the walls. He sings La Cucaracha but cannot talk. And he can't move. He's just kind of there. In a metaphorical sense, that was me back in the early '60s. That's the way I felt—that I had no legs, no arms. By 1970, when I got to Bernabe, I was the idiot, but I'd gotten in contact with the sun and the moon and earth. Fortunately, out of these grotesque self-portraits, my characters have attained a greater and greater degree of humanity.

I've always had difficulty with naturalism in the theatre. Consequently, a lot of people have looked at my work and said, "Maybe he just can't write naturalism. His is the theatre of types, of simplistic little stick figures." What I needed was a medium in which to be able to do that, so I came to film. La Bamba is naturalism, as well as of the spirit. There I wanted the dirt, so I got the dirt. I wanted intimate realistic scenes between two real people. I can write that stuff for the stage too, but it just doesn't interest

Valdez as the narrator for Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution, which he also wrote and directed. The program was aired by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1987.Valdez as the narrator for Corridos! Tales of Passion and Revolution, which he also wrote and directed. The program was aired by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1987.
me. The stage for me—that box, that flat floor—holds other potentials; it's a means to explore other things.

As much a ritual space as anything else.

Most definitely. It seems to me that the essence of the human being is to act, to move through space in patterns that gives his life meaning. We adorn ourselves with symbolic objects that give that movement even more meaning. Then we come out with sounds. And then somewhere along the line we begin to call that reality—but it's a self-created reality. The whole of civilization is a dance. I think the theatre celebrates that.

So religion functions in your work as a connection with the past, with one's heritage and one's bond to all men.

Sounding out those elemental drums, going back into the basics. I was doing this as a Chicano but I was also doing it as someone who inhabits the 20th century. I think we need to reconnect. The word religion means "a tying back." The vacuum I thought I was born into turned out to be full of all kinds of mystery and power. The strange things that were going on in the barrio—the Mexican things, the ethnic things—seemed like superstition, but on another level there was a lot of psychic activity. There's a lot of psychic activity in Mexican culture that is actually political at times.

Zoot Suit is another extremely spiritual, political play. And it was never understood. People thought it was about juvenile delinquents and that I was putting the Pachuco on the stage just to be snide. But the young man, Henry Reyna, achieves his own liberation by coming into contact with this internal authority. The Pachuco is the Jungian self-image, the superego if you will, the power inside every individual that's greater than any human institution. The Pachuco says, "It'll take more than the U.S. Navy to beat me down," referring to the Navy and Marines stripping zoot suiters in the 1940s. "I don't give a fuck what you do to me, you can't take this from me. And I reassert myself, in this guise." The fact that critics couldn't accept that guise was too bad, but it doesn't change the nature of what the play's about. It deals with self-salvation. And you can follow the playwright through the story—I was also those two dudes. With Zoot Suit I was finally able to transcend social conditions, and the way I did it on stage was to give the Pachuco absolute power, as the master of ceremonies. He could snap his fingers and stop the action. It was a Brechtian device that allowed the plot to move forward, but psychically and symbolically, in the right way.

And Chicanos got off on it. That's why a half-million people came to see it in L.A. Because I had given a disenfranchised people their religion back. I dressed the Pachuco in the colors of Testatipoka, the Aztec god of education, the dean of the school of hard knocks. There's another god of culture, Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, who's much kinder. He surfaces in La Bamba as the figure of Ritchie Valens. He's an artist and poet and is gentle and not at all fearful. When my audiences see La Bamba, they like that positive spirit. The Pachuco's a little harder to take.

But these are evolutions. I use the metaphor of the serpent crawling out of its skin. There's that symbolism in La Bamba—it's pre-Columbian, but it's also very accurate in terms of the way that I view my own life. I've crawled through many of my own dead skins.

Although Badges and Bernabe are very different, in both of them the metaphysical is given a political dimension.

I like to think there's a core that's constant. In one way, what I have to say is quite basic, quite human. In another way, it's specifically American, in a continental sense. I'm reaching back to pre-Columbian America and trying to share that. I feel and sense those rhythms within me. I'm not just a Mexican farm worker. I'm an American with roots in Mayan culture. I can resonate and unlock some of the mysteries of this land which reside in all of us. I've just been in the neighborhood a little bit longer.

What about the endings of your plays? Zoot Suit's seems very Brechtian, a happy ending immediately called into question. Then you present three different possible futures for the characters. And Badges is similar. You present what could happen, depending on the choices the characters make.

