An Article From Our Inspiration- El Teatro Campesino

The following remarks are taken from a speech Jorge Huerta gave at San Jose State University on September 24, 2015 to honor Luis Valdez and the fiftieth anniversary of the Teatro Campesino.


The Birth of El Teatro Campesino
When I think about a theatrical legacy I usually imagine that the person or theatre group that has left a legacy is no longer with us. Indeed, my Webster’s defines legacy as “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor.” But what if that “ancestor” still exists and is sitting in the room? Thankfully, Luis Valdez, his better half, Lupe, and the Teatro are very much alive, but they are now “classics” because they have withstood the test of time. Everything they have produced is still as relevant, entertaining, educational, and necessary as it was fifty years ago. They say that art is essential in a civilized society and the art that has been created by Luis and the Teatro ensemble proves that statement. This is about the role of the artist in a society in crisis.

Photo courtesy of El Teatro Campesino.

The Teatro and its founder have gone through several incarnations since 1965. In its first fifteen years the troupe evolved from a farm worker’s theatre to a community-based/student group, to an international touring company producing and publishing films, recordings and anthologies, and finally, to a professional producing organization. I believe that all of the theatrical activity of Chicanas and Chicanos—indeed, Latinas and Latinos—from community and student teatros to professional theatre companies and individual theatre artists and filmmakers, owe their existence, directly or indirectly to Luis Valdez and the Teatro Campesino.

I begin this discussion with the earliest examples of the Teatro Campesino’s aesthetic and political legacies because these continue to hold sway with many community-based and student teatros working today. But Chicana and Chicano theatre artists have come a long way since the early days of the Chicano Theatre Movement. This “professionalization” of Chicano theatre can be attributed to individual efforts, certainly, but one cannot ignore the impact of Zoot Suit in this evolutionary process.


Demographics and economics notwithstanding, Zoot Suit opened the doors to the “mainstream.” And although that play has been attributed to Luis Valdez, it demonstrates the work of the collective as well. That magnificent play with music combines elements of the actocorridocarpa, and mitowith Brechtian and Living Newspaper techniques to dramatize a Chicano family in crisis. The members of the Teatro Campesino of that period can take pride in knowing that their collective exercises inspired and invigorated the playwright/director to create the most important play written and/or directed by a Chicano to date, a formidable legacy.


One can never really return to the past because conditions change. The young people who make up today’s Teatro Campesino are perhaps the original troupe’s most vital living legacy. Kinan Valdez has taken over the role of Artistic Director and is continuing the legacy as a brilliant director, actor, playwright, and facilitator/motivator (like his dad), along with the younger generation of Campesino members. These descendants of the original founders were literally born into the Teatro Campesino. Their training was hands-on from the time they could walk, benefitting from the years of workshops, performances, and tours that their parents would take them on, diaper bags in hand.

(From left): Kinan Valdez, Lupe Valdez, and Luis Valdez.


I am treating the Teatro Campesino as a collective entity because the Teatroand its founder are sometimes interchangeable. Perhaps the TeatroCampesino could have emerged under the direction and tutelage of another person but that would have been a completely different group. However collective the work of the Teatro may have been in the group’s first fifteen years, I know that Valdez guided the group with his own world view, an aesthetic, spiritual, and political vision that drove his creative spirit. Learning is a two-way process and neither the director nor the Teatromembers could have continued their artistic development without a dedicated and constantly evolving ensemble.


The Acto and the Rasquachismo Aesthetic
The theatrical form that dominated the Teatro’s presentations from 1965 to 1970 was the acto, so named by Valdez for expediency’s sake. An acto is a short, usually comical sketch, often created through improvisation, that is designed to be performed anywhere. The actos were ideally suited for the Teatro’s initial efforts to get farm workers to join the Union Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were founding. In the typical acto, the heroes and villains are clearly defined and a solution is either hinted at or plainly stated: “Join the Union,” “Boycott grapes,” etc. The acto form is one of the most important aesthetic and political legacies from the early Teatro Campesino, and although the aesthetic legacy is sometimes difficult to separate from the political, in the realm of aesthetics the Teatro Campesino developed what has sometimes been called the “Rasquachi aesthetic.” As Diana Taylor states in her landmark study, The Archive and the Repertoire, rasquachismorepresents “the aesthetics of the underdog.”


