Luis Valdez was born in Delano, California. Like many children of migrant workers, he and his nine brothers and sisters attended several different schools as his parents traveled up and down the Central Valley taking seasonal farm work.
Eventually, the family settled in San Jose, California, and Valdez earned a scholarship in 1960 to attend college there. While at California State University, San Jose, he first revealed his promising talents as a playwright. In 1961, his one-act play, The Theft, won a writing contest. Two years later, the school’s drama department produced his first full-length play, The Shrunken Head ofPancho Villa.
Valdez earned his bachelor’s degree in 1964, then moved north to join a theatrical group, the San Francisco Mime Troupe. It was there that he learned the dramatic device known as agitprop (agitation and propaganda) theater, which he incorporated into his future work. In 1965, Valdez returned to Delano to join Cesar Chavez (see no. 47) and the farmworkers’ movement.
Valdez tapped into his theatrical background, especially the agitprop theater, to form a troupe for farmworkers. El Teatro Campesino toured the migrant camps performing actos (one-act plays) that explored the polit¬ ical and cultural issues of the movement. In the 1970s, Chicano theater blossomed into a full-blown national movement, largely pioneered by Valdez and El Teatro Campesino.
Chicano theater adhered to Valdez’s belief that theaters should remain true to la raza (the Mexican people). In 1978, Valdez wrote, directed, and produced the play Zoot Suit, which was based on the 1940s zoot suit riots in Los Angeles. The play was a hit in Los Angeles theaters and eventually went on to have a suc¬ cessful run on Broadway in New York City.
It was the first play written and produced by a Mexican American to ever be performed there.The Chicano theater movement dissipated in the 1980s. In a brief period, however, it had created an entirely new art form that incorpo¬ rated Mexican theatrical traditions as well as increasing national awareness of Hispanic social issues.
From theater, Valdez turned to the medium of film, and it was here that he achieved his greatest success. In 1982, he directed the film adaptation ofZoot Suit, and in 1987, he direct¬ ed the hit movie La Bamba, which told the story of the Hispanic rock-’n’-roll star Richie Valens.
Valdez continued his work in stage and film throughout the next decade and into the twenty-first century.The pioneering work of Valdez, the “Father of Chicano Theater,” has helped create count¬ less opportunities for Hispanic artists and increased understanding of Hispanic issues in the United States.