LuisMiguelValdez MagillsSurveyofAmericanLiterature

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Brehm, J., (2006). Luis Miguel Valdez. Magill’s Survey of American Literature, 1-6. BiographyOne of the most influential Chicano playwrights of his time, Valdez created a drama dedicated to social progress and to the full exploration of Chicano identity.Luis Miguel Valdez was born on June 26, 1940, in Delano, California, the second of ten brothers and sisters. His mother and father were migrant farmworkers, and Luis began working in the fields at the age of six. Because his family traveled to the harvests in the San Joaquin Valley, Luis received little uninterrupted schooling.In an interview, Valdez discussed one significant, and ultimately fortunate, consequence of such a disruptive early life: His family had just finished a cotton harvest; the season had ended, the rains begun, but because their truck had broken down, the family had to stay put. Leaving school one day, Luis realized he had left behind his paper lunch bag, a precious commodity in 1946, given the paper shortages and the family’s poverty. When he returned to get it, however, he found his teacher had torn it up. She was using it to make papier-mâché animal masks for the school play. Luis was amazed by the transformation. Although he did not even know what a play was at the time, he decided to audition and was given the leading role as a monkey. The play was about Christmas in the jungle, and the following weeks of colorful preparation were exhilarating. A week before the show was to begin, however, his father got the truck fixed, and the family moved away. Valdez has said of the experience: “That left an unfillable gap, a vacuum I’ve been pouring myself into ever since.”The pang of that early disappointment sparked a fascination for the theater and a wealth of creative energy that was to bring Valdez remarkable success in the years ahead. Despite his intermittent schooling, he won a scholarship to San Jose State College in 1960. There he studied theater history and developed a lasting enthusiasm for classical Greek and Roman drama. His own work also began to take shape, and his first one-act play, The Theft, won a regional playwriting award. In 1965, he directed his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, which audiences greeted warmly.After receiving a degree in English in 1964, Valdez spent several months traveling in Cuba before joining the San Francisco Mime Troupe. In 1965, he returned home to Delano and joined the newly formed United Farm Workers Union under the leadership of César Chávez. During this time, Valdez began fully to explore drama as a vehicle for social justice. He developed a form suitable for his migrant-worker audiences: a short skit, or acto, designed to inspire Chicanos to political action.These actos, often improvised on flatbed trucks for workers in the fields, proved so powerful as political weapons that Valdez’s life was threatened during the grape strike of 1967. Immensely popular with the workers, the actosaroused hostility in the growers, whose exploitative labor practices the plays satirized. Valdez has recalled being “beaten and kicked and jailed. . . . essentially for doing theater.” Still, he persisted, and the actosgained so much attention that the Teatro Campesino, or Farmworker’s Theater, toured the United States performing the works in 1967.From then on, Valdez’s work began to reach increasingly larger audiences. He left the fields late in 1967 for Del Rey, California, where he founded the Centro Campesino Cultural. Between 1969 and 1980, the troupe toured Europe four times and won an Obie Award. Despite such acclaim Valdez remained true to his Chicano, migrant-worker roots. Moving the troupe to Fresno, California, in 1969, Valdez founded an annual Chicano theater festival and began teaching at Fresno State College. As its audience grew, the troupe became more technically sophisticated but continued its efforts to “put the tools of the artist into the hands of the humblest, the working people.” The troupe moved in 1971 to rural San Juan Bautista, from which it toured widely among college campuses, while remaining deeply involved with the concerns of its own community.Having spent his entire career well outside mainstream, commercial theater, Valdez decided in 1978 to reach for a still larger audience. The result was Zoot Suit, a Broadway-style dance musical about the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the riots that followed in Los Angeles in 1943. Though still quite political, the play succeeds in being genuinely entertaining, particularly in its film adaptation. Like Zoot Suit, Bandido! (1981) and “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” (1986) both reach