Luis Valdez, whose Christmas play La Pastorela just opened at Denver's Su Teatro, first met Cesar Chavez when he was six, growing up among the migrant workers of Delano, California, where the United Farm Workers movement took root in the nonviolent strikes and grape boycotts of the '60s and '70s.
It was in that atmosphere that Valdez formed El Teatro Campesino, performing political actos in the streets, alongside Chavez and his marchers. The young upstart, who'd studied playwriting in college and learned the ropes of street theater as a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, brought the power of education to the table, creating a transformative wing of American theater while creating community through art. As Su Teatro's Tony Garcia says, there would be no Chicano theater without Luis Valdez.
"Teatro Campesino was literally born on the picket line almost fifty years ago in 1965," Valdez says. "In those days, California was a different place -- it was like a hurricane of change. I saw it as an opportunity to participate as a volunteer on picket line, but also to bring what I learned along the way.
"I volunteered for a few weeks and got elected to be a picket captain, and this gave me the ability to mold the picket line," Valdez recalls of those days with with Chavez. "In his honest way, he told me that there was no money to do theater in Delano, and there was no time, when people were on the picket line night and day. But I got into singing songs and then staging plays on truckbeds. These were farm workers I recruited, not actors, using techniques I knew, and we evolved. During the farm workers' march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966, we had rallies every night in different farm towns, and Cesar asked me to run the rallies."
Valdez took the opportunity to intersperse the speeches with street theater. "This was the same time as the Selma to Montgomery march -- civil rights was in the air, and it was a time of tremendous social change," he says. "For the Mexican- and Filipino-American farm workers, it was their first opportunity to mobilize en masse. The march was followed by a grape boycott, and it was effective. It took five years, but in the end, all 33 growers we were boycotting signed contracts."
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Continue reading for more on Luis Valdez and La Pastorela.. Born in turmoil, Teatro Campesino outlived the UFW strikes. Valdez went on to fame, writing the historical drama Zoot Suit and penning the script of the movie La Bamba, which he also directed. He still leads the teatro at its longtime home in the village of San Juan Bautista, but not all of the ensemble's work is political. La Pastorela (or The Shepherd's Play) is an example: Based on a centuries-old story that migrated to the Americas from Britain and Europe, it's a work that gets to the heart of his community -- a folk tale about simple people, played out in the allegory of the Christmas story, portraying a religious struggle with Lucifer en route to honor the Christ child in the manger. It's not presented in an overtly religious way, and humor, which has been part of the company's message since the picket lines, plays a role in the storytelling.
Just as the actos did, La Pastorela brings people together. "It's a way of life for us to do this theater," Valdez notes, and the play, which is performed every other holiday season in the San Juan Batista mission, is a community-builder. "One of beautiful things of carrying on this tradition for so long at the mission is that you really do get a sense of community," he adds. "People who came to see La Pastorela as kids are coming now as grandparents and bringing their grandchildren."
That kind of long life is what he hopes for Su Teatro's new production of La Pastorela, directed by Garcia and Valdez's musician brother, Daniel, who is in residence with the Denver troupe. Valdez is in town for the opening weekend; he'll be honored with a free public reception at 7 p.m. on Saturday, December 7. The run will continue through December 22 at the Denver Civic Theatre; visit Su Teatro online for tickets and information.
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