This section contains 5,697 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Essay by Jorge Huerta
SOURCE: An introduction, in Zoot Suit and Other Plays by Luis Valdez, Arte Publico Press, 1992, pp. 7-20.
In the following excerpt, Huerta traces Valdez's maturation as a playwright and director, and discusses the defining qualities of his work.
For some, Luis Valdez needs no introduction; for others, his name may only be associated with his more widely seen films and television programs. No other individual has made as important an impact on Chicano theater as Luis Valdez. He is widely recognized as the leading Chicano director and playwright who, as the founder of El Teatro Campesino (Farmworker's Theatre) in 1965, inspired a national movement of theater troupes dedicated to the exposure of socio-political problems within the Chicano communities of the United States. His output includes plays, poems, books, essays, films and videos, all of which deal with the Chicano and Mexican experience in the U.S. [Before discussing Zoot Suit, Bandido!, and I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!], I would like to briefly trace the director/playwright's development, placing him and these plays in their historical context.
Luis Valdez was born to migrant farmworker parents in Delano, California, on June 26, 1940, the second in a family of ten children. Although his early schooling was constantly interrupted as his family followed the crops, he managed to do well in school. By the age of twelve, he had developed an interest in puppet shows, which he would stage for neighbors and friends. While still in high school he appeared regularly on a local television program, foreshadowing the work in film and video which would later give him his widest audience. After high school, Valdez entered San Jose State College where his interest in theater fully developed.
Valdez's first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, was produced by San Jose State College in 1964, setting the young artist's feet firmly in the theater. Following graduation in 1964, Valdez worked with the San Francisco Mime Troupe before founding El Teatro Campesino. Valdez became the Artistic Director as well as resident playwright for this raggle-taggle troupe of striking farmworkers, creating and performing brief comedia-like sketches called "actos" about the need for a farmworker's union. The acto became the signature style for the Teatro and Valdez, inspiring many other teatros to emulate this type of broad, farcical and presentational political theater based on improvisations of socio-political issues.
Within a matter of months El Teatro Campesino was performing away from the fields, educating the general public about the farmworker's struggle and earning revenue for the Union. By 1967 Valdez decided to leave the ranks of the union in order to focus on his theater rather than on the demands of a struggling labor organization. As a playwright, Valdez could now explore issues relevant to the Chicano beyond the fields; as a director, he could begin to develop a core of actors no longer committed to one cause and one style alone.
Although he and his troupe were working collectively from the beginning, the individual playwright in Valdez was anxious to emerge. Discussing the process of writing plays outside of the group, Valdez recalled: "I used to work on them with a sense of longing, wanting more time to be able to sit down and write." In 1967, the playwright did sit down and write, creating what he termed a "mito," or myth, that condemned the Vietnam war, titled Dark Root of a Scream. This contemporary myth takes place during a wake for a Chicano who died in Vietnam, an excommunity leader who should have stayed home and fought the battle in the barrio. The dead soldier becomes symbolic of all Chicanos who fought in a war that the playwright himself objected to. "I refused to go to Vietnam," Valdez said twenty years later, "but I encountered all the violence I needed on the home front: people were killed by the farmworkers' strike."
In 1968 the Teatro was awarded an Obie, off-Broadway's highest honor, and the following year Valdez and his troupe gained international exposure at the Theatre des Nations at Nancy, France. In 1970 Valdez wrote his second mito, Bernabé. This one act play is the tale of a loquito del pueblo (village idiot), Bernabé, who is in love with La Tierra (The Earth) and wants to marry her. La Tierra is portrayed as a soldadera, one of the women who followed and supported the troops during the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
Bernabé is a wonderfully written play that brings together myth and history, contemporary figures and historical icons. The allegorical figure of La Luna, brother to La Tierra, is portrayed as a Zoot Suiter. This is Valdez's first theatrical exploration of this 1940's Chicano renegade, foreshadowing one of his most powerful characters, El Pachuco, in Zoot Suit. Bernabé tells its audience that Chicanos not only have a history of struggle but are that struggle. Bernabé "marries" La Tierra and becomes a whole person; he symbolically represents all men who love and respect the earth.