for more general audiences and explore the Chicano struggle for identity against the limiting stereotypes imposed by an Anglicized history and American media. Such plays, as well as the successful 1987 film La Bamba, which Valdez wrote and directed, speak not only for Chicanos but also to white audiences, forcing them to reexamine their preconceptions about who Chicanos really are. These works also testify to Valdez’s extraordinary journey from migrant farmworker to one of the most vital Chicano voices in American drama.AnalysisFrom the earliest and simplest actos to the complex sophistication of “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” nearly three decades later, Valdez’s plays have displayed a remarkable consistency of theme and purpose. Certainly, his work has evolved in scope, depth, and technique, but his basic objectives have remained constant: to expose social injustice, to satirize the oppressors, and to dramatize, in all of its fullness and variety, the struggle to achieve a viable Chicano identity.Born into a family of migrant farmworkers, Valdez knew firsthand the effects of oppression and exploitation. It was therefore quite natural that his first short plays would deal with the struggles of the farmworkers to unionize. These early actos were improvised using a unique collaborative method: Valdez would simply ask striking workers to show what had happened to them during the day. Employing masks or crude signs to indicate different characters — workers, scabs, growers, and so forth — the strikers, under Valdez’s direction, produced skits of engaging immediacy, broad humor, and a pointed political message. Their purpose was to raise consciousness, deflate the opposition’s authority, and point to a solution. Yet the plays were quite entertaining as well, often transforming and releasing the workers’ immediate feelings of fear and frustration through comedy and withering satire.Though some of the actos, such as Vietnam campesino (1970), can seem too bluntly didactic, Valdez learned much from them about making theater a vehicle for inspiring social action. He also sensed, eventually, the need to ground the Chicano experience in something more enduring than immediate political struggle. He returned to the ancient wellsprings of Aztec and Mayan culture to provide such a groundwork for the contemporary Chicano identity.In his introduction to Aztlan: An Anthology of Mexican American Literature(1972), Valdez frames the problem of Chicano marginalization explicitly:His birthright to speak as Man has been forcibly stripped from him. To his conqueror he is patently sub-human, uncivilized, or culturally deprived. The poet in him flounders in a morass of lies and distortions about his conquered people. He loses his identity with mankind, and self-consciously struggles to regain his one-to-one relationship with humanexistence. It is a long way back. . . . Such is the condition of the Chicano.That “long way back” took Valdez to pre-Columbian Mexico. What he found there were the achievements of Aztec and Mayan civilization, their astonishing developments in medicine, art, poetry, hygiene, urban planning, and religion, all of which he compares favorably to their European counterparts of the time. To combat the degradation of centuries of Anglo racism, of being seen as “foreigners in the continent of their birth,” Valdez wants to reconnect Chicanos to an ancient, proud, and venerable culture. Chicanos must, in his view, revive this connection and rethink their history if they are to maintain an identity in Anglo society.Valdez attempts this reconnection in a variety of ways. In Bernabé(1970), he creates a character, the village lunatic, who physically and metaphorically marries La Tierra (the Earth) and thus reestablishes the Mayan reverence for it. In Zoot Suit and Bandido!, Valdez reexamines history from the Chicano and Mexican perspective. Thus Tiburcio Vasquez, whom history had portrayed as a mere bandit working the California countryside from 1850 to 1875, becomes in Bandido! a revolutionary bent on political rebellion. Zoot Suit retrieves for the American conscience an overlooked period of intense racism culminating in the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the riots that followed. Both plays try not only to set the record straight but also to discover a source of pride for Chicanos in a history that has been unjustly debased.The consequence of Chicanos being cut off from the life-giving power of their history and culture is brilliantly dramatized in “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!,” in which Valdez explores the deeply problematic nature of assimilation into Anglo culture. In their desire to fit in with middle-class America, the members of the Villa family