Festival honors playwright/director who blazed a trail for Latinos in theater and film
November 4, 2007
By Karen D'Souza
Luis Valdez was just 6 years old when he first glimpsed the power of art.
It was 1946. Little Luis was picking cotton with his parents in the sun-baked fields of the Central Valley. The migrant farmworker family rarely settled anywhere long enough to put down roots. But that season was different. Their truck broke down near Corcoran, and Luis was packed off to school with his lunch in a brown paper bag.
At first, he felt ashamed because all the other boys had shiny new lunchboxes. But then his teacher showed him how to transform that humble brown paper into a papier-mache mask for the school play. He even was cast in the show. Alas, his family got evicted from the labor camp, and he was pulled out of school before opening night.
"There were tears running down my face as we drove away," remembers the groundbreaking playwright/director, 67, who is being honored by the International Latino Film Festival for his seminal works of Latino cinema and theater. "There was a gaping hole in my soul, but that hole became the soul of my creativity, and I have been trying to feed it every day since. That hole will never close up. It's still there."
Valdez went on to make history. Initially, he became the first Chicano playwright on Broadway with "Zoot Suit," which revisited the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder case of 1940s Los Angeles. Then he directed the highest-grossing Latino-themed movie of its time, "La Bamba," a biopic about the life of singer Ritchie Valens. In theater circles, he is revered for founding El Teatro Campesino, the legendary Farmworkers Theater, which gave birth to the rise of the teatro movement. A cultural provocateur steeped in both the aesthetics of Brecht and the politics of the grape boycott, Valdez has rewritten California history to include the Latino experience.
The New York Times once called him a hero of the Latino theater. Now he returns to San Jose - where he cut his teeth in drama at San Jose State - as an icon. Valdez will be the guest of honor at an International Latino Film Festival San Jose event Thursday at the Camera 12 Cinema downtown.
The tribute will include screenings of the 2005 documentary "The Legacy of Luis Valdez: Father of Chicano Theater," the 1994 film "Little Louie" and the 2002 film "Ballad of a Soldier."
"Valdez deserves all the props he gets. He was doing theater-in-the-rough while the rest of us were still trying to find our voices," says playwright Octavio Solis. "He was driven by a mighty cause, and that cause led him to create El Teatro Campesino, which . . . set up the model for true grass-roots theater."
"He is the master," echoes Elisa Marina Alvarado, artistic director of Teatro Visión. "He is the elder statesman of Chicano theater."
All kudos aside, Valdez says he is far from ready to rest on his laurels. But he is eager to pass the torch to his sons, and longtime collaborators, Kinan and Anahuac.
"The legacy is not about honoring a statue," says Valdez over the phone from San Juan Bautista, where Teatro is based. "The legacy is about taking the honors and taking the tributes and passing that spotlight on to the next generation."
He remembers how loudly he had to speak to make his voice heard when he was young and unknown. Valdez won a scholarship to San Jose State in the '60s, where he staged his first full-length play, "The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa," before delving in to the agitprop theater of the rabble-rousing San Francisco Mime Troupe. After that, he joined forces with activist César Chávez to rally the workers from the fields to the picket lines.
He certainly will never forget the day he drove up to the studio during the shooting of "Zoot Suit," and the guard pointed him to the service entrance. They had never seen a Latino filmmaker before and assumed that he must be making a delivery.
"Of course, it may have been because I was driving a beat-up Pinto at the time," he now jokes.
Valdez took the indignation he felt and turned it into art. His 1986 satire, "I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!" delves into the pressure many Latinos feel about constantly having to prove themselves as Americans. Many credit him with opening the door for the next generation of Latino playwrights.
"I owe him for the audiences that come see my plays; I owe him for the styles I think I've borrowed from commedia dell'arte and discover I've really stolen from him; I owe him for the courage to look deeper into my own culture," says Solis, best known for "Santos & Santos" and "Gibraltar." "I have freer rein to do what I want as an artist because he did it first. And he came by it the hard way."
Although Latino playwrights still face a tough trek on the road to Broadway, the movement Valdez championed left a lasting impact on the scope and tenor of the American theater scene. "Zoot Suit" changed the face of Broadway, and "La Bamba" proved that Latino themes have crossover power at the box office.
"The legacy lives on," Solis notes, "in the numerous playwrights and directors and actors whose careers were made possible by his trailblazing."
Valdez now lets his son Kinan handle the day-to-day leadership of the Teatro. But he continues to be a prolific writer. In addition to authoring two books on the history and aesthetics of the Teatro, he is planning a production of "Mummified Deer" at San Jose State next year and working on rewrites of "Earthquake Sun," which made its debut in San Diego in 2004. He's also in talks with scholars in China on Chinese-language adaptations of his plays.
"Once you get past the language barrier," the playwright says, "the stories are surprisingly universal."
But he admits that his true calling now may be to bring his message - that art and activism are two sides of the same coin, that theater can change the world - to the icons of tomorrow. He takes pains to reach out to students everywhere he goes, because you never know where there might be another wide-eyed 6-year-old eager to experience the magic of art.
"You don't have to have a penny in your pocket," he says. "You can still make enough noise that you get noticed."
Source: San Jose Mercury News