Luis Valdez on Politics, Art, and Cultural Fusion, “it’s the Key to The Future”

Belinda Quesada Special to El Observador
Photo Caption: SAN JOSE STAGE COMPANY presents in association with EL TEATRO CAMPESINO the World Premiere of ADIÓS MAMÁ CARLOTA by LUIS VALDEZ. Photo Credit: DAVE LEPORI

Elder statesman, Luis Valdez, is an American treasure. At nearly 80 years old, he continues to create and produce work that is highly satisfying and educational. He can’t help himself. Valdez admits to being a nut about history.

With a razor-sharp mind that remembers details from decades past as if he were recalling a recent note he read. This academically gifted student graduated from San José State University, has received 4 Honorary Degrees, and still finds time to give back to students. As Valdez sees it, Cultural Fusion is where our synergy lies. It’s the lifeforce is our future.

In Valdez’ latest production and World Premiere, ADIOS MAMA CARLOTA, running through April 28th, at the San José Stage theater. San Jose Stage Valdez takes creative license with a brief but important part of Mexican and European history. Directed by his middle son, Kinan Valdez, whose artistic choices makes his father beam with pride.

Through Valdez’ eyes, ADIOS MAMA CARLOTA is unique version of what life must have been like for frustrated Empress Carlota of Mexico, the wife of Austrian Emperor Maximillian who reigned over Mexico from 1864 – 1867. It’s a fascinating take on palace intrigue, political power struggles, and clandestine love. True to the unique style of El Teatro Campesino, it’s a brilliant and funny look at Mexican history with a twist.

Luis Valdez has an impressive resume for an international Playwright, author, producer, director, and educator. From humble beginnings in Delano, California, Luis has become the cultural thought leader of Chicano history. He has never sought fame or fortune as an ultimate goal. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and generous to all who come in contact with his spirit.

Luis spoke candidly on Chicano Arts, Trump shenanigans and racism, his love of family,  and his new philosophy on why cultural fusion as the key to the future. (For more on Luis, see previous El Observador interview, El Observador; Luis Valdez, Nov 2016).

Here is an uncensored Q&A with Luis Valdez, the Godfather of Chicano theater:

 Q:  ADIOS MAMA CARLOTA (AMC) is history that is told largely from a woman’s perspective. Why did you choose this person/subject?

A:  For me it was a natural flow to focus on Carlota as the storyteller. She was the Belgian princess Marie Charlotte Amelie Augustine Victoire Clementine Leopoldine who became the Empress Carlota of Mexico in 1864. She was the wife of Austrian emperor Maximillian I, who ruled Mexico for three years. Fortunately, Carlota wrote letters and there were many books written about her in English and Spanish. She was from a royal family and the last sixty years of her life went insane and was quite literally held captive in her own castle. There were conflicting stories about an illegitimate child, racist politics, family intrigue, and sorted love affairs. Suffice to say, if Empress Carlota were a man, all of this would have never happened. I just found it fascinating and tragic and I tapped into that. I wanted to write from her point of view.

Q:  What would you like the audience to take away from your latest production? Any comparison to present day politics?

A:  I want the audience to have a larger perspective of the United States and our relationship with Mexico because our US Mexican history has not been accurately told nor represented in our history books. This is not new news for those who know history. In our play, this time period was another critical milestone is Mexican and US history.

Present day politics about building a wall to dissuade Mexican and Latin Americans from entering the US is absurd. It’s like trying to build a wall in the middle of the ocean. It completely pointless. The relationship between the US and other countries in Latin America is an essential bond that has been thriving for centuries.

Q:  Your son Kinan is the Director of this production, why did you choose not to direct?

A:  Well, it’s a new play and I’ve done these enough times to know how difficult it is. Working with Kinan, it’s the best of all worlds. Over the years, he has been my associate director on a number of projects. Kinan is a professor at UC Santa Cruz, an accomplished director, film producer, and has his own career now for 25 years. Since he’s my son, there’s no egos or insecurities. He and his brothers used to put on plays as kids growing up in the company. My wife and have 3 sons who are all very creative and we’re very proud of them.