find themselves silenced and marginalized. Bit-part actors who rarely receive speaking roles, Buddy and Connie Villa have achieved a comfortable success, but their only connection with their own culture is the stereotyped Mexicans they portray on film. Their son, who enrolled in Harvard Law School at age sixteen, represents the possibility for the epitome of Anglo success. Yet he rebels against this assimilation and drops out of school, only to discover just how rigid the limitations are for Chicanos who reject an Anglo identity.Stylistically, Valdez is clearly not a realist, though some of his plays — those, for example, depicting actual historical events — employ elements of realism. In all of his plays, however, Valdez takes pains (often in the manner of Bertolt Brecht) to ensure that his audiences never forget that they are watching a play. He does not want to create the illusion of reality or to manipulate the audience into emotional identification with the characters. Plays within plays, characters who speak directly to the audience, radical shifts in time, and many other devices all serve to disrupt the illusion of reality and focus the audience’s attention on the artifice before them. Such strategies serve Valdez’s purposes well, for he wants audiences to maintain the necessary distance to reflect on the problems that his plays present and to relate them to the world outside the theater. Often the plays are open-ended or have multiple endings, and in this way, too, the audience must actively engage the play and resolve it for themselves. These methods do not provide a comfortable or easy theatrical experience, but the rewards of thinking hard about Valdez’s plays are indeed worth the effort.Las dos caras del patroncito First produced: 1965 (first published, 1971)Type of work: PlayThe boss trades places with one of his farmworkers and discovers how exploited they are.Las dos caras del patroncito (the two faces of the little boss) typifies, in many ways, Valdez’s early actos. The piece grew out of a collaborative improvisation during the grape strike of 1965 and dramatized the immediate and intense feelings of its audience. Like all the actos, it is brief, direct, didactic, intending not only to express the workers’ anger and urge them to join the union but also to satirize the growers and reveal their injustice. The play succeeds brilliantly by enacting a total reversal of what Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche termed the master/slave relationship.The play begins with an undocumented Mexican worker being visited by his patroncito, or “little boss,” who appears wearing a pig mask and smoking a cigar. Initially, both play their assumed roles of intimidating master and cowering slave to perfection. Soon, though, the patroncito waxes poetic over his Mexicans. Seeing them “barreling down the freeway” makes his “heart feel good; hands on their sombreros, hair flying in the wind, bouncing along happy as babies.” “I sure do love my Mexicans,” he says. The patroncito reveals a typical condescension, romanticizing the migrant workers’ lives and regarding them essentially as children. When the farmworker responds by putting his arm around him, however, the patroncito says; “I love ’em about ten feet away from me.”Their conversation takes a peculiar turn as the patroncito verbally coerces the farmworker into agreeing that the workers have it easy, with their “free housing” (labor-camp shacks), “free transportation” (unsafe trucks), and “free food” (beans and tortillas). The boss asserts that he himself suffers all the anxiety that comes from owning a Lincoln Continental, an expensive ranch house, and a wife with expensive tastes. At one point, he asks the farmworker, “Ever write out a check for $12,000?” The audience of migrant workers struggling to raise their wages to two dollars an hour would have felt the irony of such a question; the agony of writing out such a check is not something they would experience anytime soon, given their exploited condition.Yet the patroncito actually envies the farmworkers’ “freedom” and wishes to trade places. After some coaxing, the farmworker agrees, and the patroncitogives him his pig mask, whereupon the power relations between them are reversed. The farmworker now gives the boss a taste of his own medicine. He insults him and proceeds to claim his land, his house, his car, and his wife. The patroncito soon realizes that the game has gone too far. He does not want to live in the rat-infested shacks he so generously provides for his workers, or ride in his death-trap trucks, or work for such low wages.By the play’s end, the farmworker has so thoroughly abused his patroncito, calling him a “spic,” “greaseball,” and “commie bastard” — all the slurs the workers