Also in 1970, even as Valdez, the playwright, was scripting his individual statement about the Chicano and his relationship to the earth, Valdez, the director, was guiding the collective creation of an acto dealing with the war in Vietnam: Soldado Razo (Buck Private). Soldado Razo carefully explored some of the reasons young Chicanos were willing to go fight in Vietnam. Reflecting the influences of Bertholt Brecht's theories, the playwright uses the allegorical figure of La Muerte (Death) as a constant presence narrating the action, continually reminding his audience that this is theater and that the soldier's death is inevitable.
Soldado Razo complemented and expanded the earlier mito, Dark Root of a Scream, looking at the same issue but from a different viewpoint and in a distinct style. In Valdez's words, the acto "is the Chicano through the eyes of man," whereas the mito "is the Chicano through the eyes of God," exploring the Chicanos' roots in Mayan philosophy, science, religion and art. While Soldado Razo methodically demonstrates the eventual death of its central figure, Dark Root of a Scream begins after a soldier's death, exploring the cause from a mythical distance.
In 1971 the troupe moved to its permanent home base in the rural village of San Juan Bautista, California, where the Teatro established itself as a resident company. During this period Valdez began to explore the idea of adapting the traditional Mexican corridos, or ballads, to the stage. A singer would sing the songs and the actors would act them out, adding dialogue from the corridos' texts. Sometimes the singer/narrator would verbalize the text while the actors mimed the physical actions indicated by the song. These simple movements were stylized, enhancing the musical rhythms and adding to the unique combination of elements. The corrido style was to appear again, altered to suit the needs of a broader theatrical piece, La carpa de los Rasquachis (The Tent of the Underdogs).
Developed over a period of years, La carpa de los Rasquachis stunned the audience at the Fourth Annual Chicano Theater Festival in San Jose, California in 1973. This production became the hallmark of the Teatro for several years, touring the United States and Europe many times to great critical acclaim. This piece is epic in scope, following a Cantinflas-like (read "Mexico's Charlie Chaplin") Mexican character from his crossing the border into the U.S. and the subsequent indignities to which he is exposed until his death.
La carpa de los Rasquachis brought together a Valdezian aesthetic that could be defined as raucous, lively street theater with deep socio-political and spiritual roots. The style combined elements of the acto, mito and corrido with an almost constant musical background as a handful of actors revealed the action in multiple roles with minimal costumes, props and set changes. This was the apogee of Valdez's "poor theater," purposely based on the early twentieth-century Mexican tent shows, otherwise known as "carpas."
In an effort to define his neo-Mayan philosophy, Valdez wrote a poem, Pensamiento Serpentino, in 1973. The poem describes a way of thinking that was determining the content of Valdez's evolving dramaturgy. The poem begins:
eres el mundo
y las paredes de los
buildings más grandes
son nothing but scenery.
Later in the poem Valdez describes and revives the Mayan philosophy of "In Lak Ech" which translates as "Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me." The phrase represents the following philosophy:
Tú eres mi otro yo / You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti / If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mí mismo / I do harm to myself;
Si te amo y respeto / If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo / I love and respect myself.
In the opening lines Valdez describes Chicano theater as a reflection of the world; a universal statement about what it is to be a Chicano in the United States. Recognizing the many injustices the Chicano has suffered in this country, the poet nonetheless attempts to revive a non-violent response. Valdez creates a distinct vision of a "cosmic people" whose destiny is finally being realized as Chicanos who are capable of love rather than hate, action rather than words.
While La carpa de los Rasquachis continued to tour, Valdez made another crucial change in his development by writing Zoot Suit and co-producing it with the Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles. Once again at the vanguard, Valdez began the mainstreaming of Chicano theater, or, for some observers, "the infiltration of the regional theaters."
