Three weeks after President Obama slipped a purple ribbon with a golden National Medal of Arts around his neck, Luis Valdez is back in the nation’s capital from California farm country to do a little more of what earned him the honor in the first place.
“Entertainment with a purpose,” he calls it.
The pioneer of Chicano theater got his start founding El Teatro Campesino — “a theater of, by and for the farm workers” — in his hometown of Delano, Cal., during the grape strike led by César Chávez in 1965. He went on to write and direct the first Chicano play on Broadway, “Zoot Suit,” in 1979, which he turned into a film starring Edward James Olmos. He later wrote and directed the film “La Bamba.”
Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center, Valdez, 76, and some of his collaborators will present scenes from one of the pieces that was first performed in the fields and on the picket lines of Delano to lift the spirits of the workers and teach principles of collective action. It’s called “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” — “The Two Faces of the Little Boss.” The short work explores the idea that being a boss is a role, and beneath the boss’s mask — usually a pig face serves the purpose — is a human being.
Uprooted from the fields and transplanted to the Eisenhower Theater 51 years later, the work may still have something to say.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, the pieces are still relevant,” Valdez says.
For one thing, pay and working conditions in the fields are still being contested. More broadly, he says, for all the recognition of his career, the struggle to adequately represent the story of Latinos and other communities — including a presence not only on screen and on stage, but behind the camera and in the director’s chair — continues.
“We’re talking about the need for a narrative that accommodates everybody,” Valdez says. “This is what the medal meant to me when I came to the White House. It was verification that I’m an American. I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I was born here, raised here. Yeah, I’m a Mexican American — I’ve got roots in Mexico — but I’m an American citizen, and I share that with everybody else regardless of where they have come from. We have a common legacy and a common history that we need to defend and protect.”
The campesino theater piece is just a portion of an ambitious two-hour production the Kennedy Center is hosting Thursday at 8 p.m. called “¡Viva César, Viva Kennedy!” that will attempt to draw connections between the efforts and ideals of Chávez and John F. Kennedy in the march toward civil rights and social justice. The Kennedy Center is in the midst of a year’s worth of programming to celebrate the centennial of Kennedy’s birth — and this is also Hispanic Heritage Month.
Among those joining Valdez in conversation, story-telling and performance on-stage are moderator Dan Guerrero, who worked with Chávez; Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the union with Chávez; artist Andy Zermeño; muralist Barbara Carrasco; and Paul F. Chávez, son of César. Mexican superstar Eugenia León will sing and the Mexican American band La Santa Cecilia will perform.
Valdez discovered theater when he was 6 years old living in a labor camp in the San Joaquin Valley, where his family had come to pick cotton in 1946. He marveled at the papier-mâché masks his first grade teacher taught him to make, and she invited him to try out for the Christmas play.
“To me it was Broadway,” he recalls.
But a few days before the play was to be performed, his parents told him they were being evicted from the camp and had to follow the crop cycle to another town. He had been in that school for just 30 days, and he was gone before he could go on stage.
As the family truck pulled away and he watched the town disappear in the early morning San Joaquin mist, “I felt this vacuum, this hole opening up in my chest,” he says. “This became one of the biggest positives of my life because that hole that opened up in my chest became the hungry mouth of my creativity. For the last 70 years I’ve been pouring in stories, plays, screenplays, books. [The hole] is still there. It’s smaller, but it’s still there.”
He didn’t know the name of that first grade teacher. By chance, in recent years, he met the superintendent of that school district. He looked up the attendance records and found the teacher’s name: Ruth Tremaine. Valdez wonders what became of her.
“I’m eternally grateful to Ruth Tremaine,” he says. “What she did is she launched me on my career.”
His play “Zoot Suit” is based on part on the Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles during World War II, when off-duty white servicemen and civilians attacked Latino youths sporting dandy suits with long coats and pegged pants. To some white residents and members of the media, the fashion signified rebellion and gang activity, and it embodied racist stereotypes of Latinos.
The play was a hit in Los Angeles but lasted only five weeks on Broadway.
“We got the Puerto Rican and African American audiences, and some of the radical white followers, but we didn’t get the tourists from the Midwest,” Valdez says.
Now he sees signs that the American narrative is expanding and finding an audience. Look at the smashing success of Lin-Manuel Miranda with “Hamilton” and, before that, “In the Heights,” he says. And Mexican directors are thriving in Hollywood.
“Progress moves along very gradually and slowly,” he says.
“You can’t take it for granted that once you’ve achieved justice in one generation that it will sustain to the next,” he adds. “People have to be educated, they have to be made aware. The way to the mind is through the heart. The arts directly address the heart, and from there they educate the people. They make people conscious of who they are and what they need to do.”