The Problem Of Agit Prop Street Theatre (U

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Something was changing on the picket lines of a grape strike in Delano, California, in 1965. Farm workers were standing up and demanding more rights in a way that would forever alter agricultural labor in the U.S. And there was also a new style of theater: Luis Valdez, one of 10 children in his family, and one who worked the fields by age 6, found himself on the picket lines as a performer with the first version of El Teatro Campesino. They performed short and improvised skits entirely in Spanish about the theme of the greed of capitalism, represented by the patron (boss) and the power of unified campesinos (farm workers).

Their goal was to convince scabs, new workers paid to replace those who were striking, to leave the fields and join the strike. In the second year of the strike, when United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez led supporters on a march of more than 200 miles from Delano to Sacramento, ETC followed the protesters, marking the troupe’s first tour.

The production budget was essentially nothing and the cast, composed of migrant farm workers supportive of the strike, were largely inexperienced in performance art. All ETC had was a borrowed flatbed truck that served as a stage – and a mission: to make their audience feel solidarity with the farm workers’ struggle through performance art.

Though Valdez and ETC lacked basic resources and a real theater early on, they learned and evolved, and fast. They performed at different picket lines throughout California for 25 nights in a row.

Similarly, Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino – now in its 52nd year and with a real physical theater in San Juan Bautista – and Valdez himself have evolved over the years.

The five-year-long Delano grape strike ended successfully, with an eventual contract between grape growers and the UFW. UFW co-founders Dolores Huerta and Chavez rose to prominence, and Valdez established himself and ETC as artists.

Chavez chose Valdez to be the master of ceremonies for rallies, and he also gained traction among more mainstream celebrities: ETC presented song and dance numbers for Robert F. Kennedy in Stockton and Sacramento during his presidential campaign and received invitations to perform their politically charged plays at venues throughout the country.

In 1977, Valdez was commissioned by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles to write a play about Chicanos and the history of Los Angeles. Zoot Suit – a script based on the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon murder trial in which 17 Mexican youth were arrested on insufficient evidence and racial riots between Chicanos and whites followed – premiered in spring 1978. The two-week run sold out, and after Valdez produced another version, it ran for an entire year. In 1979, Zoot Suit made history by becoming the first Latino-written-and-directed play to premiere on Broadway.

After Broadway, Valdez ventured into Hollywood. He directed a film version of Zoot Suit in 1981 and in 1989 followed with the movie La Bamba, which tells the story of Chicano rock ‘n’ roll icon Ritchie Valens, who died in an airplane accident along with Buddy Holly.

Both films earned Golden Globe nominations for best musical picture.

Valdez is today recognized as one of America’s leading Chicano artists. He’s acquired a diverse list of honors, including a Peabody for a play he televised for PBS, the Aguila Azteca Award (Mexico’s highest honor to foreigners of the country), and a Presidential Medal of the Arts – twice (more on that later).

Most recently, Valdez can be heard in movie theaters as the voice of Tio Berto in Pixar’s latest film Coco. The acclaimed Día de los Muertos tale, which opened in Mexico in October and the U.S. in November, has already broken the record as the highest-grossing film released in Mexico.

Hollywood aside, Valdez’s home is still in San Juan Bautista. On a recent evening, the sun is setting on the small town as 77-year-old Valdez grabs a cup of coffee from the bar at El Teatro Campesino’s headquarters on Fourth Street. The den of this playhouse – formerly a warehouse for produce – is decorated with various artifacts: a framed portrait of Valdez in the early era of ETC with a UFW flag waving behind him, a multi-colored Aztec calendar used as a prop in a 1973 play, a box of Corn Flakes featuring the face of Cesar Chavez.

Reflecting on 50-plus years of ETC and his remarkable rise, Valdez spoke to the Weekly about the presence of Mexican culture in media today, producing plays by and for campesinos, and why the future of Chicanos is a hopeful one.

Curtain Calling

Jasmine Rios plays Gila, the young woman who keeps a group of shepherds on track toward Bethlehem in La Pastorela.


Forces of good and evil push and pull in El Teatro Campesino’s Christmas play, La Pastorela.>

Forces of good and evil push and pull in El Teatro Campesino’s Christmas play, La Pastorela.

There’s a feeling of intensity as soon as the lights go down at the beginning of La Pastorela. Audience members crowd into the pews of Mission…

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Weekly: Considering the success of Coco, which follows a Mexican boy’s journey between his pueblo to a land of the deceased during Día de Los Muertos, how do you see the representation of Mexican culture in media today compared to back when you founded ETC?

Valdez: It’s a long trajectory. ETC didn’t exist in a complete vacuum, but it was close to that when we started. We set out to fill the vacuum, and in the last 52 years we’ve seen a lot of progress and talent.

Back in the mid-1980s, ETC hosted a group of three artists called the Chicano Secret Service. One of them was [nationally syndicated cartoonist] Lalo Alcaraz, who ended up being a consultant on Coco. He was complaining the most that “Micky Muerto” was taking over Chicano culture. Pixar invited people from the Chicano community to give input on the process and we saw early scenes and sketches. We discussed what would be offensive and whether it was authentic. I saw right away they were making a concerted effort to get the detail right.

It’s tremendous that it’s been successful worldwide. I think it tells the world that the ideals of Mexican culture, such as remembering loved ones during Día de los Muertos to keep them alive in their hearts, are universal.

It’s a Mexican-American film that crossed a bridge – like the one made of flowers in the movie, between life and death – that allows people to admire our culture.