The director/playwright did not abandon El Teatro Campesino by getting involved with a major regional theater. The Teatro was still touring and Zoot Suit was co-produced by both theater organizations, thus including the Teatro in all negotiations and contracts. But this was a first step towards an individual identity that Valdez had previously rejected by working in a collective.
As advertised in the Los Angeles press, "On July 30, 1978, the Second Zoot Suit Riot begins," and it did. Zoot Suit played to sold-out houses for eleven months—breaking all previous records for Los Angeles theater. While the Los Angeles production continued to run, another production opened in New York on March 25, 1979, the first (and only) Chicano play to open on Broadway. Although audiences were enthusiastic, the New York critics were not, and the play was closed after a four-week run. Hurt, but undaunted, Valdez could have the satisfaction that the play continued to be the biggest hit ever in Los Angeles and a motion picture contract had been signed.
Zoot Suit marked an important turning point in Valdez's relationship with El Teatro Campesino as he began to write for actors outside the group. This experience introduced Valdez to the Hollywood Latino and non-Latino talent pool, suddenly bringing him into contact with a different breed of artist. With a large population of professionals at his disposal, Valdez's vision had to expand. No longer surrounded by sincere, but sometimes limited talent, Valdez could explore any avenue of theater he desired. The success of the Los Angeles run of Zoot Suit enabled our playwright/director to move more seriously into film making. Valdez adapted and directed Zoot Suit as a motion picture in 1981.
The collaboration with a non-Hispanic theater company and subsequent move into Hollywood film making was inevitable for Valdez; the natural course for a man determined to reach as many people as possible with his message and with his art. Theater was his life's work, it was in his blood, but so was the fascinating world of film and video.
With the financial success of Zoot Suit, Valdez purchased an old packing house in San Juan Bautista and had it converted into a theater for the company. This new playhouse and administrative complex was inaugurated in 1981 with a production of David Belasco's 1905 melodrama Rose of the Rancho, adapted by Valdez. This old fashioned melodrama was an ideal play for San Juan Bautista, because it was based on actual historical figures and events that had occurred in that town in the nineteenth century. Played as a revival of the melodrama genre, the play could be taken for face value, a tongue-in-cheek taste of history replete with stereotypes and misconceptions.
The experiment with Rose of the Rancho served as a kind of motivation for Valdez, inspiring him to write the second play in this collection, Bandido! which he then directed in 1982 in the Teatro's theater. This was Valdez's personal adaptation of the melodrama genre but with a distinctly Valdezian touch as we will see later.
Valdez wrote and directed Corridos for the 1983 season, producing this elaboration of the earlier exercises in San Francisco's Marine's Memorial Theater, a large house that was filled to capacity for six months. The San Francisco production garnered eleven awards from the Bay Area Theater Critics Circle before moving on to residencies in San Diego and Los Angeles.
All of his interaction in Hollywood and his own sense of history inspired Valdez to write the final play in this collection, I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!, first produced by El Teatro Campesino and the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1986. This production represented the beginning of yet another phase for Valdez and his company. El Teatro Campesino was no longer a full-time core of artists, living and creating collectively under Valdez's direction. Instead, the company began to contract talent only for the rehearsal and performance period. El Teatro Campesino became a producing company with Valdez at the helm as Artistic Director and writer. After great success in Los Angeles, Badges! was co-produced with the San Diego Repertory Theater and the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Florida. While the Teatro continued to produce, Valdez began to focus his efforts more on writing and directing films.
Valdez directed La Bamba, the sleeper hit of the summer of 1987, finally opening up the doors that had been so difficult to penetrate for so many years. "When I drove up to the studio gate," Valdez related, following the success of his film, "the guard at the gate told me that the pastries were taken to a certain door. The only other Mexican he ever saw delivered the pastries." That same year our playwright adapted and directed the earlier Corridos into a PBS version titled Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution, starring Linda Rondstadt and featuring himself as narrator. This production won the Peabody Award, the Pulitzer Prize of broadcasting.
