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The  Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers's Struggle

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The Book

Chavez & El Teatro Campesino
By Max Benavidez

One of the most exuberant and unexpected out-growths of the farmworkers movement was Teatro Campesino, whose phantasmagoric dramas have captivated audiences not only in the United States but in Mexico, Central America, and Europe. The Teatro "is somewhere between Brecht and Cantinflas," a bilingual theater that borrows heavily from Mexican folk humor and is "salted with a wariness for human caprice," according to founder Luis Valdez.

El Teatro Campesino, The Farmworkers Theater, recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. In 1967 the troupe left its spiritual home in Delano to take up residence in the small California town of San Juan Bautista, where it opened its "Packing Shed Playhouse." As Teatro director and impresario Luis Valdez put it, the actors were still migrant workers in search of a permanent home. Evolving into the most famous Chicano theater group in the world, it toured thousands of miles across the United States with such plays as Corridos, Soldier Boys, and Zoot Suit. The troupe has also traveled to Europe, where it participated in the World Theatre Festival in Nancy, France. Yet, for all its fame and success, Teatro never forgot its true roots: the strike-agitated fields of Delano and their mentor, the legendary union organizer, Cesar Chavez.

"Without Cesar," said Valdez, "there would have been no Teatro. When I asked him if I could put to-gether a theater company, Cesar told me: 'There is no money. Nothing. Just workers on strike." But he also told me that if I could put something together, it was fine with him. And that was all we needed—a chance. We jumped on top of a truck and started per-forming. Then something great happened. Our work raised the spirits of everybody on the picket line and Cesar saw that.

"Cesar was supportive of our work," Valdez said, "until the day he died. He understood what we were all about. 1967 was a turning point. El Teatro went its own way. We moved from Delano to Del Rey and there we established an art center. That year, Antonio Bernal painted the first outdoor Chicano mural. Teatro also made the first Chicano film, an adaptation of Corky Gonzales's poem, 'I am Joaquin.' We shot the film in a kitchen in Fresno. That's how it was."

UFW organizer Doug Adair recalls that the "hilarious" Teatro skits took strikers' minds off their financial problems, especially when the "Children's Teatro" performed: "People would laugh so hard they cried." Richard Montoya, actor and founding member of Culture Clash, remembers that, as a child, he was intoxicated by the sight and sound of Teatro actors performing on an outdoor stage lighted by car headlights in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. "It was all so vital and alive," he recalls, "but there was also a sense of danger that was exciting, because you never knew when some Teamster goons might show up and start busting heads."

According to Valdez, the late sixties marked a turning point for El Teatro and other Chicano artists. Their scope expanded beyond the farmworkers to more global issues such as Chicano identity, racism in education, the Vietnam war, and police brutality.

"But always," Valdez pointed out, "the cultural root is the campesino, the farmworker. I don't care how sophisticated we get in the city, we share the communal remembrance of the earth. This goes for Chicanos as well as anyone else."

He concluded: "Like many Chicano artists, Cesar was self-taught. What amazed me was that he could completely absorb everything around him. He was brilliant, a genius. He didn't just read about Gandhi, he became a living late-twentieth-century version of him transposed to the American Southwest. He didn't just read about labor movements, he started one. He didn't just read about the arts, he became them."

Max Benavidez is a Los Angeles essayist, critic and poet who has written widely about Chicano art and culture.

Used with the permission of the author. Copyright Max Benavidez

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