In 1981 Luis Valdez wrote and produced `` Corridos'' at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista, a California mission town. Corridos are dramatizations, with music and dance, of Mexican folk ballads.
Valdez is most famous for ``Zoot Suit,'' and to a lesser degree, ``The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa,'' his break-through work. In 1981 I reviewed his play ``Bandido'' for the Monterey County Herald. I found the play interesting but not as solid a work as one might anticpate from an artist of his stature, and, if I recall correctly, I wrote that.
In any case, I was very enthusiastic the next year about ``Corridos,'' and after reviewing it, I asked for an interview with Valdez; it took a few days but the interview was granted and I drove to San Juan Bautista with my youngest daughter, Anne.
El Teatro Campesino set the Valdez' interview for the intermission of a performance of ``Corridos;' it was scheduled then, I'm sure, to limit the interview time to fifteen minutes, something I'm sure Valdez wanted. That worked for me, though, because I wanted Anne to see the play.
As Anne sat nearby, I talked with Valdez. The interview went decently well, but while Valdez was friendly, he was also a bit distant and guarded. I think I probably took some offense to that, perhaps thinking it was a reaction to my review of ``Bandido.'' But now that I look back at Valdez' roots, it made perfect sense, because it made sense to be guarded.
Valdez was born in Delano, California, the son of migrant fieldworkers and the second of ten children. He began working in the fields at the age of six. But he went on to San Jose State, which in 1963 performed ``Shrunken Head.''
In 1965, after graduating from San Jose State, Valdez returned to Delano to support, with drama _ or``actos'' _ performed in the fields, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers' struggle for workers' rights. These were dangerous times and Valdez undoubtedly encountered some hostile establishment press (not to mention hostile ``law'' enforcement); not, perhaps, to the degree that John Steinbeck did writing about the same problems and injustices three decades earlier, but unfair nonetheless.
On the side of Chavez _who famously went on a hunger strike to make his points _ and Valdez were some powerful, liberal policitcal figures, including Robert Kennedy. But then Eleanor Roosevelt, and later her husband, had spoken out in support of Steinbeck and ``The Grapes of Wrath'' in 1939. Frankling Roosevelt said there were the lives of ``500,000 people'' between the novel's covers. By Chavez and Valdez' time, the number had probably increased.
So, yes, Valdez was a bit guarded. I do remember speaking with Andres Gutierrez, an actor and Valdez's press liason, who set up the interview. Gutierrez was excellent at his job, creating a passable bridge between the Mexican-American and establishment artistic and political worlds of the 1980s.
Suave, friendly, speaking beautiful Spanish and English, Gutierrez was also passionate about theater and literature. Sometime late in the 1980s I ran into him again and, he said, ``When the world is going badly, as it is now, theater is even more important. We need it.''
``Corridos'' was that kind of show, simple, passionate stories that made life seem important. Audiences flocked to it, and the show moved on to San Jose and beyond; I hoped my review had had something to do with that. It was named Best Musical by the Bay Area Critics Awards.
In 1983 Valdez and El Teatro Campesino received some establishment recognition when Valdez was honored by President Reagan's Committee on Arts and Humanities.
Several years after that it was announced that the San Fancisco PBS affiliate, KQED, was going to produce ``Corridos'' for public television. An editor immiedately assigned me to cover the filming _ to ``follow through'' from my original stories. Gutierrez scheduled a day and my wife Nancy and I drove up to San Francisco.
The KQED sound stage was as lively with the rehearsal of the ``Corridos'' ballads as the El Teatro Campasino stage had been several years earlier. I was immediately told _ not by Andres, he was off to Mexico for a few days, as I recall _ to not attempt to interview the ``Corridos'' star, Linda Ronstadt, winner of numerous Grammys and at one time ``the highest paid of female Rock stars.'' ``Don't talk to her; she doesn't want to be interviewed, she shouldn't be bothered,'' I was told a half dozen times.
Well, I thought, that was too bad; Ronstadt, Mexican-American and German, comes from an important Arizona pioneering family, which had contributed mightily to arts and culture in the Southwest. The singer, extremely articulate, would have held interesting opinions on ``Corridos'' and what it represented.
There was nothing to do for it, and the next hour or so I interviewed other artists and singers involved with the show. Then I heard a woman's voice say, ``What are you doing?'' I looked up to see her staring at my note pad. I said, ``As you can see, I am interviewing people in this show for a newspaper article.'' ``Then,'' she said, `` why aren't you interviewing me? I am in the show.'' ``Yes,'' I said. ``I've been listening to you sing.''
Of course she gave a wonderful interview. And Ronstadt's work in ``Corridos'' helped the show win the 1987 George Peabody Award for Excellence in Television. But more importantly, ``Corridos'' reached a wide American audience, unusual for a Hispanic work at that time, with its passionate message of humanity.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...