Q:  As the Father of Chicano theater, your wife, Lupe, has been by your side nearly all of your adult life, as your number one fan and supporter. Lupe is the mother of your three beautiful sons. Many do not know that she is a college graduate and also a creative talent working in costume design. Will you two work together soon?

A:  We work together all the time. We are inseparable. Lupe is an integral part of my life. She is a very talented designer with a natural gift for color, design and period costuming. She was the costume designer on VALLEY OF THE HEART our last production. Valley toured in San Juan Bautista, San José and Los Angeles. I am very proud of her.

Q:  Working this closely with family members is special. How do you maintain your personal and professional balance?

A:  Because we are literally a theater family, we all know what the trip is. We know the challenges. The kids have known that since they were babies. Now we are all adults working creatively together. We try not to let our love for each other become affected. We love the father/mother and child/son relationship. But we laugh and take a line from our play ZOOT  SUIT and say, “Hey, don’t take the stinking play so seriously.” It always centers us and makes us laugh.

Q:  Your theatrical style is unique. You weave Chicano/Mexican history in every scene. It’s serious, whimsical, provocative and makes us think all at the same time. Do you find this creative license the best form of narrative?

A:   I got hooked-on the theater at age 6. So for me, the idea of doing a play is a natural extension of my life and a great way to tell a story. Over the years, El Teatro Campesino has developed 4 forms of Actos. In my plays, I try to educate others, make it as entertaining as possible and tell our real story. This is what El Teatro Campesino represents. It is our cultural gift to not only our people but to everyone. We’re proud to do it.

Q:  What is the San José Stage (SJS) doing to promote Latino playwrights?

A:  They commissioned me. I can’t complain. Executive director, Cathleen King, and Artistic Director, Randall King, have treated me great. I’ve done 2 plays at the San José Stage. For 36 Seasons the SJS has struggled like many companies do in the beginning. They now have purchased their own building and are remodeling. Over the years, the city of San José and the greater Silicon Valley have had a difficult transition from a farm town to Silicon Valley.

The theater Arts is some ways is just getting started here. It is sad to me that we could not sustain the San José Reparatory Theater. It went dark and part of their failure was that they did not relate to Latino’s in their own community. The Latino community could not relate to their plays. They never asked me to stage a play there. Although they did give me a very nice reception when they first opened.

By contrast, the SJ Stage invited me into their theater and set up this relationship and they have been supportive. I grew up in San José and I’m an old hometown boy. I hope that San José will wake up and do more for the Arts. Like everything else, the theater has changed. In our current production of ADIOS MAMA CARLOTA, we are using multi-media with some props linked to computers. We can now do 3-D effects that we couldn’t do 20 years ago. Technology has revolutionized entertainment, especially theater. That’s been a positive.

Q:  You have a contract with the Mark Taper Forum Theater in Los Angeles to produce another play? What’s next?

A:  I don’t want to jinx it. However, I can tell you the next original production is called, SONG OF THE MANONG. In brief, it is about the Filipino farm workers that started the California grape strike.

As a California playwright, I have witnessed  a strange competition here between the North and the South. A lot of people think I live in Los Angeles. I love LA and do have lots of friends and contacts there. They show me a lot of love. In 2017, we brought back one of our most popular plays, ZOOT SUIT for its 40th anniversary. We were the highest rated production for the Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum.

Q:  What’s coming up for Luis Valdez and the Valdez family? (It doesn’t have to always be about Chicano theater…)

A:  My beautiful wife and I will celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary this August. It’s funny because not too long ago it seems like we were attending our parents 50th wedding anniversary and now here we are. What’s the secret you ask? I think it’s having a sense of humor. Over time I have learned that romantic love has to give way to cariño (affection). When you’re young it’s love and lust and with time that changes as life changes you. I believe that the glue that holds it all together is cariño, it is long lasting. It is the root for love. The love you have for your grandchildren, your partner, your children. Cariño is the glue.

Q:  How has your opinion of President Trump changed sense his Inauguration?

A:  No, it has not changed because I knew who he was when he came in to Office. I have been very outspoken about this at college campuses where I am invited to speak. People always ask me what to do and say. The truth is there have always been incompetent, corrupt, greedy individuals in places of power. It is a question of who speaks the loudest and has the most money.