endured — that the patroncito calls for help from union activist César Chávez and screams “huelga” (“strike”). Thus the play brings him full circle from callous owner to union supporter and suggests that if the oppressors could put themselves in the place of the oppressed, they would see their own injustice.Zoot Suit First produced: 1978 (first published, 1992)Type of work: PlayThe Sleepy Lagoon murder trial of 1943 shows young Chicanos to be the victims of prejudice.Zoot Suit, though perhaps Valdez’s most commercial play, retains the political spirit of the early actos and anticipates the struggle for Chicano identity of Valdez’s later works. Because it is a musical, with terrific song and dance throughout, it is his most conventionally entertaining play, but because it dramatizes an overlooked episode in American history that reveals a pervasive racism against Chicanos, it is also one of his most powerful and socially relevant plays.Set in Los Angeles in the early 1940’s, the play centers around the trial and wrongful murder conviction of Henry Reyna and three other Chicano gang members, or pachucos. Act 1 explores the trial and, through flashback, the violence that leads up to it; act 2 deals with the efforts to appeal the conviction and free the pachucos. Throughout the play, Valdez gives the action an added dimension through the use of two extraordinary devices. One is the mythic figure of El Pachuco. He is larger than life, the zoot-suiter par excellence, the embodiment of Chicano pride, machismo, and revolutionary defiance. He dominates the play, though he is seen only by Henry and the audience. Indeed, he may be understood as a layer of Henry’s personality externalized, a kind of alter ego who continually advises Henry and comments on, at times even controls, the play. The second device is El Pachuco’s counterpart and antagonist, The Press. In Zoot Suit, the news media functions as an actual character who symbolizes the racist hysteria of public opinion during World War II. Significantly, it is The Press, rather than a prosecutor, that tries and convicts Henry.This racist hysteria (“EXTRA! EXTRA!, ZOOT-SUITED GOONS OF SLEEPY LAGOON! . . . READ ALL ABOUT MEXICAN BABY GANGSTERS!”) provides a crucial context for understanding the play. As the United States fought Nazis abroad, it imprisoned Japanese Americans at home, denied African Americans basic human rights, and harassed Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. The irony of Henry’s being arrested on trumped-up charges the night before he is to report to the Navy to join the fight against racist Germany is cynically pointed out by El Pachuco, who says that “the mayor of L.A. has declared all-out war on Chicanos.” In this climate, racial stereotypes, media-inspired fear, and repressive forces unleashed by war are quite enough to convict the pachucos, even in the absence of any real evidence.The trial itself is a mockery, a foregone conclusion, and thus Henry finds himself at the mercy of forces he did not create and cannot control. Even those who try to help him — his lawyer, George, and Alice, a reporter from the Daily People’s World — earn Henry’s resentment, for they, too, seem to be controlling his fate. In this sense, El Pachuco represents a compensating fantasy. He is always in control and indeed is able to freeze the action of the play, speak directly to the audience, rerun dialogue, or skip ahead at will. He is a kind of director within the play, and however vulnerable the other young pachucosare, El Pachuco remains invincible. Even when he is tripped and beaten by Marines, he rises up undaunted, clad only in a loincloth, like an Aztec god.Henry Reyna and the other pachucos are vindicated in the end, winning their appeal and a provisional kind of freedom. Yet Valdez presents multiple endings to Henry’s life story. He does so to make the audience see that Henry’s character still exists, as do the forces of racism that torment him, and the defiant spirit and cultural pride that will not allow his will to be broken.“I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” First produced:1986 (first published, 1986)Type of work: PlayIn a rebellious attempt to create his own identity, a young Chicano finds himself trapped by stereotypes.