Diane and I attended a very special White House ceremony last week. Diane, my wife, is a member of the National Council on the Arts for the National Endowment for the Arts, we were honored to attend and witness the President award the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities Medal to a distinguished roster of honorees. It was a joy and privilege to be in attendance. The honorees were nominated by two separate Federal Agencies.
What made this event particularly special for me was to see my mentor, colleague and dear friend Luis Valdez receive the honor. It was also gratifying to see other Latino’s being honored as well. They included; musician Santiago “Flaco” Jimenez, writer Sandra Cisneros, and playwright/director Moises Kaufman. The National Humanities Medal also went to writer Rudolfo Anaya and chef Jose Andres. I have either met or am familiar with the work of all these illustrious artists.
Mel Brooks, Berry Gordy, Philip Glass, Audra McDonald, and Terry Gross and others were also honored. All giants in their own right. Kudos to all of them.
Also, attending was Luis’ wife and creative partner Lupe Valdez, long time assistant Leicha Munoz and my dear friend and brother Phil Esparza. Indeed, the Teatro Campesino was well represented. It is difficult to not get sentimental when one begins to reflect. The thoughts that raced through my mind during the ceremony took me back 40 plus years ago when I first started my journey with Luis as a mentee. I worked directly with his company El Teatro Campesino as an actor, and later researcher, managing director and producer for 13 years. I am still associated with the Teatro presently serving as a member of the company’s Board of Directors.
The Teatro Campesino was an unapologetically political, brash but never disrespectful theater company. Edgy, simple but not simplistic, perceptive and aesthetically distinct, we evolved into an international company. We traveled to Europe on five separate occasions. I managed two European tours. There was something about the work that resonated with the farm worker, Latino, non-Latino and European audiences. I believe that it was our message of liberation through hope and action. The work was transformative. And because of all those years of training and working in the trenches the idea of engaging in transformative experiences to achieve political, personal, and spiritual liberation is now part of my DNA.
In the 90’s when I worked with younger artists as a music manager it was always about providing guidance and direction. Never about placing too much structure for fear of discouraging the muse. Later, it was talking things through in an effort to unravel truth. Now, very grey around the temples, I have been a bit more direct and structured. Which does not always work. I have a young mentee that has no idea of the depth of his talent. And, perhaps because of the age, I tend to be a lot more impatient. Intuitively he resists structure and there is conflict. A reminder that sometimes the spirit needs to live through the experience of their own choices to learn their lessons. Or possibly he is being motivated by his personal vision. A vision that perhaps is not fully clear and still being defined?
The older we get and the more that we travel along the highway called life the more we become familiar with the road. We know where the blind curves are at, the pot holes, the steep climbs and dangerous downhill slopes. Sometimes we get annoyed when our younger students do not listen or do not care to listen.
When I first met Luis he was in his early 30’s. Already a father with a tiny baby. Luis always seemed to resist anyone who tried to apply a structure to his creative work. We once attempted to create a structure that would take the company on a path to institutionalize…to become a resident theater company, he resisted and ultimately rejected the notion. He was right. At the time we felt that he was misguided. But applying structure to a company engaged in collective creation is very tricky. Trying to apply it to an artist like Luis was foolhardy. How can one structure creativity? How can one harness the muse? How do you corral love? Love after all was a key motivator for all the work that preceded my entrance into the company and is ultimately what drives him today. Love for justice, love for community, love of his indigenous roots, love for his family and love for the creative process.
Luis was born with a vision. His vision has always been his compass, and his guide. He has dedicated his entire artistic and personal life following and evolving that vision. Money has never been the sole purpose of accepting an artistic challenge. It has always been for a much larger cause, a much larger causa. Transforming lives is inherent in this vision. Healing through storytelling, through performance, through speaking. Motivating action by inspiring. All of this may seem altruistic and indeed his actions have been generous. He could have easily become an incredibly wealthy person with his huge intellect. As a very young 25-year-old he chose to work with the United Farm workers Union and his mentor became Cesar Chavez. Cesar demonstrated that the impossible was possible and Luis took his theater company out of the union and became independent.
He, as an individual artist, grew. He wrote the first Chicano play that ran on Broadway titled Zoot Suit. In its day the movie that he wrote and directed titled La Bamba became the highest grossing rock bio pic ever produced. He set up Eddie Olmos on the road to stardom, along with Lou Diamond Philips and Lupe Ontiveros. He has been an inspiration to nearly 4 generations of actors and other theater artists who have worked with the company since its founding in 1965. His list of accomplishments is substantial.
I recall that some of the theater exercises that Luis formulated included workshops in azteca and conchero dance. We recited nahuatl poetry. Not because he intended to develop a folk dance troupe or to groom a company of trilingual artists. But rather to explore the possibility of stirring up some deep genetic memory to give us a sense of place, and to connect with the spirit of our inner core. To revive that genetic memory and to draw inspiration from our indigenous past as an option to eurocentric values. To awaken an indigenous vision of the world. Two Toltec poems that we studied were titled The Good Actor and The Bad Actor. These poems were not about theater actors, but when applied to the theatre of life; a good actor on stage is a good actor in life, a bad actor on stage is a bad actor in life.
Eventually this approach to theater training evolved and the working method is now known as the Theater of the Sphere. A metaphysical approach to training drawn from Meso American precepts. This same training technique can be applied to offer clarity in other fields as well and is part of the transformative nature of his work.
Earlier I mentioned the young artist that is very talented but is not aware of his own immense capacity. He has become a metaphor in my mind of our community and the challenges we face. We have all been collectively abused by our brothers and sisters of pallor. Our minds and spirit raped, and because of it our growth stunted and in some cases crushed. All of our immigrant communities enter this country and are immediately put through the gauntlet. We all share the same narrative and have lived the same cycle of oppression. Yet some are able to reach great heights with great dignity in spite of the odds stacked against them. Luis has been one of those extraordinary individuals who has managed to navigate through that gauntlet. And in theater no less.
The other theater playwright/director honoree was Moises Kaufman. A Venezuelan American. His devised work with his Tectonic Theater Company titled The Laramie Project was a seminal piece that should be credited for inspiring a national dialogue on homophobia. Both playwright/directors met for the first time at the reception.
Also, Flaco Jimenez, Sandra Cisneros, and Rudolfo Anaya deserve immense credit for their tenacity to follow their vision.
The other wonderful thing about this occasion was that all of these artists could collectively shout out a loud “ Ten cabrones!!!!” Middle fingers held high in the air…to all the naysayers and critics that no one will ever remember.
I fondly recall when I was a part of the Teatro’s acting company that the days of rehearsal and workshops were filled with laughter. Even in the darkest moments there was room for a joke to break up the doom and gloom, and creative constipation. “Stay positive, don’t dwell on the negative.” Was the motto. There was always joy in the work. And that was what made it divine. It was that same joyful feeling that echoed in my heart when President Obama placed the medal around Luis’ neck last Thursday. What a journey! And the best part is that there is more to come!
Copyright 2016 by José Delgado. Photo of Teatro Campesino copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions. All othe photos courtesy of José Delgado and used with permission.