Thursday, November 3, 2005
Luis Valdez was an aspiring 25-year-old playwright 40 years ago when he left the San Francisco Mime Troupe to join César Chávez, who was organizing farmworkers in Delano, Calif. With the blessing of Chávez, Valdez brought some of the workers together into a theater troupe, whose goal was to popularize and raise funds for the grape boycott and farmworker strike.
Valdez’s company created and performed actos, or short skits, on flatbed trucks in fields and in union halls. Striking farmworkers made up the casts and the audiences of these early guerrilla productions, which took the form of ensemble improvisations based on the workers’ daily lives, and used everyday language—San Joaquin Valley Spanish mixed with English.
Eventually, Valdez and El Teatro Campesino’s radical combination of politics and art made American history by helping to organize fieldworkers into the United Farmworkers of America.
Over the subsequent decades El Teatro Campesino (ETC) came out of the fields and into the spotlight of American political and cultural iconography. Their fiery brand of teatro Chicano expanded beyond farmworkers to more global issues, such as Chicano identity, racism in education, the Vietnam War, and police brutality. At the same time, Valdez emerged as one of the world’s most important playwrights with works such as the hit musical Zoot Suit, which is based on the flashpoint Sleepy Lagoon murder trial of 1942.
Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino celebrate 40 years of uncompromising political theater this week with an exhibit of unseen archival photos, posters and props hand-selected by Valdez himself. The exhibit chronicles both ETC and the Chicano movement with hundreds of artifacts, and will hang on the walls of their San Juan Bautista theater throughout the year.
In addition to the exhibit, ETC will offer guided tours of their theater in San Juan Bautista this weekend in conjunction with a short festival of archival film and video footage. ETC’s longtime managing director, Phillip Esparza, says that the exhibit and the 40th anniversary celebration are about pride.
“You get a sense of the scope and magnitude of our experiences and effect,” Esparza says. “You get a sense of all the people who have been a part of El Teatro—the well-known and the not-so-well-known. You get a sense of our commitment to the community and to activism—the constant strive for social justice using art. I look back and go through all these memories, it builds up this sense of pride. There’s still much to do but what we’ve done is not so bad.”
According to Esparza, the exhibit consists of a couple hundred artifacts.
“Luis personally went through several thousand pieces of our history in the archives and chose the most reflective visual stuff,” Esparza says. “There are photos, costumes, masks, headdresses. He did a really wonderful job of curating the exhibit. It’s remarkable.”
Earlier this month, ETC celebrated with a series of scholarly panels, staged readings and a speech by Valdez at San Jose State University. Last weekend it threw open its doors to the public to show off their exhibit, archival film and video footage and to premiere its 40th Anniversary show, a play which, in true El Teatro style, was an improvisational exploration of the gritty theater’s history starring much of the company’s core actors. It covers the evolution of ETC, from its humble birth on the picket lines of the Great Delano Grape Strike in 1965 through their struggles and triumphs on the stages of the world today.
“This new 40th Anniversary piece will constantly be evolving over the course of the year,” Esparza promises. “It is our history, but it is also our future. It projects where El Teatro will go over the next 40 years.”
In addition to the work-in-progress 40th Anniversary piece, El Teatro is also gearing up to present its popular and critically-acclaimed holiday Shepherd’s Play La Pastorela in the historic Old Mission of San Juan Bautista starting Nov. 25.
A colorful, innovatively-staged musical spectacle, La Pastorela recreates the long trek of those first “pastores” to the holy site of the Nativity. Presented and sung entirely in Spanish, it tells the story of Luzbel and his demonic attempts to thwart the shepherds from reaching Bethlehem. A highly visual play that transcends any language barriers, La Pastorela provides a joyous experience and acts as a perfect complement to the story of Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino’s own righteous pilgrimage from the fields of Delano to San Juan Bautista and on into the future.
A FILM FESTIVAL AND GUIDED TOURS OF EL TEATRO CAMPESINO BEGIN AT 8PM FRIDAY AND RUN THROUGH SUNDAY AT 705 FOURTH ST. IN SAN JUAN BAUTISTA. THE EXHIBIT WILL BE UP THROUGH THE FALL OF 2006. FOR MORE INFORMATION CALL 623-2444 OR VISITWWW.ELTEATROCAMPESINO.COM.