Luis Valdez: The Way to the Mind is Through the Heart

Still Going Strong at 76, Despite Trumps Election
Photo Credit: Sergio Estrada/Joanne Ho

Belinda Quesada

Special to El Observador

10 Fast Facts You Should Know About Luis Valdez

1. Straight “A” student in high school and a math1 and history nerd.

2. Received a college scholarship and graduated with honors from San José State University.

3. Still keeps in touch with his high school English teacher, Mr. Farrell, with whom he still visits.

4. Severely burned as a baby in a freak household accident. Little Luis had to sleep on his mothers’ chest, heart-to-heart, for a year until his skin on his back and head grew in. He contributes his lifelong success in part due to the scalding water that recharged his batteries by awakening his spine and activating his nervous system.

5. Received the Presidential National Medal of the Arts twice! The first time in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan, but he never attended the White House ceremony to collect his award due to his principled politics.  

6. Successfully maintained the longest running international Chicano theater for 51 years.

7. Founding director and professor of the Institute for Teledramatic Arts and Technology (TAT) at California State University of Monterey Bay, since 1995.

8. Founder of the Luis Valdez Leadership Academy, a Charter school in San José. Sharing history and helping teach young people that they can succeed is what he does best.

9. Never involved in a scandal or love triangle, Luis is still madly in love with his wife of nearly 50 years, Lupe Valdez, gushing that every time he looks at her, she is 24 all over again.

10. Maintains a core, inner circle of talented colleagues for decades; chief amongst them is Phillip Esparza, El Teatro Campesino managing director, Luis’ business partner, confidant, and spiritual brother. Their relationship has spanned 45 years. And yes, Phil flew to Washington to see his hero and lifelong friend receive his well-deserved National Medal of the Arts award from the first African American President. What a thrill.

For Latinos, there are just a handful of role models that have lasted as long and accomplished as much as Luis Valdez.

He has conquered Hollywood, Broadway, and was recently recognized by President Barack Obama as one of twelve distinguished Americans to receive the National Medal of Arts award in a recent White House ceremony. Acknowledged “For bringing Chicano culture to American drama. As a playwright, actor, writer, and director, he illuminates the human spirit in the face of social injustice through award winning stage, film, and television productions.”

So how does Luis Valdez feel after the whiplash election of president-elect Donald J. Trump?  Reflective, Luis quotes Benito Juárez, 26th President of México who said, “Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respite al derecho ajeno es la paz;” meaning “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the light of others is peace.”

He continues, “I believe that the negatives in life can convert into positives and sometimes in shockingly obvious ways.” A Trump administration will result in the enlightenment of millions of Americans, through the inevitable result of mistakes and misjudgments by a bumbling new president. However, I still believe that the constitutional spirit of the American republic is strong enough to internally resist and prevent the power grabs of a potential dictator. In short, I expect that Trump will initially be stumped by the overwhelming challenges of the presidency, particularly in foreign affairs. Whether he grows or collapses in office remains to be seen. But all Americans cannot afford to lower their guard for the foreseeable future.”

Órale pues. Spoken like the thoughtful, intellectual giant he is.

The Father of Chicano Theater

Here in Silicon Valley, we are immensely proud of Luis Valdez and have adopted him as our native son. As the founder and artistic director of the internationally renowned El Teatro Campesino (ETC) theater in San Juan Bautista, California. This Chicano theater was quite literally born on the farmlands and fields of California. Last year, they celebrated their 50th anniversary. ETC is a mecca for creative storytelling, super talented actors, and a shrine to Chicano history that has to be seen to be believed.

Thanks in large part to Luis and his wife, Lupe, they have collected and lovingly preserved Chicano art, photos, set pieces, costumes and countless other memorabilia spanning some 60 years. The very name ‘teatro campesino’ means farm workers theaters and it is a beloved place of nostalgia and wonder for all who visit.

Acknowledged as the father of Chicano theater, Luis has achieved many first in his illustrious entertainment career. Before Lin-Manuel Miranda or John Leguizamo, Luis Valdez was the first Mexican-American to write and stage a play on Broadway. And when he couldn’t get his first feature film, “Zoot Suit”, about the social injustice of the infamous Sleepy Lagoon murder trial in 1943 Los Angeles, California; well, he did what he always does, he found a way to get it done. Luis went on to write and direct nearly a dozen other productions for both film and television; including La Bamba, El Corrido, The Cisco Kid, Corridos, and many more.