“I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” is Valdez’s most complex, ambitious, and satisfying play. Satirical, comic, filled with puns and painful insight, the play explores the search for an authentic Chicano identity against the limiting stereotypes and restricted possibilities afforded Mexican Americans in the 1980’s United States.The play is set in Los Angeles in the home of Connie and Buddy Villa, middle-aged Chicano bit-part actors. The conflict is sparked by the unexpected return of Sonny, their son. Defying his parents’ dreams for him, Sonny quits Harvard University Law School and thus forfeits his chance at the kind of Anglo success his parents have not been able to achieve. His return home, with his Chinese American girlfriend, and his announced intention to become an actor, writer, producer, and director — “the newest superstar in Hollywood” and “the next Woody Allen” — creates a crisis in the family that the rest of the play tries to resolve. In a tempestuous family quarrel, Sonny derides his parents’ acting; they have made careers playing stereotyped nonspeaking parts as maids, gardeners, bandits, and prostitutes.He proclaims his desire to surpass them. “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” then moves to a play within a play. Sonny films his parents and his girlfriend, Anita, but when his parents are called off to a Latino Actors Guild meeting, he decides to act in another way. He takes his father’s gun and holds up several fast-food restaurants. The climax of the play occurs when police and news crews arrive at the Villa home; a standoff ensues, replete with gunfire, bullhorns, and live coverage. The play then offers three completely different endings, with Sonny either killing himself, becoming a television director, or returning to Harvard, via spaceship, to finish his law degree.Valdez gives the play’s most compelling theme, the struggle against racial stereotypes to find a viable Chicano identity, a complex and layered treatment. Even the characters’ names — Buddy, Connie, and Sonny Villa — suggest a divided identity. “Villa” recalls the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, but their first names are all too typically Anglo. Their cultural frame of reference, moreover, is almost exclusively that of white films and film stars. Throughout the play, they compare themselves and one another to Otto Preminger, Woody Allen, James Bond, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and many others. Their understanding of themselves and their world seems to have been defined not by Chicano role models but by Hollywood film stars.Sonny alone recognizes this problem, and he rebels against it. He sees that his parents’ roles as “silent” actors signify their powerlessness, their marginalized stature in Hollywood, and the invisibility of Chicanos generally. Sonny also understands that by acting the film roles of Mexican stereotypes, his parents have achieved in their private existence nothing more than a “low rated situation comedy” and “a cheap imitation of Anglo life,” with a comfortable home, swimming pool, and all the other trappings of middle-class America. Sonny wants no part of it. Yet he knows how limited his options are:Here’s the main event: the indispensable illiterate cholo gang member-heroin-addict-born-to-lose-image, which I suppose could account for 99 percent of my future employment in TV land. Just look hostile, dumb, and potentially violent. Preferably with rape on the mind, know what I mean?Thus Sonny’s decision to leave Harvard and create his own films is an attempt to create and control his own identity, not as an imitation Anglo but as a Chicano. For all of his insight and ambition, however, Sonny feels trapped. When his parents abandon his home movie, titled Types in Stereo, Sonny decides to make his acting real. Yet he merely assumes another role, and a stereotypical one at that, of the Chicano bandit. He robs fast-food restaurants, symbols of the emptiness he sees in American life, and thus gives in to the pressures against which he had fought.The play’s multiple endings leave readers and audiences perplexed. Clearly, though, Valdez wants audiences to step back and reflect on the relationship between acting and reality and to consider the options open, or perhaps closed, to someone like Sonny. Ultimately, the play forces audiences to think deeply about their own stereotypes and to see, in all of its painful complexity, the damage such stereotypes can do.SummaryUnlike many of his contemporaries who prefer to explore psychological conflicts or the complexities of personal relationships, Valdez has devoted his work to dramatizing social problems. His plays, early and late, expose the injustice endured by Chicanos — not to elicit pity or to portray them as victims but to focus attention on the forces of oppression and to make Chicanos fully visible in American society. In plays that are satirical, unconventional, unpredictable, painful, and often hilarious, Valdez succeeds in abolishing the stereotypes and showing not only what Chicanos have suffered but also who they really are.Discussion Topics•Compare Luis Miguel Valdez’s use of history in Zoot Suit and Bandido!