Following the success of La Bamba and Corridos, Valdez continued to work on other projects for television and film as he also took his position as the leading Chicano filmmaker in Hollywood. Ever the activist, Valdez helped form the Latino Writers Group, which he hoped would pressure the studios to produce films written by Latinos. "The embryo is the screenplay," he said. "The embryo, in fact, is what is written on the page. This is where you begin to tell the difference between a stereotype and reality."
In 1991, Valdez adapted and directed La Pastorela, or Shepherd's Play for a great performances segment on PBS. This television production is based on the traditional Christmas play, which El Teatro Campesino has produced in the mission at San Juan Bautista for many years. That same year, Valdez and his wife, Lupe, co-scripted a motion picture based on the life of Frida Kahlo, for production in 1992. Plans were also underway for a revival of Bandido! in San Juan Bautista during the 1992 season as well as a re-mounting of Zoot Suit for a national tour.
Valdez's impressive career can be separated into the following four periods: Phase One, the director/playwright of the original group of farmworkers; Phase Two, a Teatro Campesino independent of the Union; Phase Three, a professional Teatro and co-productions such as Zoot Suit; and the current, Fourth Phase, Luis Valdez, the filmmaker alongside El Teatro Campesino, professional productions across the country and community-professional productions at home.
Zoot Suit is the logical culmination of all that Valdez had written before, combining elements of the acto, mito and corrido in a spectacular documentary play with music. Unlike any of his previous plays or actos, however, Zoot Suit is based on historical fact, not a current crisis.
By illuminating an actual incident in the history of Chicano-Anglo relations in Los Angeles, Zoot Suit does not have the immediacy of an acto about today's headlines. The politically aware will know that the police brutality and injustices rendered in this play are still happening; others may lose the point. Most significantly, this play illuminates events that had a major impact on the Chicano community of Los Angeles during World War II, incidents that are carefully ignored by most high school history books.
Like the acto, Zoot Suit exposes social ills in a presentational style. It is a play that is closer to the docu-drama form, owing more to Brecht than to Odets as the action reveals the events surrounding the infamous Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial of 1942. By employing a narrator, Valdez is discarding a totally representational style in favor of this more direct contact with his audience. El Pachuco's almost constant presence, underscoring Henry's inner thoughts and tribulations, skillfully captivates the audience and serves as a continual commentator on the action.
Just as La Muerte did in Soldado Razo, El Pachuco will stop the action entirely in order to make a point, telling Henry (and the audience) to listen again when the judge rules that the "zoot haircuts will be retained throughout the trial for purposes of identification …" It is a kind of "instant replay" that is only used once for maximum effect. Countering the figure of El Pachuco is the allegorical character of The Press which descends directly from the acto as well.
Like the corrido, there is a musical underscoring in Zoot Suit, placing the events in a historical context by employing the music of the period. El Pachuco sings some of the songs, as in a corrido, setting the mood through lyrics such as those that introduce the "Saturday Night Dance" in Act One, Scene Seven. While El Pachuco sings, the actors dance to the rhythms he creates, transforming from youthful fun to vengeful intensity gone wild by the end of the scene.
Some of the songs are original while others are traditional Latin or Anglo-American tunes, such as Glenn Miller's "In The Mood." Unlike the corrido, in which the music was played by live musicians, however, the music is prerecorded. The choreography is also more like that of a musical comedy during the dance numbers, staged with historical authenticity to enhance the theatricality and further engage the audience.
Most importantly, this play places the Chicanos in a historical context that identifies them as "American," by showing that they, too, danced the swing as well as the mambo. Valdez is telling his audience that the Chicanos' taste for music can be as broad as anyone's. He is also revealing a cross-culturalism in the Chicanos' language, customs and myths. As Valdez so emphatically stated when this play first appeared, "this is an American play," attempting to dispel previous notions of separatism from the society at large. He is also reminding us that Americans populate The Americas, not just the U.S.
