The year was 1965, and Danny Valdez was seventeen when he landed in Delano, California, during the thick of the first legendary union-generated grape strike, led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers of America. A different kind of strike, it had deep cultural roots in addition to a hard-line espousal of union issues--organizers of the five-year strike also gave a new voice to the state's then-tacit, uncounted drift of Hispanic migrant workers.
"I went to Delano for a three-week visit and ended up staying for the rest of my life," Valdez remembers. A budding, guitar-strumming musician, he joined brother Luis and five others in forming El Teatro Campesino, a groundbreaking guerrilla theater ensemble that performed actos--broadly visual, five-minute satirical diatribes--right on the picket line. Though it was more political collective than theater troupe in those days, Teatro Campesino opened new horizons for its multi-talented core group, who discovered themselves as artists while they followed the striking workers.
By necessity, art and politics remained intertwined in their community-oriented plays, which began to grow in length and scope: "In our case, art is political, simply by the fact that we can do art--that we can become singers and actors as an alternative to becoming farmers. We didn't even call ourselves actors--we were all volunteers in the beginning, and it took twenty years before anyone would even broach the subject of being actors."
But actors they were: A classic case of being in the right place at the right time, the subversive yet community-connected ensemble was embraced by student activists inspired by the group's open, mobile propagandist nature. "Universities became our stronghold," Valdez says. They toured extensively--to the nation's campuses, to the Newport Folk Festival, to the International Theater Festival in Nancy, France, and even to Washington, D.C., where they were invited to perform before the House Subcommittee for Migrant Labor.
"We were completely independent, making it on our own," Valdez attests. "It was a company held together with spit and glue--we were put together by necessity, but that led us to realize we could finally make a living." Beyond their initial adherence to union causes, they took up new ones, including the anti-war movement.
Eventually, the Valdez brothers eased into filmmaking, a medium Danny says was a natural step, considering the extreme visual quality of their live work. The first film, I Am Joaquin, was based on the classic poem of Chicano literature by Denver activist Corky Gonzalez; Luis went on to write and direct Zoot Suit, the screen version of his play, with Danny starring opposite Edward James Olmos, and La Bamba, the infectious Hollywood screen bio of '50s rocker Richie Valens, with Lou Diamond Phillips in the title role.
The raw kid in Delano had found a calling that had taken him not only across the country and to Europe, but into an artful personal maturity. "It was a hell of a stretch from San Jose all the way to Paris," Valdez notes. "And it continued for the next thirty years." His ensuing career as a screen actor, recording artist, musical director and playwright lands him in Denver this month, where El Centro Su Teatro will present a free outdoor screening of Zoot Suit and a live concert reprising songs inspired by the Chicano movement from his 1974 album Mestizo and tunes performed with Linda Ronstadt as part of her Canciones de Mi Padre project, as well as new material.
And though music remains his first love (he's re-released a 25-year anniversary edition of Mestizo and is at work on a new compilation of work he's done since then), Renaissance man Valdez is still writing plays and helping his brother oversee new Teatro Campesino projects, including stage versions of Zoot Suit and La Bamba. It also figures into his relationship with Su Teatro and its artistic director, Tony Garcia, which have long been Denver's link in the political theater movement begun in Delano so many years ago.
"I've known Tony for twenty years," Valdez avows. "We've been comrades in theater--we saw each other's work and worked together in festivals. This year, we decided to try and collaborate on a Chicano version of Orpheus, using the Day of the Dead as a metaphor for the whole play. It's an attempt to bring a classic piece to a community that wouldn't be exposed to it otherwise."
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They hope to mount the play, Journey Through Mictlan, in Denver next spring, perhaps during a proposed year-long residency with El Centro Su Teatro by Valdez, who's enthusiastic not only about the possibility, but about the area's open-minded palate for art. "The audience here has always been ready to listen," he says. "Colorado doesn't have the same confused complexities as California. The cultural struggle is still very clear--you can still take note of what's going on in the rest of the country in Colorado."
Zoot Suit, free screening at dusk August 4, NEWSED Building, 1029 Santa Fe Drive. Danny Valdez in concert, 8 p.m. August 6, Tivoli Turnhalle, Tivoli Student Center, Auraria campus, $13-$20, 303-296-0219.