Thirty Years at El Teatro Campesino

Julie Reynolds
Photos by Paul Myers

Thirty Years at El Teatro Campesino
Thank God I Found the Teatro
The Stillborn Child
This is Life
I was Born into the Teatro
The Altar



This story wasn't supposed to end the way it did.

With its recent trials of a Latina boycott against artistic director Luis Valdez, financial disaster two years ago, and funding pulled in June from a major theater project in San Jose, El Teatro Campesino seems, on the eve of its thirtieth anniversary, to be struggling with the Chicano community and the world.

But as I interviewed actors and critics and friends and family of El Teatro Campesino, I found a unique intimacy in the delicate web of the Teatro family. In the end, this became a story not of the institution nor of its leader Luis Valdez, but of the dilemmas faced throughout life by the artists who make up the theater companies, art galleries and dance troupes we look to for inspiration.

Rosa María Escalante, an actress and educator who's been with Teatro for over 20 years, sees it not as an organization, but "as an organism." It lives and breathes like a very human thing, more biological than institutional.

Actually, this story ended up being about life, not theater. But of course at El Teatro Campesino, they'll tell you it's all the same.


The Teatro playhouse in San Juan Bautista is a long, tin-roofed former packing shed in a dusty lot, graced by a backdrop of the amber hills that inspired Steinbeck. With giant magueys guarding its weathered porch, the theater and its surroundings could be a Hollywood set for one of those sepia-toned art films about old Mexico.

The place is quiet, nearly still, so distinct from the crazy, bustling scene I'd seen three, five or ten years ago. I came to San Juan to interview the Teatro "veteranos" and the "kids," a new generation of actors and producers. Lupe Valdez is now running the front office, while her husband, artistic director Luis Valdez, and managing director Phil Esparza are spending days at the Cal State Monterey Bay campus, preparing to teach at the brand new school this fall. Some of the "kids" here are the children of Teatro's veterans: Lupe and Luis's three sons, others, like Tina Sandoval from southern California, just showed up three years ago. The kids are finishing up production of a film adapted from Luis's early play Soldado Razo, which they financed, directed and produced themselves.

El Teatro Campesino will be thirty years old this fall, "more or less in November," according to Phil Esparza. In essence, Teatro's birthday marks the anniversary of the Chicano movement, of modern Chicano history. Born in 1965 in the arms of the United Farm Workers' Union, El Teatro Campesino performed "actos" in fields and on flatbed trucks to educate and entertain farmworkers with a style that mixed a traditional Mexican tent show with Cantinflas and Berthold Brecht. A few years later, San José State graduate Luis Valdez took the show to Fresno and U.C. Berkeley, where many of Teatro's members joined what had become known as the "most exciting theater group around," according to Rosa María Escalante. By the early 70s, Teatro was the hub of TENAZ, (Teatro Nacional de Aztlán), an organization which promoted Chicano theater "to serve as a tool in the life-struggle of La Raza." If it wasn't clear earlier, by then it was: Luis Valdez had emerged as the charismatic leader of El Teatro Campesino. Valdez became known as the founder, creator and patriarch of Chicano theater, the only living inventor of a whole genre of modern drama.

In her recent critical book, El Teatro Campesino, Theater in the Chicano Movement, (University of Texas Press), Yolanda Broyles-González cites the ensemble years of Teatro as a time when Luis first wrote down the plays that other actors had created through improvisation. Broyles-González plainly accuses Valdez of "expropriating the collective works of El Teatro Campesino."

"In '73 I joined the company for ever and ever and ever," Rosa Escalante says, "We thought of ourselves as a cooperative. But Luis was very definitely The Director. I feel we were creating-oh, we would do days of improvisational work, but it then had to be translated into the written work. There was nobody else doing the writing. I really do not think any of us were ready."I have no problem with Luis taking it, because at that point in time, I was not in any postition to do it."

Over the years a few associates have left the group, bitter over differences with the strong-willed Valdez. "With Luis," says Rosa María Escalante, "until you stand up to him and inform that you are going to do what you believe you need to do and in the form that you believe that you need you do it in, he will continue to badger you."

But a large number of original actors and members stuck with the company for more than twenty years, living their lives as part of Teatro's inner family in the tiny town of San Juan Bautista, population 6,000.



"Thank God I found the Teatro"

El Teatro Campesino moved to San Juan and renovated a shed, bestowed by artist and restaurateur Manuel Santana, into a playhouse. They toured Europe and the U.S., living through hard times, when, as actress Rosa Apodaca says, "We sold five dollars worth of posters and went out to buy hamburger and spaghetti and thought we were living high." Rosa is a young grandmother with spiked hair and filligreed earrings. She teaches at Stanford and UCSC, a standup comic with a degree in theater arts. Like Rosa María Escalante, she's been with Teatro since the mid-seventies and moved to San Juan Bautista to be with the company.