Valdez will not ignore his indigenous American ancestors, either, employing elements of the mito very subtly when the Pachuco is stripped of his zoot suit and remains covered only by an indigenous loincloth. This image suggests the sacrificial "god" of the Aztecs, stripped bare before his heart is offered to the cosmos. It is a stunning moment in the play, when the cocky Pachuco is reduced to bare nakedness in piercing contrast to his treasured "drapes." He may be naked, but he rises nobly in his bareness, dissolving into darkness. He will return, and he does.
The character of El Pachuco also represents the Aztec concept of the "nahual," or other self as he comes to Henry's support during the solitary scene in prison. Henry is frightened, stripped emotionally bare in his cell and must rely on his imagination to recall the spirit of El Pachuco in order to survive. The strength he receives from his other self is determined by his ability to get in touch with his nahual.
The documentary form of the play is influenced by the Living Newspaper style, a documentary theater that exposed current events during the 1930's through dramatizations of those events. The use of newspapers for much of the set decoration, as well as the giant front page back-drop through which El Pachuco cuts his way at the top of the play is an effective metaphor for the all-pervading presence of the press. When Dolores Reyna hangs newspapers on the clothesline instead of actual laundry, the comment is complete.
Like most of Valdez's works, this play dramatizes a Chicano family in crisis. Henry Reyna is the central figure, but he is not alone. His familia is the link with the Chicano community in the audience, a continuing reminder that the Chicano is a community. Unlike the members of his family, however, Henry's alter-ego brings another dimension to this misunderstood figure. El Pachuco represents an inner attitude of defiance determining Henry's actions most of the time. El Pachuco is reminiscent at times of the Diablo and Diabla characters that permeated the corridos, motivating the characters' hapless choices as in Medieval morality plays.
El Pachuco's advice is not based on a moral choice, as in the corridos, but rather, on judgments of character. Mostly, El Pachuco represents the defiance against the system that identifies and determines the pachuco character. Sometimes, Henry does not take El Pachuco's advice, choosing instead to do what he thinks is right. At times, Henry has no choice, whether he listens to his alter-ego or to another part of himself, he will still get beaten. Interestingly, El Pachuco is sometimes more politically astute than the defendants themselves, allowing Henry an awareness his fellows do not have. In other instances, such as when the boys debate whether to confide in George, the boys' instincts are better for the whole and Henry must ignore El Pachuco's advice.
Now available in video, the motion picture of Zoot Suit is a vivid record of elements of the original stage production, because it was filmed in the Aquarius Theatre in Hollywood where it had played. The motion picture recreates and reconstructs the play. At times we watch the action unfolding as if we, too, are one of the hundreds sitting in the audience, watching the play; then suddenly the characters are in a realistic setting, as in a sound stage and we are enveloped in social realism. Just as the Pachuco continually reminds the audience that "this is just a play" in the stage version, the film also prompts us to remember that this is a demonstration of actual events, urging us to think about it as we watch the action moving back and forth between realities. Zoot Suit is also a rewriting of history, as is the central issue of the next play, Bandido!
Bandido! is an exploration and expurgation of old clichés about the early California bandits. Valdez's intent is to alter history by demonstrating his version of the exploits of one Tiburcio Vásquez, the last man to be publicly hanged in California. The play is therefore didactic like an acto or a docu-drama but goes beyond those forms to become a "melodrama within a play." The playwright creates a construct in which audience sees Vásquez through different eyes. Vásquez is sympathetic when observed through the playwright's eyes and a stereotype when seen through history's distorted characterization.
The key to a successful production of Bandido! lies in an understanding of the satiric nature within the form of the play. Valdez's introductory notes state the challenge to director and actors most clearly: "The contrast of theatrical styles between the realism of the jail and the trompe l'oleil of the melodrama is purely intentional and part of the theme of the play … their combined reality must be a metaphor—and not a facile cliché—of the Old West." The actors must therefore represent real people in the jail scenes and stereotypes of those characters and others in the melodramatic scenes.
