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Father of modern Chicaco theater, Valdez helped deliver Chavezs message with Teatro Campesino
Luis Valdez hosts a discussion for students on Knowing Your Place at California State University, Stanislaus on Wednesday. - photo by ALEXANDRA ANDERSON

In celebration of the upcoming Cesar Chavez holiday, California State University, Stanislaus students had the opportunity to witness and learn from one of Chavez’s right hand men and a significant leader in Chicano culture: Luis Valdez.

Known as the father of modern Chicano theater, Valdez made a lasting impression during the period of Chavez’s fight for a union for farm laborers when he founded El Teatro Campesino, or farm workers’ theater. The acting troupe, which traveled to entertain migrant workers, became an important cultural extension of Chavez’s message and was one of the first instances where politics entered the artistic sphere. 

“Teatro Campesino was born on the picket lines of the grape strike in 1965. I pitched the idea to Cesar and volunteered to work on the strike with the intention of starting this up,” said Valdez. “Music is very important to the act and we ended up recreating the basic songs of the movement and developing our own form of performance. It was political and funny, but very physical. That’s the only way you can really reach the farm workers.” 

Valdez’s work with the Teatro Campesino laid the groundwork for his career in the arts industry as a playwright, actor and film director. Best known for his play and film adaption of “Zoot Suit” and his movie “La Bamba,” CSUS students had the opportunity to not only discuss Valdez’s accomplishments, but dialog about issues of social equality and ethnic studies during a two day Cesar Chavez Celebration at the University. For 19 years, CSUS has hosted a Cesar Chavez celebratory event that coincides with the activist’s birthday, but this was the first time where the event was “institutionalized,” according to James Tuedio, dean of the College of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. 

“I wanted to institutionalize it for a while, it was more of an informal celebration in previous years and I thought this was a good way to synergize a lot of opportunities to celebrate what Chavez stood for and his capacity to impact people’s lives,” said Tuedio.  

Activities with Valdez, recognized as the CSUS Cesar Chavez Scholar-In-Residence, included informal discussions, workshops with student clubs as well as a main celebratory event that included cultural shows and a keynote address by Valdez. The celebrations culminated in a pre-screening talk and showing of Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” at the State Theater in Modesto.