In Context: El Teatro Campesino
AUTHOR: Chloe Loos, Artistic Intern
La Esquinita, USA was developed at El Teatro Campesino, the longest running Chicano theatre in the United States. The company was founded in 1965 by Luis Valdez on the Delano picket lines of the United Farmworkers Union (as led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta) and performed short, improvised scenes known as “actos” for the protesters anywhere they could – even trucks! They commented on the events surrounding them and often allowed laughs. Inherently political, the performers and audience members felt solidarity in a theatre addressed to their specific worldview through language and culture. As their body of work and current website exhibit, the theatre is “committed to generating social change through the arts” as well as encouraging young artists “to take control of their own destiny through creative discipline, vibrant education, economic independence, and artistic excellence”.
The company has been located in San Juan Bautista since 1971 and has strong community ties as evidenced by its variety of educational and outreach programming. Adaptations of the miracle play about Our Lady of Guadalupe called La Virgen de Tepeyaca and La Pastorela (The Shephard’s Play) have become traditions performed on alternating years since their creation in the 1970s. Also during that decade, El Teatro worked with Peter Brook and The International Centre of Theatre Research to create a venture to perform in nearby farmworker communities and has toured the world many times. The theatre is also responsible for developing founding artistic director’s Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, which became the first Latino play on Broadway. In the mid-1990s, El Teatro began producing their take on classics, as well as concentrating on their multimedia center, which creates films in order to reach broader audiences. Kinan Valdez, the son of Luis and the director of La Esquinita, USA, has taken up the mantle of Producing Artistic Director to train the next generation of talent.
Historically, El Teatro Campesino has produced work influenced by historic forms of drama, such as commedia dell’arte or ritual dramas from Mesoamerican cultures. Whereas earlier generations within the company emphasized indigenous myths, the current group is investigating relationships in mythology from around the world. While the politics and issues may have adapted over the theatre’s fifty-year history, there is still an emphasis on contemporary concerns in the political attitude of the theatre.
Photo courtesy of El Teatro Campesino.