Trump is corrupt. Our democracy is being undermined. These are dangerous times; the threat of nuclear war is real. Let’s not be naive. We all have a dark side; some people are smarter and take advantage of others who are not. That’s why I am a firm believer in education and knowing your history. Knowledge is power.

Political corruption of this kind has existed since the beginning of time, it’s a mistake to think that they don’t. No one gets out of this alive. I’m a spiritual person and I do believe the universe always balances things out. If we treat this planet better, we would all be better for it.

I believe that the recent fire in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was a spiritual sign. Mother earth is signaling us to take better care of our natural resources.

Q:  Your thoughts on President Trump’s hardline stance on Immigration, Families separated at the Border, DACA, and of course, the Border Wall? As a creative mind and heart, how do you see the present and the future playing out?

A:  I think the wall will be a laugh. If it goes up, I hope they make murals on it. Benito Juarez said Mexico has to liberate itself and he’s right. Mexico has so many resources in its people, it’s rich minerals, plant life, rich cultural history and so much more. It will also depend on how much youthful energy there is in the Mexican people. We’re symbolically attached. They are our trade partner and labor spreads north. The US needs Mexico. The narrative has to change. People call us ‘Latino’s’ and that’s fine. I am proud of my European side too, but my indigenous side is more important to me.

Q:  Have you experienced any adverse impact (racism) from the general public here in the Bay Area or elsewhere?

A:  I personally have not. There have been incidents I’ve heard about. Years and years ago, I was asked once if I could read. This incident happened after I had graduated from college! That’s ignorance. Once I talk to people, any preconceived notions go away. The racism and hatred now are generally directed to immigrants and recent arrivals. It’s terrible and not who we are as Americans. Both my parents are from Arizona and my dad never made it past the 6th grade, he had to work. I learned the love of history from my father, he was self-taught historian. In fact, he would have been a history professor had he had more opportunities. Instead, he was a devoted family man and farmworker who tried to do all he could to help his 9 children get an education and stay out of poverty.

My dad gave me my first scholarship when he said to me, don’t worry about your brothers and sisters, I will take care of them. For a Chicano kid who moves away from the family, you always worry about those you leave behind. I loved school. I was interested in science and math and wanted to be a Nuclear Physicist. I’ll never forget, when I told my parents, they said oh, how wonderful mijo. I don’t even think they ever knew what that was; but I knew they loved me and believed in me, that was all I needed to know.

Now through the passage of time, I believe in the Human Nucleus. When I received the National Medal of Arts from our first Black president, I invited Phil Esparza and Louisa Casarez from the Teatro to attend with Lupe and I. For me, sharing this experience with them was artistic equivalent of my nuclear research. They are a part of my human nucleus. From nuclear fusion to cultural fusion. I believe that cultural fusion is the key to the future, it is the source of energy that we all need in order to keep going. It helps fuse us. I consider it to be one of the remedies of the evil and a way-out for the human race. It is a point of transcendence to the next level.

Q:  Lastly as one of our most important/popular Chicano Thought Leaders, any final thoughts on the negative impact felt by many in the Latino community and what they should do?

A:  Be the change. The physicist in me says that a negative can be turned into a positive. I am living proof that there isn’t anything that can’t be turned around. Don’t stop trying. Sometime the change is small.

The United States and specifically California has always been a multi-cultural landscape. It’s important that Latino’s don’t become immersed in negativity. Let’s get our children educated. The fact that our Mexican history was erased from US history should not stop us but make us stronger. We shouldn’t be separated.

Additionally, I believe in women’s rights. There are too many male privileges. It’s high time we had women leaders in government and in religious houses of worship/leadership. Did you know that the indigenous Gods were neither male nor female? I’m happy and proud of my wife, my sisters, and my daughter-in-law’s. They are strong women. They are taking charge of their own lives, it’s wonderful.

For more information on El Teatro Campesino,  El Teatro Campesino.  For more on Luis, see previous El Observador interview, El Observador; Luis Valdez, Nov 2016. To catch Luis Valdez’ World Premier launch of ADIOS MAMA CARLOTA, visit

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