In the late 70s Luis wrote and directed the hit musical Zoot Suit, along with the 1981 Universal Studios film of the play. As Valdez broke away from El Teatro to do the show at L.A.'s prestigious Mark Taper Forum (it was not officially a Teatro Campesino production, though many Teatro actors starred in it) the first signs of "mainstreaming" showed. Broyles-González believes this was the beginning of the end for the ensemble, and of its experiment with "art as social practice." She would not be the first or the last to accuse Teatro of selling out.

In El Teatro Campesino, Theater in the Chicano Movement, Broyles-González makes a surprisingly brash statement. "Chicana/o theater productions, like Chicana/o films or any other Chicana/o media that engage in the large-scale marketing of Chicana/o images, must be held accountable."What ideological purpose is served by [their] mainstreaming?"

"You know, that really gets me," Rosa Apodaca responds. "The Chicano movement started because we needed better representation, we needed to have better wages, we needed to treat ourselves with dignity and respect, we needed better jobs, and once people started getting those things it was like, 'Oh! Damn you for getting that job! Sellout!' It's like, 'Wait a minute! Isn't that what you wanted for me?'"


Rosa Apodaca: "Thank God that I found the Teatro, because it really has been a wonderful journey. It's been, at times, a painful journey, because we have not always been in the center light. We've been targeted by a lot of people who I think were angry at themselves and chose to lash out at us."




"The Stillborn Child"

Perhaps responding to criticism of the Valdez patriarchy, El Teatro began its first tour of women's work in 1992 with two plays, Simply María by Josefina López and How Else Am I Supposed to Know I'm Still Alive? by Evelina Fernández (which co-starred Rosa María Escalante).

At that time Lupe Valdez wrote her first screenplay, for a film about Frida Kahlo, which Luis was to direct. The film was backed by New Line Cinema and was set to go into production when Luis's (some say the studio's) choice of an Italian-American actress for the role of Frida Kahlo caused an uproar among Latina actresses who felt that the part should have been given to a Latina. A boycott against Valdez was called and the film was never produced.

Lupe was devastated. "It was the work that I loved. I loved being able to work with Luis on this thing, because it really was dealing with Frida Kahlo, a woman's point of view. When you get into any project and you get right into the middle, it's really like giving birth. Unfortunately, this was a stillborn. I guess you never forget that. It is a child that you carried."


Rosa Apodaca: "It was really funny because at that point I had produced Floricanto and brought all these poets in-it was a great success; Lupe had just written the Kahlo piece, and some great poetry; there was another woman who had written a song, and women were being very strong at that time right before this thing happened. And it was women that knocked it down. One time Lupe said it's really sad that we never got together with these women and said, 'Did you ever think about us? Why didn't you call us? Ask us first. Don't pretend that Luis is the only one.'"


Rosa Apodaca: "Personally, I don't think that [Luis] has completely gotten over that. These are people that he had hired when no one else had even known them. And yet, they weren't boycotting other directors. Why aren't we doing something about them? One lousy director that we finally get in there!

"I think that one of the things that Luis has said, the only positive thing, was that hopefully they would grow through this and that they would see there'll come a time when they'll have to make those choices. Do they not participate in all-white show because they're Latinos? Do they not take the role of a gangster, or a drug addict, or a puta?"




"This is Life"

The Frida episode was actually a pivotal point when Luis and Lupe retreated from the spotlight. There were problems to deal with at home. In 1993 and 1994 there was, as Rosa Escalante calls it, a "financial fiasco." Teatro was suddenly broke. Nearly the entire staff was laid off. Only Phil Esparza, the company's managing director, and a few part-timers staffed the office. No one wants to talk about the causes, referring vaguely to board members who overextended the Teatro's resources.

Last year has been heavy with grief, adding new wounds.

Lupe Valdez: "My mother-in-law passed away last July, and my mother six months later, and my brother two months later. It just takes awhile to find the balance again. When we lost my mother, this powerful woman who sustained us was no longer there. And then two months later, my brother committed suicide. And I can talk about his suicide, in the sense that this is life. You have to deal with life as it comes."