Luis firmly believes that imagination and inspiration are the basic tools needed to succeed.

Early Years, Poverty, Family, and Love

Fiercely intelligent and passionate about American and Mexican history and the Chicano experience, Luis was born in extreme poverty to loving parents, Francisco and Armida. They worked tirelessly in the fields as migrant workers and had ten children because that’s what you did back then. Family was everything. There were no birth control pills and all able bodied family members worked to help one another.  

When Luis was about a year old and learning to walk, he was involved in a freak accident and was scalded with hot water on his back and head. After a very brief emergency hospital visit, they released him back to his parents as there were no Burn Units back then. Terrified and probably fearing she might lose another son, his young mother who was twenty, cradled little Luis on her chest every night for a year until his skin grew back. It must have been torturous for both mother and son and a sacrifice for all family members.

A favorite ‘dicho’ or expression that Valdez believes is ‘the way to the mind is through the heart.’ And spending any time around him you know that’s true. He is a natural born storyteller with heart. And when Valdez lost his oldest brother Francisco (Pancho/Frank) to Cancer earlier this summer, he recalled their special bond growing up. “We were very, very, close for many years. We were dirt poor, but he and I loved to talk about the meaning of life. He was an intellect and philosopher and Apachito loved to discuss ideas. I am so fortunate to have had my brother on those dark nights, way back when, when we were struggling to survive. He lifted me up and allowed me to see life on a whole different level. I respect him for that.”    

More on Trump

Valdez admits it has been a brutal year and a half with some of the worst and most divisive politics he’s ever witnessed.

As a pacifist and lifelong social justice champion, Luis reflects, “what amazes me is how blessedly ignorant people are of their own history. I think that in America, how a playwright, an American, of Puerto Rican background, created a play, a musical that is able to reveal a piece of American history about Alexander Hamilton, is a beautiful thing. For better or worse, he has done it.

“I’m a nut about history and knowing how politics work. If anything, politics have revealed the popularity of Donald Trump and has been reduced down to what the guy looks like or sounds like. It has demeaned the role of president by acknowledging someone like Donald Trump. American has to find it’s heart. Get past the racism and hate speech. “

“We all have to turn negatives into possible. If life gives you lemons, make lemonade, if it gives you avocados, make guacamole!”  

What’s Next For El Teatro Campesino

Looking ahead to what’s on the horizon for El Teatro Campesino and Luis is one lucky guy. Their next play, the biennial, “La Virgen del Tepeyac” is a must see for the entire family. The play adapted to theater by Luis has run for nearly four decades and is a traditional holiday favorite seen only at the historical Old Mission San Juan Bautista, (one of the 21 Spanish Missions remaining). The play dramatizes the four Apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the Indian messenger Juan Diego in the early 1500’s. Accompanied by glorious music, perfect acoustics, beautiful costumes, and Aztec dancers; it is a stunning creation to see. Don’t miss “La Virgen del Tepeyac” running from Nov. 27-Dec. 20th.

Next, traveling to Southern California where the super stardom all began at the famous Mark Taper Forum theater. Luis has been invited to return some nearly 40 years later to restage his very powerful, award-winning dramatic musical, “Zoot Suit.”

If you loved it the first time around or, never saw it now is your chance to see the rival. It is the play that re-introduced and solidified our love of Chicanismo culture, dress, and pride. It launched many successful careers for Latino actors and put Luis Valdez on the Hollywood map. The play broke box office records and branded the Chicano culture, ‘Valdez style’. Because of this play, Luis went on to write and direct countless feature films and television productions. “Zoot Suit” runs from January 31st – March 12, 2017.

A partnership with San José stage company. A new play that he has been commissioned to write entitled, “Adios Mama Carlotta,” premiers 2018.

Final Thoughts:  Valdez on Valdez

Valdez knows he’s blessed and for him, it’s never been about the money or the fame. It has been about the work. He would like to be remembered as part of the continuum. He believes in ‘The Wave’ principle. Valdez believes, “we are all a part of the wave. It is a regenerative faith. If a baby is born, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, or where you are born, you are given life. It is up to you to make due and create your life. El Teatro Campesino was born out of nothing; it was born on a picket line. If I can help others and illuminate the human spirit, then I have lived a good life.”

For more information on ongoing works and about Luis Valdez, please visit <>, <> and <>.