How does one go from being born into a farmworker family in Delano in 1940 to being named a 2015 National Medal of Arts and National Humanities recipient?
If you’re Luis Valdez, you do it by ignoring conventional wisdom and following your heart. Your passion. Your beliefs.
The 76-years-young playwright, actor, writer and director was among the 23 recipients of the prestigious prize at a White House ceremony last week, with President Barack Obama presenting the medal.
The National Medal of Arts is the highest award given by the U.S. government to artists and arts patrons. Both the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities are celebrating 50th anniversaries this year.
“To have the president of the U.S., particularly the first African-American president of the U.S., giving this award to me is a fulfillment of my wildest dreams,” Valdez said in an interview from his theater base in San Juan Bautista in San Benita County.
Valdez is widely credited with being the great-grandfather of Latino theater in the U.S. To think it all began in a simple pink house on 1st and Albany streets in Delano in 1965 with a group of non-actors is mind-boggling. After majoring in science and math at San Jose State, Valdez rejected becoming an engineer (and earning a steady income) and returned to Delano to follow his passion to create a theater group of, by and for farmworkers.
The great grape strike led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union had just begun. With Chavez’s blessing, Valdez began writing simple one-act skits called “actos” and recruited farmworkers to play all the roles.
The skits used humor, music and satire to depict the struggles of farmworkers in their battle for social justice. It was a reflection of their lives and the goal was to get people to think about resolving their own issues through non-violence. That’s how El Teatro Campesino was born. Its method of performing skits from flatbed trucks out in the fields was incredibly effective in reaching the workers. It was an idea Valdez got from the great Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca.
“I said, ‘What a great idea!’ Because I had been traveling in trucks all my life to go to work in the fields with my parents, brothers and sisters,” Valdez recalled. “The teatro found its root in the people.”
Full disclosure: growing up in Chicago in the 70s during the heyday of the Chicano Movement, I joined a group of friends in forming our own theater group using similar methods as El Teatro Campesino. We called ourselves La Compania Trucha (trucha is slang for “heads up” or shrewd).
There were no fields in the city, but we performed at parks, street corners, street fairs and even on an occasional stage. Themes ranged from working people being exploited, immigration raids in neighborhoods and workplaces to bad schools to unscrupulous business owners who preyed on undocumented immigrants in the community.
I recall one time we got stopped by organizers of a popular street fair in the middle of a skit depicting bad treatment of workers by a local merchant. That was a badge of honor — it was speaking truth to power. The influence of El Teatro Campesino stretched well across Latino communities in the U.S. and beyond. The spark that started 50 years ago in Delano has spread.
Valdez has since greatly expanded to other projects. Among his better-known plays is Zoot Suit, written in 1977, performed at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and on Broadway, and later turned into a movie. Then came the film La Bamba, which was a commercial success. Based in San Juan Bautista since 1971, El Teatro Campesino keeps going with new material, continuing to inspire others.
“There are now Latino playwrights all over the country and productions from coast to coast and I’m very happy and proud that this has happened,” Valdez said.
Valdez was in plenty of good company in receiving the national medal, including actors Mel Brooks and Morgan Freeman and jazz great Wynton Marsalis. The White House said Valdez was honored “for bringing Chicano culture to American drama. As a playwright, actor, writer and director, he illuminates the human spirit in the face of social injustice through award-winning stage, film and television productions.”
For all his work and recognition, though, Valdez keeps grounded in his farmworker roots.
“Bakersfield and Delano are my cradle, my cuna!” he said. “I always carry Kern County in my heart because that’s where I’m from.”