Valdez is no stranger to stereotypes, as is illustrated in one of the playwright's most enduring acto, Los vendidos (The Sellouts), which he first wrote in 1967. In this very funny and popular acto, the playwright turns stereotyping around, making the audience reassess their attitudes about various Chicano and Mexican "types." We laugh, but also understand that the characteristics exposed are a reflection of Anglo perceptions and, yes, even sometimes our own biases as Chicanos. In both Los vendidos and Bandido! the playwright is portraying these characters with a clear understanding that they are stereotypes.
The characterization of Tiburcio Vásquez will vary according to the point of view of who is re-creating him on stage. If he is perceived as "real" in the jail scenes and a stereotype in the melodrama, the audience will distinguish the playwright's bias. They might also understand that their own biases come from the Hollywood stereotype of a "bandido." The actor, too, must delight in demonstrating the exaggeration, commenting upon his character even as he explores the exaggerations. This is a Brechtian acting technique, asking the actor to have an opinion about his character's actions and choices. Within the construct of the melodrama within the play, this can be effectively displayed.
Valdez clearly thinks of Vásquez as a social bandit, a gentleman who never killed anyone but who was forced into a life of crime by the Anglo invaders of his homeland. The playwright's goal here is to make Tiburcio Vásquez more than a romantic figure cloaked in evil, to present us with a reason for his actions instead of only the results.
Valdez's first play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, featured a young Chicano social bandit named Joaquín, symbolic of that better known "bandido," Joaquìn Murrieta. Labelled a pachuco by the police, Joaquìn steals from the rich to give to the poor. Neither Joaquìn nor Vásquez are clearly understood by the authorities, but they fascinate their communities. As Pico says to Vásquez in the second act: "You've given all of us Californios twenty years of secret vicarious revenge."
The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa offers hope for the community through unified social action, although the fate of Bandido!'s central figure is predetermined by history. Valdez knows that nobody can change the inequities of the past, but offers the suggestion that the future can be altered for the better, if misrepresentations of the Chicano are altered.
It is not that Valdez is attempting to completely whitewash Vásquez, either. When the Impresario asks him, "Are you comic or tragic, a good man or a bad man?" Vásquez responds: "All of them." To which the playwright might respond: "Aren't we all comic and tragic, good and bad?" It is perhaps the degree of evil that fascinates our playwright here, that degree always determined by who is being asked. Thus, the opposing views of this comic, tragic, good and bad man.
Valdez's style here is reminiscent of Luigi Pirandello, the Italian playwright and novelist whose works often turn reality inside out, leaving the reader or observer to ponder the nature of reality. Again, the Impresario states the obvious when he tells Vásquez, "Reality and theater don't mix, sir," as we watch a play that is watching its own melodrama.
Above all, Bandido! is theatrical, offering the audience a delightful mixture of songs and dances that narrate the story as in the corrido, as well as characters that can be hissed or cheered as they would have been in the nineteenth century. Melodramas were extremely popular in Mexican theaters and carpas of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in this country, a fact that histories of U.S. theater neglect to report. In other words, the genre belongs to all of us.
What makes this play truly Valdezian, however, is the fact that it is not simply a play presenting us with villains and heroes in conflict. The conflict is the melodrama itself—the distortion the Impresario wants to present for profit. "The public will only buy tickets to savour the evil in your soul," he tells Vásquez, a truism that cannot be denied. It is more fun to watch the villain than the hero in an old fashioned melodrama. In Valdez's play, however, the villain is the Impresario, precursor to a legion of Hollywood producers. If history cannot be changed in either Zoot Suit or Bandido!, the next play looks to the future as the only hope.
The Valdezian questioning of reality reaches its pinnacle in I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges! In this play the playwright presents us with a world that resembles a hall of mirrors, sometimes catching this picture, other times another view. One never knows for certain if what we are observing is real or an illusion. Instead of Bandido!'s "Melodrama within a play," we are now given a much more complex vision as Valdez explores the different levels of reality between the world of the stage and the realm of television. Like Zoot Suit, this play was written for a fully-equipped theater. Furthermore, it requires a realistic set, designed to look like a television studio setting, including video monitors hanging above the set to help the audience understand its transformation into a "live studio audience."