Multiple endings—multiple beginnings, too—have started to evolve in my work. I don't think there's any single end. I firmly believe that, we exist simultaneously on seven levels—you can call them shakras if you're so inclined, or you can call them something else. In the Mayan sculptures, there's a vision of the universe in those ancient headdresses, in which you see the open mouths of birds with human heads coming through them, and then something else going in through the eyes and coming out again. That's a pulsating vision of the universe. It might have been born from the jungle but is, nevertheless, an accurate description of what is going on below the surface, at the nuclear level, in the way atomic particles are interacting. To me the universe is a huge, pulsating, enormously vital and conscious phenomenon. There is no end. There is no beginning. There's only an apparent end and an apparent beginning.

We had an ending and beginning to La Bamba, which I had scripted and seemed right on paper. But our first preview audiences rejected them. So eventually we snipped them. What we had was not exactly a Brechtian turn, but it was a stepping back and looking at the '50s from the perspective of the '80s. They wanted to stay in the '50s. I had been trying, on some level, to alleviate the pain of Ritchie Valens' death, but audiences told us, "Leave us with the pain." So that's where we left it.

Can you describe how you work as a director with your own material?

As a director I switch gears. Writing is a solitary process—you're in there with the words, and I love that. But I also love directing, getting out of myself and into other people. As a director—and this again comes from my experiences in the Farm Worker days—I have to know who I'm working with. And what they are like. If I have four actors, or a dozen actors, plus crew, my first job as a director is to get them to become one, to get them hot enough about doing the project so that there's a lot of enthusiasm.

More and more the first thing I want to establish in character development is movement. You can't have a feeling, an emotion, without motion. You can pick up a lot from the associative school, referring back to your own experiences, but I think it's also possible to get people to laugh and cry through what they do to their bodies.

Very often that's the difference between acting for film and acting for the stage. You can't get away with "acting" on film. You have to cut it so close to the bone, you have to be, to get down-and-dirty. It's "the Method," to be sure. So you have to make it small, intense and real. On the stage, because you have to project, things sometimes get out of whack. And you have to switch to a new mentality. This is where ritual comes in. Performance on the stage is much more like dance than anything else. Dance is real. You can't fake dance. But somehow a lot of people start acting as if they're "acting," and think they're doing it right. In fact, acting is something totally different: it's a real act. Which gets back to politics, in that our first theatrical acts were real political acts. That's why that dude was out there with a high-powered rifle—he wasn't seeing theatre, but a threatening political act.

Now it seems that the political dimension has become sublimated, less explicit. You're no longer writing agitprop.

There is a time and place for all forms. It's 20 years down the road. But the political impact is still there. The only difference is that I'm being asked to run for governor now, which I'm not interested in doing. My purpose is still to impact socially, culturally and politically. I'm reaffirming some things that are very important to all of us as Americans, those things that we all believe to be essential to our society. What I hope is changing is a perception about the country as a whole. And the continent as well.

I'm just trying to kick my two cents into the pot. I still want El Teatro Campesino to perform on Broadway, because I think that's a political act. El Teatro Campesino is in Hollywood, and I don't think we've compromised any social statements. We started out in '65 doing these actos within the context of the United Farm Workers. Twenty-two years later, my next movie may be about the grape strike. My Vietnam was at home. I refused to go to Vietnam, but I encountered all the violence I needed on the home front: People were killed by the Farm Workers' strike.

Some critics have accused you of selling out.

I used to joke, "It's impossible for us to sell out because nobody wants to buy us." That doesn't bother me in the least. There's too much to do, to be socially conscious about. In some ways, it's just people sounding me out. I don't mind people referring back to what I have been. We're all like mirrors to each other. People help to keep you on course. I've strayed very little from my pronounced intentions.

In '67 when we left United Farm Workers and started our own cultural center in Del Rey, we came out with a manifesto, essentially stating that we were trying to put the tools of the artist in the hands of the humblest, the working people. But not just 19th-century tools, not clay and straw or spit and masking tape or felt pens. We were talking about video, film, recording studios. Now we're beginning to work in the best facilities that the industry has to offer. What we do with them from here is something else.

Do you read the critics?

Sure. I love listening to the public. They're the audience, who am I to argue with them? They either got it or they didn't. The critics are part of the process. I do have some strong feelings about the nature of American criticism—I don't think that it's deeply rooted enough in a knowledge of theatre history. Very often newspapers just assign reporters, Joe Blow off the street. Perhaps it would be too much for the public to have somebody that's overly informed—is that possible?—about the theatre.

How do you see the American theatre today?