•What does “I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!” say about American society’s view of Chicanos? What does it say about the effect of American popular culture on ordinary lives?•How do Valdez’s plays show the influence of the dramatic methods of Bertolt Brecht?•How does Zoot Suit continue and expand upon the themes of Valdez’s actos?•In Zoot Suit, how does El Pachuco embody Chicano pride?•Does Valdez’s film La Bamba look at Chicano culture differently than his plays?Essay by: John BrehmBibliographyBroyles-Gonzales, Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Study drawing on previously unexamined materials, such as production notes and interviews with former ensemble members, to demystify the roles Valdez and El Teatro Campesino played in the development of a Chicano theater aesthetic.Elam, Harry J., Jr. Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theatre of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Explores the political, cultural, and performative similarities between El Teatro Campesino and Baraka’s Black Revolutionary Theater. An intriguing examination of the political theater of these two marginalized groups, Chicanos and African Americans, and their shared aesthetic.Flores, Arturo C. El Teatro Campesino de Luis Valdez. Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 1990. This five-chapter study examines the importance, gradual development, theoretical considerations, touring, and “return to identity,” and the “steps to commercialization (1975-1980)” represented by Zoot Suit. A strong study with a bibliography. In Spanish.Huerta, Jorge A. Chicano Theatre: Themes and Forms. Ypsilanti, Mich.: Bilingual Press, 1982. Well-written and-illustrated study that begins with Valdez’s experiences in Delano in 1965. It contains an excellent immediate description with dialogue of these first energies and is written in the present tense for immediacy and energy. Provides some discussion of the beginnings of the San Francisco mime troupe and strong description of the actos and their literary history in Europe.Huerta, Jorge A. “Labor Theatre, Street Theatre, and Community Theatre in the Barrio, 1965-1983.” In Hispanic Theatre in the United States, edited by Nicolas Kanellos. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1984. Placed at the end of a longer study of Hispanic theater, this essay takes on more importance by indicating Valdez’s contribution in a continuum of history. Good on contemporaries of El Teatro Campesino; strong bibliography.Kanellos, Nicolas. Mexican American Theater: Legacy and Reality. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1987. Begins with an examination of Valdez’s transformation from director of El Teatro Campesino to the urban commercial playwright of Zoot Suit in 1978. Cites Valdez’s contribution to the “discernible period of proliferation and flourishing in Chicano theatres” from 1965 to 1976, then moves on to examine other offshoots of the impulse.Morales, Ed. “Shadowing Valdez.” American Theatre 9 (November, 1992): 14-19. Excellent essay on Valdez, his followers, his film plans, his shelved Frida Kahlo project, and later productions in and around Los Angeles, with production stills. Includes an essay entitled “Statement on Artistic Freedom” by Valdez, in which he defends his nontraditional casting.Orona-Cordova, Roberta. “Zoot Suit and the Pachuco Phenomenon: An Interview with Luis Valdez.” In Mexican American Theatre: Then and Now, edited by Nicolas Kanellos. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1983. The opening of the film version of Zoot Suit in 1982 prompted this interview, in which Valdez reveals much about his motives for working, his view of Chicano literature and art, and his solutions to “the entrenched attitude” that will not allow Chicano participation in these industries. Much on Pachuquismo from an insider’s point of view.Pottlitzer, Joanne. Hispanic Theater in the United States and Puerto Rico: A Report to the Ford Foundation. New York: Ford Foundation, 1988. This volume provides a brief history to 1965 and discusses the Hispanic theater during the upheaval of the Vietnam War. Also examines the theater’s activities and budget and pays homage to the inspiration of El Teatro Campesino and Valdez. Supplemented by an appendix and survey data.Valdez, Luis Miguel. “Zoot Suit and the Pachuco Phenomenon: An Interview with Luis Valdez.” Interview by Roberta Orona-Cordova. In Mexican American Theatre: Then and Now, edited by Nicolas Kanellos. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1983. The opening of the film version of Zoot Suit prompted this interview, in which Valdez reveals much about his motives for working, his view of Chicano literature and art, and his solutions to “the entrenched attitude” that will not allow Chicano participation in these industries.