Badges! focuses on a middle-aged Chicano couple who have made their living as "King and Queen of the Hollywood Extras," playing non-speaking roles as maids, gardeners and the like. The couple have been very successful, having put their daughter through medical school and their son into Harvard. They have, in effect, accomplished the American Dream, with a suburban home complete with swimming pool, family room and microwave.
The major conflict arises when Sonny, alienated from the Ivy League reality, comes home from Harvard unexpectedly and announces that he has dropped-out. To make matters worse, he decides he will become a Hollywood actor. His parents, his girlfriend and the audience know his fate will be the same as his parents', playing "on the hyphen" in bit parts as thieves, drug addicts and rapists. Or will he? Like Zoot Suit, I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges! does not give a distinct ending, but rather, leaves the solution up to the audience members to decide.
While Zoot Suit takes us from a presentational style to a representational style as a play, Bandido! explores both styles transferring from the "real" Tiburcio Vásquez to the melodramatic version: Vásquez through the eyes of Luis Valdez and Vásquez through the eyes of Hollywood and dime novels. Badges!, on the other hand, takes us on a much more involved journey, by remodeling the theater to look like an actual television studio with all of the paraphernalia of the medium. To add to the effect, when the action begins it begins as an actual taping in progress.
As soon as the action begins in Badges!, we begin to think of it as a play, performed in the style of a sit-com, not a taping, but rather, a play, until the final scene. This is when it becomes difficult to tell if what we are seeing is a part of Buddy and Consuelo's "sit-com," or if what we are witnessing is Sonny's "sit-com," or his "play," existing only in his mind.
Just as we saw Tiburcio Vásquez attempting to write the true version of his story, we now see Sonny Villa recreating his reality. "Is it real, or is it Memorex?" he asks, underscoring the premise of the play itself. Are we, the audience, a "live studio audience?" Are they really taping this? Did Sonny really rob a fast food restaurant? Questions mount as we watch Sonny's transformation, his angst or his drama.
What is real to Sonny is the fact that he must find himself within this society, the son of parents whose very existence has depended on portraying the marginalized "other." When Connie tells her son "I'd rather play a maid than be a maid," she makes a point but cannot escape the fact that maids are all she ever will play. Sonny knows that he, too, will not be given greater opportunities unless he writes and directs his own material, to his standards and not some Hollywood advertising agency's.
From melodrama-within-a-play to video-within-a-play, the playwright takes us on theatrical explorations that offer no easy solutions. The earliest actos offered clearly defined action: "Join the union," "Boycott grapes," etc. But what to do about distorted history or negative portrayals of Chicanos in the media? Can any of us, as Sonny Villa proposes to do, write and produce films and videos that cut through the biases of generations? Only a select few will ever have that opportunity and Luis Valdez is one of them.
Ultimately, these three plays present us with different aspects of the playwright himself. Valdez is the Pachuco of Broadway, the social bandit of the media and the brilliant student who will change the face of Hollywood portrayals of his people. He laughs at himself as much as at historians and Hollywood in these plays, exploding myths by creating others, transforming the way in which Chicanos and Chicanas view themselves within the context of this society. Each of these plays is finally about a search for identity through the playwright's quest for what is reality—past, present and future. "How can we know who we are," he continually asks, "if we do not know who we were?"
In the twenty-six years since he founded El Teatro Campesino, Luis Valdez has made an odyssey few theater artists in the United States can claim. This course could not have been predicted, yet the journey was inevitable. Yes, Valdez has gone from the fields of Delano to the migrant labor of a theater artist, to the even more complex world of Broadway and Hollywood. But he has never forgotten his roots, has never abandoned the beauty of his languages, both Inglés and Spanish.
Nor has he forgotten about his people's troubles and triumphs.
Valdez taught us to laugh at ourselves as we worked to improve the conditions in our barrios and in our nation. In particular, he urges us to embrace life with all of the vigor we can muster in the midst of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. May these plays inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
This section contains 5,697 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)