The overwhelming impression for me is that theatre's not nearly as interesting as it could be, that it's been stuck in its traces for many, many years. Broadway has not moved out of the '20s, from what I can see. It might be due to the fact that so many of the houses on Broadway are 19th-century playhouses. But much of the material that I see—and I don't see nearly enough—is too anemic for my tastes. I have trouble staying awake in the theatre, believe it or not. I can barely stay awake at my own plays.

I feel that the whole question of the human enterprise is up for grabs. I don't think this country has come to terms with its racial questions, obviously. And because of that, it has not really come to terms with the cultural question of what America is. There are two vast melting pots that must eventually come together. The Hispanic, after all, is really the product of a melting pot—there's no such thing as a Latin American race. The Hispanic melting pot melds all the races of the world, like the Anglo melting pot does; so one of these days, and probably in the United States, those two are going to be poured together—probably in a play, and it could be one of my own [laughs].

There's a connection with the Indian cultures that has to be established in American life. Before we can do that, however, we have to get beyond the national guilt over the genocide of the Indian. What's needed is expiation and forgiveness, and the only ones that are in a position to forgive are the Indian peoples. I'm a Yaqui Indian—Spanish blood, yes, but largely Yaqui. I'm in a position to be able to forgive white people. And why not? I think that's what we're here for, to forgive each other. Martin Luther King speaking in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial was a beginning. It didn't reach nearly far enough. We're still wrestling with it. Deep fears, about miscegenation and the despoliation of the race, have to be dealt with. I'm here, through my work, to show that short, brown people are okay, you know what I mean? We've got ideas, too, and we've got a song and a dance or two. And we know something about the world that we can share. I'm here to show that to other brown people who don't think very much of themselves, and there are a lot of those.

I wish there were more plays that dealt with the reality of this country. The racial issue is always just swept aside. It deserves to be swept aside—once it's been dealt with. We cannot begin to approach a real solution to our social ills—a solution like integration, for instance, or assimilation—without dealing with all our underlying feelings about each other. I'm trying to deal with my past, not just with respect to Anglos, but to blacks and Asians. I draw on the symbolism of the four roads: the black road, the white road, the red road and the yellow road. They all meet in the navel of the universe, the place where the upper road leads into the underworld—read consciousness and subconsciousness. I think that where they come home is in America.

What are your plans for the future? And goals.

I'm into a very active phase right now, as writer and director, but with writing as the base. I have a number of very central stories I want to tell—on film, on television and on the stage. I want to be working in the three media, on simultaneous projects that feed each other. I like the separation between film, television and theatre. It makes each a lot clearer for me. In theatre, there are a number of ritualistic pieces I want to do that explore the movement of bodies in space and the relation between movement and language. That sphere I can explore on film, too, or television. What film gives me is movement around the actor—I can explore from any viewpoint, any distance. But theatre's the only medium that gives me the sheer beauty, power and presence of bodies. Ritual, literally.

I've got a piece that I've been working on for many, many years, called The Earthquake Sun, about our time. All I can tell you is that it will be on the road one of these days. I have another play called The Mummified Fetus. It takes off from a real incident that happened a couple years ago: an 85-year-old woman was discovered with a mummified fetus in her womb. I have a couple of plays that the world has not seen, that we've only done here with the company.

In television I have a number of projects. Corridos has begun to open up other possibilities. I talk about video as electronic theatre. I'm getting into the idea of doing theatre before cameras, but going for specifically theatrical moments as opposed to real cinematic moments. Corridos is an example of this.

I hope a more workable touring network will develop in this country. The links between East and West must be solidified. I think it's great for companies to tour. We're very excited about the possibility of our company plugging into the resources of the regional theatres, as we've done with Badges in San Diego and at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, even with the Burt Reynolds Playhouse in Jupiter, Fla. We hope to be able to go from regional theatre to regional theatre all the way across the country, including New York. In that way, we'll be able to reach a national audience.

I still want to experience the dust and sweat occasionally. I'm trying to leave time open for that. This month we're going to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the United Farm Workers, and we'll be back on a flatbed truck, doing some of the old actos. I don't want to lose any of our audience. I want worldwide audience. We had that—up until 1980 we were touring Europe and Latin America. We want to tour Asia with the Teatro Campesino. Essentially, I would like to see theatre develop the kind of mass audience—it's impossible of course—that the movies have. I wish we could generate that enthusiasm in young people and in audiences in general, get them out of their homes, away from their VCRs, to experience the theatre as the life-affirming, life-giving experience that it is.

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