Although Chicano identity has been Luis Valdez’s theme since all but the earliest years of El Teatro Campesino, the guerrilla theater he founded in the 1960s, getting a clear sense of his roots became doubly important to him when his parents died in the mid-1990s. Valdez, the first Latino playwright/director to reach Broadway and the creator of the bellwether Hispanic film Zoot Suit, had always been told his people were Yaquis from Sonora in northern Mexico, but he realized he knew very little about how they had come to be California Chicanos.
So, in the late 1990s, he began to search his family’s history and its secrets, and what he discovered about the myths and contradictory stories that had been handed down and about the little-known history of the Yaqui wars in Mexico led him to write Mummified Deer, in some ways his most personal play and his first new work for the theater in a decade and a half (just ending its run at El Teatro Campesino in San Juan Bautista). It’s a play that uses the mythic, presentational elements we’ve come to associate with Valdez’s work, here present in a Yaqui deer dancer, who together with the long arm of history defines identity for the play.
Valdez founded El Teatro Campesino as an organizing and fundraising arm of the United Farm Workers during the 1965 grape strike in Delano, where he was born. The actors then were strikers who played type characters in actos, short satirical sketches on strike issues performed at work sites and in union halls.
But since splitting off from the union in 1967, the company has made Chicano racial identity its focus. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, that specifically meant spiritual identity, with the theater reaching all the way back to La Raza’s Aztec and Mayan roots and making ritual and myth, music and dance integral parts of its style.
Valdez was criticized at the time for abandoning the theater’s materialist viewpoint, and was criticized later in the decade and in the 1980s–when the entertainment industry began to understand the potential of the Hispanic market–for his unabashed attempt to move into commercial theater and filmmaking with Zoot Suit. Valdez’s response was that it was time for Chicanos to assume their place in the mainstream and that separatism had been just a necessary phase that prepared them to do so without losing their sense of identity. But it was also clear that the young men in Zoot Suit had to reject that aspect of pachuquismo, that very attractive, very essential part of their identity as Chicanos, that was disruptive of society and self-destructive.
Lack of commitment to cultural authenticity seemed confirmed–certainly to Latino actors who protested–in 1992 when Valdez attempted to cast Laura San Giacomo, an actress with something of a bankable name but also an Italian ancestry, as Frida Kahlo in the movie he was trying to make about the artist. Valdez argued that the compromise was necessary to get Hollywood to do movies with Hispanic protagonists at all and that the movie would offer a picture of Latino life that was not gang- or drug-based, i.e., nonstereotypical and presumably positive.
Maybe it’s just the difficulty of a Chicano writer/director making headway in the commercial world, but in truth, it’s difficult seeing Valdez as lost leader, as someone who’s abandoned his roots, in San Juan Bautista, the mission town where Mummified Deer has been playing in a theater Valdez built out of a fruit-packing shed. By no means as far off the beaten track as Glover, Vermont, where Bread and Puppet escaped city life in the 1970s, it’s still a small rural town a long way from entertainment capitals and city attitudes.
The style of Valdez’s new play also points to continuity. And for the most part the inspired stylistic innovations that radical theaters excelled in–in Mummified Deer for instance, a hospital bed that’s transformed into a train laden with Mexican revolutionaries–still work their magic in Valdez’s hands. The sudden release of concentrated imagination thrills. But even when they don’t work, when they now seem more a part of tradition than vital and expressive, their mere presence, like the continued earnest tone of his writing in our smug, cynical time, suggests that Valdez hasn’t jettisoned the past.
In any event, the story itself makes it clear that roots are not easily cut off. On a simple series of platforms, marked with what seem to be petroglyphs and hung with plastic sheets that make the set look like an ice cave–poor theater after all these years!–Mama Chu, a fierce, 84-year-old family matriarch, lies on a hospital bed, suffering from abdominal pains. When the cause of her condition is diagnosed not as cancer but as a mummified fetus that has been lodged in her womb for sixty years, her granddaughter Armida, an anthro grad student at Berkeley who’s in search of the truth about her mother’s life, begins to pierce the maze of myths and half-truths that have made up Chu’s story and the family’s history.
Along the way, secrets are revealed about paternity, incest and migration. The ultimate source of these secrets and family myths isn’t, however, as in many plays, personal pathology. The half-truths and inventions all proceed from a historic cause: the little-known Yaqui genocide at the hands of Porfirio Diaz and the Federales, which capped four centuries of little-known Yaqui resistance to European colonization.
In the end, it turns out that none of Chu’s children as they’re presented in the play are hers. Her children were all taken away and murdered in the genocide. She gathered Armida’s mother, aunt and uncle to her to fill the void. (The horrific description of the mass slaughter alone insures that this play is not going very far into the mainstream.)
Powerful, serious material. And Valdez doesn’t always treat it reverentially, as many lesser playwrights would. The introduction of a kind of grotesque humor makes it all the more powerful at times. As when Aunt Oralia (Rosa Escalante) wonders, “Can’t you just yank that little sucka [the dead fetus] out?” or Uncle Profe explains the incest by saying simply, “We were always very close.”
To his credit, Valdez doesn’t treat the Chicano family reverentially, either. He understands that they can be quite conservative even though they’ve been victims (or because they’ve been victims). He satirizes them and creates a number of characters that, like the satirical figures of the actos, are one-dimensional types. With an Oralia, that works to project a sense of how self-protective she is about the past, but this is ultimately a play of terrible family secrets, and having the weight of those secrets fall on an Armida who is little more than a plot mechanism and Berkeley-activist-type blunts the force of the drama.
It’s not simply a matter of an uneven cast, one that ranges all the way from the very adept and realistic Daniel Valdez (Uncle Profe) to Estrella Esparza (Armida), who can barely make the words her own. It’s also the writing and the way Valdez as director has the characters played. As director, he also pitches a number of the performances very high. An actress like Alma Martinez, who plays Mama Chu, can obviously change gears on a dime and sketch in a reaction or attitude with the flick of a hand, but Valdez pushed her performance hard and makes it vocally very forceful, as if constantly to remind us what a powerful woman this is. The result is a lack of nuance, variety and sympathy that sent me fleeing to quieter characters like Uncle Profe and Armida’s mother, Agustina (Anita Reyes).
Then too, the revelations about the past are far too complicated, there’s too much information coming at you generally, and what exactly the deer dancer represents is obscure. Also, the symbol of the mummified fetus at times feels contrived. All of which makes it difficult to take in and feel comfortable with what Valdez is apparently going for in his continuing exploration of what he understands to be a continually evolving Chicano identity. That is, the sense that Chu’s finally confronting the Yaqui genocide results in her forgoing an operation and keeping the fetus, which is an incarnation of both an indio past that is dead and gone and a living Yaqui spirit that–bypassing the acquiescent and self-deluding generation of aunt and uncle–Chu passes on to her granddaughter, Armida.