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El Teatro Campesino

In 1965 El Teatro Campesino (The Farm Workers Theater) paved the way for a radical theater movement that continues to flourish in the United States today. A central force in the development of the Chicano movement, El Teatro Campesino was formed by Luis Valdez, a former farm worker and later member of the noted San Francisco Mime Troupe. The Teatro Campesino repertory company was founded to address sociopolitical issues affecting the Chicano community through the performance pieces they created, and Valdez worked closely with union organizer César Chávez to raise awareness about the plight of farm workers and to attract funding for la causa (the cause of the Chicano Movement). Its celebrated synthesis of forceful politics with excellent dramatic writing and staging contributed to its singular effectiveness as protest and performance in the dynamic decades of the 1960s and 1970s. The first Chicano art to receive international acclaim, Teatro Campesino added performance tours in Germany, France, Italy, and other countries in the early 1970s to its growing college campus and protest rally venues, gaining widespread exposure and spinoff teatros along the way.

Using an improvisational style that recaptures the style of the comedia dell'arte troupes, which entertained audiences throughout Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries, El Teatro Campesino developed a critical form of political theater in its use of actos (acts) that used simple props, satire, and audience participation to raise the consciousness of the farm workers in their struggle to unionize on the back of flatbed trucks. By 1967, the theater troupe began more formal work and took their political agenda beyond the farmworker movement. The troupe began addressing issues like the struggle of Chicano soldiers during the Vietnam War in the play Dark Root of a Scream. This play, written by Valdez, departed from the style of the acto and took the form of the mito (myths). Through the mitos Valdez and the theater company continued to evolve as artists, exploring their art through the perspective of descendants of the great race that was the Mayan civilization. Their myths and heritage became an integral part of their theater.

In 1971 the company moved its operations from Delano, California, where Valdez had started the troupe, to San Juan Bautista, California. Ten years later, in 1981, with funding from the run of Valdez's musical Zoot Suit, the company renovated an old produce packing warehouse at 705 4th Street into a cultural space that hosts musical artists, comedians, dance troupes, and theater artists from all over the world. For over 25 years Teatro Campesino has been staging an evolving series of plays during the Christmas season titled The Miracle, Mystery, and Historical Cycle of San Juan Bautista. Every year the company presents either La Virgen del Tepeyac, in the style of the classical miracle play, or La Pastorela, a traditional shepherd's play, at the Mission San Juan Bautista. El Teatro Campesino has won numerous awards including an Obie Award and several Los Angeles Drama Critics Awards. Three plays written for El Teatro Campesino by Valdez (Zoot Suit, Bandido, and I Don't Have to Show You No Stinking Badges!) appear in the anthology titled Zoot Suit and Other Plays (1992).

The members of El Teatro Campesino have developed their work in the spirit of an ensemble style in which contributing artists play numerous roles and assume various responsibilities for each production. One artist may act, write, direct, stage manage, or produce the plays in a variety of productions. Through ritual, music, theater, and art, the company has built a foundation of important Chicano cultural expression.

Christina Marín


Further Reading
Elam, Harry. Taking It to the Streets: The Social Protest Theater of Luis Valdez and Amiri Baraka (Theater: Theory/Text/Performance). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.; Gonzalez-Broyles, Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.; Huerta, Jorge A. Chicano Theater: Themes and Forms. Ypsilanti, MI: Bilingual Press, 1982.; Valdez, Luis. Luis Valdez—Early Works: Actos, Bernabé and Pensamiento Serpentino. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1990.
 

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