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.