TG on Luis Valdez

Teatro Campesino
Felipe Cantu, Agustin Lira and Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez changed the vernacular of American theatre, when his character Honest Sancho, said, “simon que yes”. This bilingual combination of pachuco slang, Spanish and English gave voice to a community whose language and experience was as unique and universal as any that had been heard in US theatre history. There had been previous attempts to tell Mexican-American stories on US stages, but none had ever come forth as strongly and authentically. The Chicano experience presented on stage had only mirrored the view of the dominant culture; that is, that it was a foreign experience: an immigrant experience spoken in another language, recited by people with an unclear understanding of what it meant to be an American.


Luis Valdez gained fame within the dominant culture by becoming the “living newspaper” of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers. He is often portrayed as performing on the back of flatbed trucks, which he did, to a bunch of farm workers at outdoor rallies, which he also did. Most of this form, however central to his work, does not take into account the content. Luis Valdez was speaking to us about identity, and our identity sounded bilingual. We, like many of that Viet Nam era generation, were in search of our identity. While many young whites set off in search of America, Chicanos were jumping up and down in front of them yelling, “here we are”  Luis incorporated symbology in his writings and on stage that resonated beyond their image. Whether it was El Corazon (heart) or  La Calavera (skeleton) his work stirred in us an ancient dialogue that had been silent for generations of Chicanos living in the United States. Chicano struggle for identity taught us that this dialogue went back and forth between English and Spanish, but it also made references that we understood.


Everywhere the world famous El Teatro Campesino of Luis Valdez performed, seeds were planted, and a generation of “ teatristas” grew attempting to mimic, emulate and copy what El Teatro Campesino was performing on stage. It was as simple and powerful as any theatre that was being created at the time. Luis said, “if the Raza (people) will not come to the theatre, then the theatre must go to the Raza”. And we did, in a wave. We went to picker lines, community centers, jails, and schools – anywhere that people would stay still long enough to listen, we went.


Like anything those in power cannot control or appropriate, Luis Valdez’s work was often marginalized. Critics impressed by the power, authenticity, precision and dynamics of the work, still saw it as developmental. They couldn’t understand our text, so that must mean that there was something wrong with the text. The characters were not familiar to them so there must have been something wrong with the characters. When Luis’ play Zoot Suit opened on Broadway, one critic commented on his exemplary grasp of the English language, which was nothing less than one might expect from a native born Californian. Nonetheless, Luis stands out as a powerful cultural icon, not only for  Chicano theatre, of which he was the founding father – the genre did not exist before him – but as a significant influence on American theatre. His contribution to mainstream culture is that through his plays and his films, he made the mainstream culture bilingual, he made it bi-cultural: he has challenged the notion of what it means to be an American. For many of us the mainstream culture changed; it would never be the same, the moment we heard, ” simon que yes”, we knew the doors had been flung wide open and now was the time to find our place.