Whittier College’s Department of Theatre and Communication Arts provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience this past Wednesday, Nov. 16. One of the most renowned American playwrights, Luis Valdez, spoke in the Ruth B. Shannon Center about his life, Chicano activism, and the importance of art.
Valdez graced us with his comedic but calm presence as he discussed not only his politically relevant and objectively spectacular background, but also his upcoming reprise of his classic play Zoot Suit. In honor of the 50th anniversary of his revolutionary theater, El Teatro Campesino (The Farmworkers’ Theatre), Valdez is directing a staged version of the famous show for the first time since 1981. Some of Valdez’s many honors include Golden Globe nominations, the Hispanic Heritage Award in Literature, and, most notably, the National Medal of the Arts, presented to him by none other than President Obama.
Accompanying Valdez was actress and Whittier alumna Alma Martinez. Martinez made her film debut in Valdez’s Zoot Suit and went on to star in a number of Valdez’s later projects, as well as many other notable films, most recently, Cake and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Not only is Luis Valdez known as the father of the Chicano theatre movement, but he also founded one of the most influential and powerful theater companies of the 1960s and 70s. Valdez essentially brought Chicano culture to life within the American theatre and gave voice to the Chicano and Mexican-American demographic.
In the midst of the recent political tumult, Valdez took the opportunity to speak on Chicano activism, presence and importance in the political forefront currently. Valdez reflected, “There was so much protest [in the 1972 election]. In these times of troublesome electoral results, it helps to know a little bit of history and to have lived it as I have. To have seen the highs and lows of our struggles, and also at the same time to have seen progress.” He continued, “Reality is what you make it. You can change it. We have to be very wary of our minds because if you create a monster it will come to your door. Who gave us Donald Trump? We did. We created Donald Trump. He is us, and we have to deal with it.”
With 2016 almost over, there are a lot of unsettled feelings in regards to this year’s election. Valdez couldn’t have come at a better time; because he demonstrated that even in the midst of great political turmoil, our voices can still be heard. Art and performance have always been and will continue to be an outlet where anyone and everyone can speak without fear or judgment. Valdez said, “I’ve been all over the world, and there isn’t one single theater space that I don’t recognize as home. Theater touches our hearts, and it is through the heart that we reach the mind. That is why art is important; because art communicates to the heart. This is why we have art in all cultures.” Valdez concluded, “The arts are not a luxury; the arts are not a play thing of the rich; the arts are a human necessity. We need the arts in order to survive.”