The actos were ideally suited for the Teatro’s initial efforts to get farm workers to join the Union Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were founding.  


Rasquachismo” is a truly Chicano term, a condition of the working class understood by the people who have had to negotiate the uncertainties of life “en el norte,” i.e., north of Mexico. As an aesthetic, the earliest TeatroCampesino actos were truly rasquachi. Because the group had no money, they had to be prepared to perform anywhere, usually outdoors, and design elements came together by chance. The actos were simple but not simplistic, inventive by necessity. Therefore signs around the necks of the actors mark the characters clearly and masks further delineate the villain (pig face mask) from the heroes (no masks). Costumes are found and the exaggerated props are put together in somebody’s kitchen. The Rasquachi aesthetic cannot be “designed,” it just happens.

Photo courtesy of El Teatro Campesino.


During the first fifteen years of the Teatro Campesino’s trajectory the group developed other performance genres, all reflecting the rasquachi aesthetic in one way or another. Those forms were the mito, or myth, the corrido, and the carpa. The mito was more of a personal statement for Valdez in his efforts to rescue the Chicanos’ indigenous heritage. The Teatro’s invocations of indigenous thought and culture can be seen in many of the plays written by Chicanas and Chicanos which employ either actual indigenous characters, or symbols on stage such as flutes and drums, recalling the ancient Mesoamerican cultures that preceded the Spaniards. Another genre that can be termed unique to the Teatro Campesino is the corrido, first explored as a performance technique in 1971.


The Teatro Campesino’s initial socio-political legacy can be clearly seen in the various themes their actos, songs, and other performance techniques exposed in presentations across the country and even abroad, bringing the plight of the Mechicano to a wide variety of audiences. The Teatro became a voice for the voiceless, giving Chicano audiences in particular, a sense of belonging in a society that had ignored and suppressed them for generations. Sadly, every one of the issues the Teatro exposed is still relevant. Those issues, in the order of their appearance in the collectively created actos, are: farm labor, cultural denial, internal colonization, lack of equitable educational opportunities, inner conflicts in the Chicano Movement, police brutality, an unjust judicial system, and the disproportionate number of Chicanos who were fighting and dying in Vietnam. Although strides have been made in some of these areas, every one of these issues, and more, still plague Mechicanos.


The Teatro became a voice for the voiceless, giving Chicano audiences in particular, a sense of belonging in a society that had ignored and suppressed them for generations.  


Since the Teatro located to San Juan Bautista, California, in 1971, their centro became a mecca for theatre artists, scholars, and students from around the globe who went to observe the work, or to participate in the ongoing workshops. Some people stayed and became members of the ensemble, others returned to their own teatros, renewed, invigorated, and perhaps inspired to continue in theatre or to take another professional path. From all accounts, no one left a residency in San Juan Bautista unchanged.

La Pastorela. Photo courtesy of El Teatro Campesino.


Along with the members of today’s Teatro Campesino, perhaps the troupe’s most obvious legacy is found in the other Chicano theatre troupes and individual theatre artists that this company inspired. One of the earliest teatros that owed its genesis and its creative expressions to the TeatroCampesino was the Teatro Urbano, founded right in this city (San Jose, California) in 1968 by Luis Valdez’s younger brother, Daniel. This urban counterpart to the farm worker’s theatre became the second (documented) Chicano theatre troupe. It seems that everywhere the Teatro performed they inspired others to create their own teatros, widening the field. In 1970 the Teatro began to organize and host Chicano theatre festivals in an effort to assess the field and to enhance the development of these mainly student groups just beginning to explore their roles as cultural workers.


By 1973 the number of teatros had swelled to at least sixty-four active groups. Within ten years of its creation the Teatro Campesino had almost single-handedly fostered a national theatre movement. And although few of those teatros are still operating, the Teatro had a very real reach into the hearts and minds of the groups, their individual members, and the widening circle of audiences.