>Highlights of El Teatro’s 50-plus-year history

1965: Founded on picket lines alongside the United Farm Workers

1969: Wins an Obie Award for “demonstrating the politics of survival”

1971: Relocates to San Juan Bautista

1971: First production of La Virgen del Tepeyac, which becomes a biannual Christmas tradition

1976: Goes on first European tour, designated as an official event by the U.S. State Department for the U.S. bicentennial, performing in eight countries

1977: First performance of La Pastorela, which becomes a biannual Christmas tradition

1979: Valdez debuts his critically acclaimed play Zoot Suit in Los Angeles, and then on Broadway

1981: Moves into its current location, a former produce warehouse; Zoot Suit is adapted into a movie produced by Universal Pictures

1996: A new generation of ETC artists begin experimenting with theater, producing revisionist versions of classics such as Antonin Artaud’s The Cenci, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Bertolt Brecht’s The Measures Taken and the entire cannon of Luis Valdez, beginning with his first play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa

2002-03: Produces a 25th-anniversary production of Zoot Suit and performed in Monterey, among other places

2010: A new production, Corridos!!! Tales of the Mexican Revolution debuts for the centennial anniversary of the Mexican Revolution

2015: Celebration of 50 years with a Día de los Muertos production

2017: Produce a revival of Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, where it premiered

What were your earliest experiences with storytelling?

I was born into a family of migrant farm workers, so we moved throughout the state frequently for work. In the evenings, sometimes the only entertainment there was was to sit around the campfire and talk and tell stories.

That I really enjoyed; you never knew what people would come up with. Sometimes they would sing or tell jokes.

When I was a kid, I used to do puppets and I became a ventriloquist in high school. The labor camps were a place I could perform with my dummy.

It occured to me there was an audience there that needed entertainment. They were poor like me and Mexican like me, so I figured, this was my audience.

What pushed you to use theater as a tool for activism?

When I became a playwright in college, I never forgot that experience in the labor camps.

After graduating San Jose State University I joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe. I couldn’t find what I wanted in the city; there were no Latinos in theater. Then I found out about Cesar Chavez and that he was operating out of Delano, where I was born.

The grape strike happened in the fall, while I was committed to a play with the troupe, so I went down to Delano on a weekend. We marched in town and I was thinking of talking to Caesar but I was kind of embarrassed to bring up the idea of starting a theater.

I saw [UFW co-founder] Dolores Huerta later, and she liked the idea and told me Cesar would visit San Francisco that week. After I performed the show with the troupe I went to the Mission District and tried to talk to him, but he was being mobbed, so I had to bum a ride and follow him to a church in Oakland.

I finally talked to him and he said, “I’m fine with it but there is no money, actors, stage or place to rehearse in Delano. All we have is the picket line, do you still want to try?” And I said, “Absolutely.”

Were there obstacles in creating a theater by and for farm workers?

I had no money. Cesar asked how I would support myself and I said I might borrow [money] from my brother. Cesar said the union would give me $5 a week. I used to buy a box of cheap cigars and two beers. It was poor people’s theater. We had no props. We made signs out of one big sheet of posterboard and shoelaces.

I would write outlines instead of scripts, because some campesinos couldn’t read or write. So I made an outline for myself and we would improvise it, and we used that technique for roughly 10 years.

One of my earliest actos (short plays) was Los Tres Uvas, about three grapes portrayed by women, and we couldn’t get any women to volunteer because husbands wouldn’t let their wives or daughters act with us.

They had no normal acquaintance to the arts. They used to call us el circo (the circus) and clowns.

Curtain Calling

Luzbel (Lucifer) is played by Adam Saucedo, who re-enacts the crucifixion of Christ in La Pastorela to try to discourage the shepherds from continuing their journey to Bethlehem.

Early original ETC productions clearly emphasize social issues facing Chicanos, but what’s the importance of performing classic religious Mexican plays like the biannual La Pastorela (which runs this year) and La Virgen de Tepeyac that have been performed at Mission San Juan Bautista by ETC for over four decades?

People play with the form a lot. Every community in Mexico seemingly has their own pastorela spin. When I was growing up, the pastorelas were just a memory of los viejos [elders] from Mexico. We decided to revive it when we got a script from the mother of a company member.

She gave me script and sang every song into a tape recorder; the only problem was that she told us in Mexico the Christmas Eve performance goes from night to dawn. We couldn’t do that. We picked up the pace of the music and story and eventually added songs and translated lines into English.

We adapted it in the mid-’70s; first we did it as a puppet play and then as a street performance the audience followed. One year it rained terribly, so Father Rodriguez invited us into the Mission and we’ve been there every since.

In 2016 you received a National Medal of the Arts from president Barack Obama at a White House ceremony. When giving the award, Obama said you were being recognized “for bringing Chicano culture to American drama.” How did it feel, as a Mexican-American, to be honored by the leader of America?

In 1983, President Reagan issued the first Presidential Medal of the Arts to four people, and I was one of them. The weekend they had the presentation, the Contras bombed a harbor in Nicaragua.

So I decided not to go – I didn’t want to be used by Reagan as a cover for what the Contras were doing in Latin America. They sent me the medal anyway.

Last year I got a call from the White House about being accepted for a medal. I was very happy to be there with our first African-American president. Obama is cool, quite a contrast to what we have today. I felt at home at the White House.

Now I’m waiting to see the first Mexican-American president.

This is source I found from another site, main source you can find in last paragraph

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