El Teatro Campesino at 50: Founder Luis Valdez Speaks to New Generation

Playwright Luis Valdez at San Jose State, where he started as a math major but later became an English major.  (Beth Willon/KQED)

As a child, Luis Valdez started asking "who am I?" long before most kids learn to add numbers.

The acclaimed playwright says he has vivid childhood memories of when his parents took over a ranch in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Delano. But then they went back to being migrant farmworkers near San Jose, and that's when Valdez says he started asking questions.

"I learned that the farm hadn't been ours, but belonged to a Japanese-American farmer who had been sent to an internment camp during World War II," says Valdez. "The U.S. Army took over the farm, brought in mules because of the gas shortage, and brought in my dad to farm it. Then the war ended, and my dad was on his own with the farm, and he couldn't hold onto it. He had to move out."

This memory of the contrast between the relatively prosperous time of having a ranch to the ugly discovery that the Japanese-American owner had everything taken away inspired him to write his latest play, "Valley of the Heart." It's a love story set in Cupertino in 1941 about the relationship between a Mexican-American ranch hand and the daughter of a Japanese-American rancher.

Valdez says "Valley of the Heart" not only tackles history and race issues of that era but is also relevant to a new generation because, at its core, it is about today's blended multicultural landscape.

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Valdez was in San Jose on Monday holding auditions for "Valley of the Heart" at the San Jose Stage Company, where it will open Feb. 10 and run through March 6. Then it goes to Los Angeles. Valdez hopes there will be a movie version.

He was also in the Bay Area to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of his theater company, El Teatro Campesino, in San Juan Bautista. "Valley of the Heart" has been playing there since last year.

El Teatro Campesino (the farmworkers' theater) was founded on the picket lines during the Delano Grape Strike in 1965, when workers walked off farms demanding wages equal to the federal minimum wage.

Valdez launched his theater company on flatbed trucks with short plays performed by novice actors for audiences of Central Valley farmworkers. He had graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in English before heading to the Central Valley to connect with iconic labor leader Cesar Chavez and get involved in the strike.

"I just wanted to figure out how I could fit in," says Valdez.

Luis Valdez (center) performs with his "Farmworkers Theatre" on a flatbed truck in the Central Valley in 1967.
Luis Valdez (center) performs with his "Farmworkers Theatre" on a flatbed truck in the Central Valley in 1967. (George Ballis/El Teatro Campesino)

At age 75, Valdez says he is comfortable in his roles as playwright, director, writer, actor and the person some call the hero of Latino theater. The work has come a long way from the fields of the Central Valley.

"In terms of a lifetime, 50 years is a considerable chunk," says Valdez. "I have the freedom in San Juan Bautista with my theater company to do more. I can do what I do by watering the root of where I still belong."

Aldo Billingslea, a professor of theater and associate provost for diversity and inclusion at Santa Clara University, has studied Valdez and his body of work at El Teatro Campesino.

"Much of his work is biting satire. His plays and movies hold up a mirror to society and speak truth to power," says Billingslea. "The common theme in all Valdez's work is about empowering the individual. If you keep trying to push someone down, eventually they are going to rise up."

Billingslea says that for decades Valdez has been an unprecedented bridge into the Latino and multicultural worlds, but his work is much more than that .

"He's a genius. Listen to the number of people who talk about him as a Latino writer or relegate him to being only about the Latino culture," says Billingslea. "He's writing about America, and that's an aspect of America we need to know about."

Valdez's hit play, "Zoot Suit," about the 1940s Sleepy Lagoon murder case in Los Angeles, gave him the title of the first Chicano playwright on Broadway. He also directed the highest-grossing Latino movie of the time, "La Bamba," about the life of singer Ritchie Valens.

Tuesday night at a KQED-hosted event at the San Jose Stage Company, Valdez will talk about the 50th anniversary of El Teatro Campesino and the successes and challenges of interpreting the lives of Latino Americans.