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Migrant workers' theater ripens after 20 years.

By Paul Lasley and Elizabeth HarrymanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 24, 1985

San Juan Bautista, Calif.

``Our weapons were poetry and song, not clubs,'' says Luis Valdez, founder and artistic director of El Teatro Campesino, the ``Farm Worker's Theater,'' a revolutionary Mexican-American company born 20 years ago on flatbed trucks in the sun-baked fields of the Delano grape strike. ``When you have a dangerous situation -- where people are being beaten, killed, exploited, you have to speak out as strongly as you can. . . . We improvised on the spot,'' remembers Mr. Valdez, who created short ``actos,'' or scenarios that dramatized the plight of the farm workers. Workers themselves performed the skits in the fields and along picket lines to instruct and recruit. Later, the show was toured nationwide to garner support for the grape boycott. At the end of the st ruggle, Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers of America was born, and El Teatro Campesino had won an Obie award.

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Now based in the peaceful historic village of San Juan Bautista in northern California, the company has toured Europe six times and won three Los Angeles Drama Critics' Circle Awards and an Emmy. Valdez's 1978 production of ``Zoot Suit,'' based on the controversial 1942 ``Sleepy Lagoon'' murder case, was an explosive amalgam of music, dance, and drama that ran in Los Angeles for 46 weeks. It featured Edward James Olmos, current star of TV's ``Miami Vice,'' in an electrifying personification of the mythi cal Hispanic figure ``El Pachuco.'' A run on Broadway and a film version followed. Last year, ``Corridos,'' an evening of traditional Mexican ballads, toured to San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles.

``Political theater has to do with people's self-determination,'' Valdez continues. ``There is a new racial diversity in America. A new perception of what it means to be American is afoot in the land. It's invaluable -- not only for Hispanics, but for blacks, Asians, the northern Europeans -- everybody will benefit.''

To get his messages across, Valdez employs a variety of traditional and innovative theatrical techniques. ``When I was with the San Francisco Mime Troupe,'' he recalls, ``I learned about commedia dell' arte, improvisation, movement, taking the classics and adapting them. This experience served as the background for my work in Delano. It made it possible for me to do things without props, without lights, without a stage. I learned to perform in the parks, so I knew I could perform in the farm fields. Of course, I also had a familiarity with the work of Brecht and the social-conscious theater of the 1930s, such as the `Living Newspaper.' ''

The Teatro's work shows traces of all of these influences, as well as Valdez's own creativity. A short, stocky man with a resounding bass voice and vibrant brown eyes, Valdez is a magnetic performer as well as a writer and director. Born to migrant farm workers in Delano, he began picking crops at the age of six. By the time he was 12 he was producing puppet shows. After graduating from San Jose State College in 1964, he went to San Francisco to get his plays produced. ``But I found that it was difficul t,'' he says. ``I needed Chicano actors for the Chicano roles -- there were no Chicano actors, no Chicano directors, no Chicano theater -- period.''

After spending a year with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Valdez joined the Delano strike effort and created Chicano theater he'd been seeking. ``Before the strike I had a vague notion I wanted to start a company,'' he says. ``I had no real sense of what it would take to pull it together, but I had an inward feeling the most important ingredient would be the willingness of people to perform. I found that with the people involved in the grape strike.''

Today the theater's scope has broadened. ``We mean to reach everybody,'' says Valdez, ``not just Chicanos. We try to reveal the basic humanity in everyone. I think there is so much in the human being that we haven't discovered.''