Friday evening, Luis Valdez, the founding artistic director of El Teatro Campesino, writer and director of Zoot Suit and La Bamba, and the father of Chicano Theater in the United States, was welcomed with a standing ovation at the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas. The packed house included several city council members and Pro Tem Mayor Pauline Medrano. Clad in black glasses and a crisp, white untucked shirt, Valdez has a full head of soft, gray hair, and a mustache that creates perfect symmetry with the warm smile on his face.
Moderator José Luis Torres and he are old friends and they exchanged comfortable, friendly banter only after Torres acknowledged that Valdez is longer the father of Chicano literature. He's the grandfather.
The audience held onto every word as Valdez, a natural storyteller spoke animatedly at the edge of his seat and cozied back while listening to Torres. Here are a few of the highlights:
On Education Valdez first majored in math and physics in college but later switched to English because he was tired of people asking if he could speak English. It was very important for him to sound intelligent because, as a Chicano, most people assumed he was not -- that he was only a menial laborer. He soon realized, however, that he wanted to do more than speak English. He wanted to write it.
On the Birth of Teatro Campesino It is aptly named Teatro Campesino because it is truly a farm worker's theater. He first pitched the idea during the Grape Strike in Delano, California in 1965. They were activists, and they performed their first actos on the picket line, getting scabs out of the field. They used the hoods of cars and the beds of trucks as their stage and headlights as their lighting. Why did he call these first performances actos? Because they were short, and he needed a name for them. "They're not skits -- we're not Boy Scouts," said Valdez.
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On the Risks Creating Art with a Message At one point, a farm grower's son put a gun to his head during a performance and demanded that he act for him. "I almost acted in my pants!" Valdez exclaimed. After that episode, he asked himself: Is this worth dying for? Yes! He was not going to stop.
On Edward James Olmos Zoot Suit's record-breaking run on stage created a firestorm in Los Angeles. People of every color, age and class were in the audience each night. One night, two opposing gangs attended the same show. They met in the lobby, and they were going to rumble. Olmos went out there -- in character -- and stepped right between the two gangs and stopped them.
On the Idea for La Bamba It was Zoot Suit's opening night on Broadway. Valdez and his brother Daniel, who played Henry Reyna, were excited and nervous in their dressing room on 7th Avenue. As they got ready they thought, now that we've done the '40s, we need to bring the '50s to New York too. At that moment, they heard the notes of a certain song wafting through the door.
The President of Mexico had sent a mariachi band to New York for their opening night. After that, Valdez was determined to search for Ritchie Valens. Although it never made it to Broadway, it did become an iconic feature film and introduced Valdez to Hollywood.