The Father Of Chicano Theater Just Received This Prestigious Honor From President Obama
This is Luis Valdez. At 76 years of age, Valdez has devoted his career to advancing Latino culture through the arts.
You can call him “The Father of Chicano Theater.”
Though you might not recognize his name, chances are that you’re very familiar with Valdez’s most well-known works: “La Bamba” and “Zoot Suit.”Credit: Columbia Pictures and Universal
The play “Zoot Suit” debuted in 1978 in Los Angeles to critical acclaim. By 1979, the play was brought to Broadway, making Valdez the first Chicano writer-director to have such an honor.Credit: Universal
Three years later, Valdez directed a film adaptation of the play which starred Edward James Olmos as “El Pachuco.”
With a story that revolved around the Sleepy Lagoon murder and the Zoot Suit Riots, the play (and movie) gave audiences a glimpse into the prejudice Mexican-Americans faced in Los Angeles during the 1940s.Credit: MCA Records
“With their flashy ensembles, distinct slang, extra cash, and rebellious attitude,” explains Catherine Ramirez, “pachucos and pachucas participated in a spectacular subculture and threatened the social order by visibly occupying public spaces.” As a result of their flashy zoot suits, Mexican-Americans faced daily harassment from the police, who felt the clothes were unpatriotic. “Zoot Suit” would go on to receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy.
Valdez’s next big success was “La Bamba,” the beloved Ritchie Valens biopic. The movie cemented Valdez’s reputation as a champion of Chicano culture.
The soundtrack to “La Bamba” was a massive success as well, going multi-platinum during its run.
If you grew up in the ’80s, this album was probably burned into your ear drums by your parents.
Though “La Bamba” and “Zoot Suit” were most people’s introduction to his work, Valdez had already been hard at work for many decades.
In 1961, Valdez won a playwriting contest for a one-act play he wrote while at San Jose State University. He followed this achievement by producing his first full-length play, “The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa,” which premiered at SJSU in 1964.
After college, Valdez turned his focus to a project that could help the Latino community. In 1965, that project became El Teatro Campesino, a theatre troupe made up of farmworkers that wrote and starred in plays about their daily lives.
“When I went to school,” Luis wrote, “I discovered that there were no books, no stories dealing with the history of Latinos in the United States. […] I wanted to do something about it, and so I ended up writing plays about my own people, writing plays about our culture, writing plays about our history.”
The plays covered serious topics that affected farmworkers, but they employed a healthy amount of humor to help the morale of the workers and their families.
Humor also worked because, as Luis explains, “…one of the great things El Teatro did was it defused that type of violence because we were out there performing. They can’t attack the circus; you don’t attack the clown.”
Luis’s connection to farmworkers stemmed from his days working the fields and seeing the conditions they worked in. Valdez never stopped fighting for the rights of his friends and fellow workers.
“My early experience in the field,” wrote Valdez, “picking cotton for such low wages, touring the migrant labor camps, living in those miserable conditions, going into town and being looked at strangely — ‘here come the Mexicans.’ And this in a place where I’d been born. What the hell was going on?”
By 1971, Valdez’s efforts led to the creation of an actual theater in San Juan Bautista.
Valdez credits Cesar Chavez as one of the creators of the theater. “All of this came together and gelled for me when I met César Chávez […] I not only admired what he was, I followed him, and so in 1965, I went back to Delano, California, where I was born, and I pitched him the idea for a farm workers’ theater.”
Throughout his life, Luis Valdez’s inspirational story has motivated people to follow in his footsteps. Kinan Valdez, Luis’ son, is doing his part to spread his father’s message.
In 2015, Kinan directed the San Jose State University stage production of “Zoot Suit.” It was the first time the play had been performed at his father’s alma mater.
We’re excited to see Luis Valdez receive the National Medal of Arts from President Obama, who is a reflection of how much society has changed thanks to the efforts of people like Valdez.
“I’m so happy this happened before Obama’s term is over—this is one of his last official functions,” Valdez told Free Lance. “He’s awarded lot of medals to a lot of significant artists, and it’s important to be in this group.”
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