The publication of the Teatro Campesino’s first actos in 1971 gave new teatros excellent and effective actos to produce, adapt, and emulate. The anthology was the first of its kind; until that book appeared, no other collection of actos (or plays) had been published. Teatros throughout the country began to (re)produce those quintessential actos, changing locations, names, or other signifiers to best suit their audiences. Farm worker actos were transposed to urban workers’ strikes; Los vendidos was adapted to suit a particular community’s stereotypes. The educational issues exposed in No saco nada de la escuela (I Don’t Get Anything Out of School) led to many variations on the theme. The messages were clear: the Chicana/o had grievances and they had better be addressed. Many people, especially students who witnessed those and other actos became active participants in demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, and other activities dedicated to improving the conditions of their people.

Popul Vuh, 2015. Photo courtesy of El Teatro Campesino.


The Influence of El Teatro Campesino
Only a handful of teatros from the early 1970s are still operating; other companies have been founded in their wake. Although we can trace the influences of the Teatro and Valdez from coast-to-coast, I want to highlight two theatre groups that can trace their beginnings to the direct influences of the Teatro Campesino: Teatro Vision, in San Jose, and the Latino Theater Company in Los Angeles.


Teatro Vision evolved from Teatro Urbano (1968) to Teatro de la Gente (1970), (founded by Manuel Martinez and Adrian Vargas), to Teatro Vision, founded by Elisa Marina Alvarado, in 1986. Elisa had been a prominent member of Teatro de la Gente and an active participant in the national coalition of Teatros, El Teatro Nacional de Aztlán (The National Theater of Aztlán) that the Teatro Campesino and others launched in 1971. Elisa founded Teatro Vision along with other Chicanas, eager to make the women’s voices heard and continues to lead the Teatro, running the company much as the early teatros did, as a collective.

José Luis Valenzuela, like Elisa Alvarado, had also been a member of Teatrode la Gente. As readers of Café Onda know, Valenzuela is the founding Artistic Director of the Latino Theater Company, and the head of the Los Angeles Theatre Center (LATC). In an old bank in downtown Los Angeles, the LATC boasts five performance spaces—the largest and most comprehensive teatro in the country. In 1986 Valenzuela and his wife, actress and playwright Evelina Fernandez, moved to Los Angeles, where they formed a company of professional actors eager to perform plays that spoke to their community, which became the Latino Theater Company. All of the members had an impressive resume of acting experience in Hollywood as well as in Chicano theatres. Like many other Latina/o actors working in Hollywood, some had been in Zoot Suit either in Los Angeles or New York (or both), as well as in the film of that play. They each brought knowledge of professional theatre and film to the company and were crucial to its success, acting in almost all of the plays the company produced.


In the fall of 2014 the Los Angeles Theater Center and the Latino Theater Company, under the leadership and vision of Valenzuela and in concert with the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC) organized and hosted a major event, the Encuentro 2014, a month-long festival of Latina/o theatre companies from across the country and Puerto Rico. I dare to say that everybody in that Encuentro was there because of the tenacity of the pioneers, hosting festivals and workshops in order to grow aesthetically as well as politically. This was the first festival of its kind, the result of years of fund-raising and collaborating with the Latina/o Theatre Commons Steering Committee. From flatbed trucks and tin can lighting to this incredible facility; from mimeographed fliers to web sites y todo, we’ve come a long way, baby!


Many of the artists and scholars involved in the Encuentro 2014 returned to their respective companies, universities, and communities with a renewed sense of purpose. We continue to learn from one another in the tradition of the earliest festivals. The times have changed, the technology has changed, but the people remain people and this Encuentro and the recent LTC Carnaval of New Latina/o Work in Chicago, are living proof that the future of Latina/o theatre is in very good hands.


The Issues Remain Urgent
The Teatro Campesino lives today not only as a world-renowned theatre company, but also in the thousands of people whose lives were changed by one of their performances or a performance of one of their actos or Valdez’s plays produced by another teatro, a university, or mainstream theatre company. And do not discount the millions who have been moved and inspired by the films. The Teatro lives in the continuing work of so many people who passed through the troupe’s cultural centers. It lives in the people who participated in workshops conducted by the teatro members either at home or on tour. The teatro continues to inspire, giving the Chicana and Chicano a sense of place and a pride in who they are. Remember that I titled this essay “The Legacy of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino: The First Fifty Years.” Here’s to the next fifty years as the legacy continues.

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