Luis Valdez (1993)

America remains to be discovered. My people have been in this part of the world for 40,000 years. I have a lot of Yaqui blood, Mayan blood. There are languages I speak other than European languages and in the non-verbal aspects of my work that comes through. But I don’t see my face as a Native person reflected much in this culture. The impression of the Mexican in U.S. culture has been basically the same since 1848.

When you get down to casting Latino actors all this history comes with it. We have had five centuries of inter-marriage, inter-breeding, and cultural fusion. People are afraid of what this fusion will bring. It challenges the accepted historical reality. But the real issue it raises is that of identity. The term “non-traditional casting” provokes the question: whose tradition? Our tradition has always been multiracial, multicultural.

When El Teatro Campesino began in 1965 at the United Farm Workers Union strikes, we involved people of all cultures in our actos. This was our response to the reality in which we were performing, who we were performing for and with; there were Mexican, Filipino, Black and Anglo grape pickers out on strike. That is also one of the reasons we began to perform bilingually.

One of my boldest casting choices has been casting myself as a director. I have had some problems with it. First, I don’t look like a director. Maybe I do now because I have had so much experience. But if you don’t know me, your first impression when you see me would be to think I am illegal, possibly criminal, and probably illiterate. I used to get very defensive about this. To this day, when I walk into Hollywood studios, people are surprised. With the exception of the janitor, I am the darkest person in those board rooms.

There has been some progress over the last twenty-seven years. There are more people of color getting into the mainstream, which is important. There are more Latino actors than there used to be and they are better trained and more experienced. One of the things that has happened, however, with this proliferation of cultures is that enclaves have formed. Chicano identity has hardened. Black identity has hardened. Asian identity. This is not difficult to understand. We are still living in a racist culture. Now there is racism in every direction.

This hardening has had repercussions for artists of color. We have to have the same freedom of mobility, the same artistic freedom as anyone else. If I choose to do Noel Coward for the rest of my life, I don’t need to hear from the white people and my own people about it. I put on my identity as a costume, as an act of courage, as a flag, as feathers. I don’t need these feathers, this flag, this costume turned into a straitjacket. As a minority director, I feel I have to live the myth of Sisyphus, rolling a ball up a mountain, to have it come down again. Only sometimes I feel I am having to roll two balls at once.

Since the 1970’s, our work at Teatro Campesino has taken a more spiritual turn. We have been exploring Mayan culture, the application of its philosophy and aesthetic. Central to this has been the Mayan myth of the Four Roads at the Navel of the Universe. According to the myth, these roads are black, white, yellow, and red. In our work, we took those at face value. Not to mean just the different directions, but the different races. Our own individual liberation is tied to the liberation of all.

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