In the midst of these crises, there was a half-hearted attempt to develop a theater for the company in San José by renovating the old José Theater with $12 million in city redevelopment agency funds. A budget cut came early this year that left Teatro competing with local arts groups such as the Mexican Cultural Heritage Gardens for what little money might be salvaged from alternative budget proposals. Some residents resented the outsiders' competition for local funds, and one actor in a small Latino theater group said, "It was just El Teatro Campesino and the city, and even though we came out for them and fought for them, no one even called us to talk about the project."

By late June, Teatro backed out more or less gracefully. "We've chosen not to be divisive," Phil Esparza told the San José Mercury News, "especially with other arts and minority groups involved."



"I was Born into the Teatro"

When there is loss there is also the potential of rebirth.

On that side of the cycle are Kinan, Anahuac and Lakin Valdez, Maria Candelaria and Tina Sandoval. All in their twenties or younger, they have taken over production of Teatro's successful Christmas plays, La Virgen del Tepayac and La Pastorela, performed each year to standing room-only crowds inside San Juan's Mission church. The crew spent the summer making the film Soldado Razo, which Anahuac Valdez was "really adamant about doing as a cinematic adaptation" of the Teatro play which was originally produced in 1971. His brother Kinan wrote the screenplay based on his father's script, and their cousin María Candelaria produced and acted in it.

Co-producer Tina Sandoval majored in communications in college in San Bernardino, and is interested in producing for television. "I wrote to everybody here and called and called and finally Rosa Escalante said, 'Okay, but come and visit. A lot of people who come from a big city to here are shocked because there's not a lot to do and you're young.' I came for a weekend and I knew I wanted to be here. I didn't know anyone up here, but it was just something I felt I had to do."

Kinan has a deep voice and a delivery like his father's. It's hard to avoid comparisons; he seems natural for the part of heir to the Valdez legacy. Lupe says, "We're in a process of passing the baton to them." "Right now it's that crucial moment during a marathon when the other runner hangs on to the baton," says Kinan. "You can't just drop the baton and hope someone picks it up. It's in that in-between stage now. My whole life has been dedicated to the Teatro. I was born into it. My own direction lies with the stuff we do here, and that'll never change."


María Candelaria: "The generation of the 'veteranos' really tried to reclaim anything that was Mexican and revered things that were historically looked down upon and stereotyped: namely, the Mexican family. There's a certain conservatism in liberalism. Our whole sensibility, as children who've benefited from a lot of the veteranos' struggle and a lot of their art, is to say now let's portray these characters honestly. We don't want be slave to a particular image. We deserve to have developed characters on all levels. "

"Chicanos are only thirty years old," Rosa Apodaca adds. "I'm only thirty years old. The Chicano movement has only been around that long. So of course it's all a process of growing we're going through. Maybe we're just now maturing in terms of our art and in terms of the social movement."


The sun is now squinting over the hills, painting everything with that sepia tint. Our photographer is in ecstasy. Luis comes up the steps, tired from his workday at Cal State, but cheers a little at the sight of us taking the new generation here seriously. I ask him the same question I've asked everyone, "What's your fantasy of the next thirty years for El Teatro Campesino?" and I get the same response from him as from everyone else, "Wow. What an interesting question," followed by a long pause. Then he lights up as the old Valdez magic kicks in. His eyes brighten and he laughs.

"The fantasy? I think we've been working on the whole spectrum, of working the root culture as well as the delivery systems. In thirty years I hope that we still maintain the root with the farmworkers, but are able to deliver films, videos, theater, and music through the technology available." Valdez the actor carefully delivers the next words, the ones chosen to surprise and enlighten. "Meaning the Internet."


The Altar

In the lobby of El Teatro Campesino's San Juan Bautista playhouse, there is an altar dedicated to the people lost this year. There are small photos, fresh and wilting flowers attended to when someone has time, a card from those in the Teatro Campesino family who have been there through thirty years of births, deaths, sick kids, applause, fights, and critics. I look at the old faces in the photos as I hear the kids in a back room, working on the budget for La Pastorela, while Lupe and Luis talk quietly in his office. Three generations here, with a current buzzing between them, still alive and electric. I can't imagine seeing this cycle of life, or even this altar, on Broadway or at the Royal Shakespeare Company. "We're all performing, directing other things," one performer says, "and yet we're always drawn back to our home, which is the Teatro."

If El Teatro Campesino does not meet someone's standards for a successful arts organization, then we are thinking only of ourselves, the audience, and not of our artists. The players are the ones who have created this intimacy, this family, and it's not for us, it's for themselves. They've built El Teatro Campesino to be the armor that protects their performers from a harsh world while they act as hands, eyes and voice for a new world being born. It's taken generations to bring it this far, though it's only been thirty years.


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