​​​​​​​​​For Luis Valdez, as for countless other students, the time he spent at college would go a long way in defining the person he'd become.

It was at San José State University that he discovered what he wanted to do with his life and the impact he wanted to make on the world.

Though Valdez started college in 1958 as a mathematics and physics major, only one year later he found himself intrigued by the campus's theatre department.

Soon, he'd switched his major to English with an emphasis in playwriting.

"The arts, for me, had an edge because of the human contact," explains Valdez, known as the "Father of Chicano Theater" for ground-breaking plays such as "Zoot Suit" and "The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa," the latter of which he began writing in 1963 while still a student at San José State. The comedy broke new ground by sending up racist stereotypes of Mexican-Americans.

"I was really looking and trying to find a path for myself, not just as a playwright but as an activist," he says. "Really, my involvement in the cultural revolution started on the campus."​​


Humble Beginnings

At the age of six, Valdez had begun working in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, helping his father, mother and a long list of relatives, all of whom made their living as farm workers. 

While neither of his parents had gone beyond elementary school, education was highly regarded and talked about constantly at home, says Valdez, the second of 10 children.

"Coming from a farm worker's standpoint and way of life, anything would have been better; I didn't have to become a doctor or a lawyer," he says. "My parents would have been proud of me if I would have been a janitor. It was a stable job, it was year-round, and it meant that I would be indoors."

But Valdez was meant to go his own way.

Once he'd made the shift from math and physics to San José State's theatre department, the Delano, California, native definitely stood out. His point of view was so unique and absent from the theatre world at the time that his theater professor and mentor Dr. Harold Crain made the unusual suggestion that Valdez direct his own play and then guided him through the production.

"I was learning as I was doing it and I enjoyed it so much. It was one-on-one mentoring, which I really appreciated," says Valdez, who in 2017 was awarded SJSU's highest honor, the Tower Award.

Valdez also adopted a convention in his plays that he's used ever since: featuring dialogue in both English and Spanish and jumping from one language to the other. "By doing this, I was making sure everyone could understand what we were doing," he says. "But at the same time, I made sure there was this balance of English and Spanish so anyone who didn't understand Spanish would understand it, and [vice versa]."

Valdez would go on to graduate from the university in 1964; San José State also granted him an honorary doctorate in 1988.

"I knew if I became a playwright, I could address the masses directly and there was an urgent need for me to be able to tell these stories and raise the profile of Mexican-Americans," he explains.

In the early 1960s, the urgency for Valdez was twofold: the lack of writers or playwrights from his culture and also the growing movement for farm workers' rights, especially those of migrant workers like Valdez's own family.


 


Workers, Unite!

From 1965 to 1970, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and the National Farm Workers Association (now the United Farm Workers) organized labor strikes against California grape growers to improve wages, education, working conditions and legal protections.

Some of the strikes were led by Cesar Chavez, the prominent labor organizer and union leader who'd co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. While they first met when Valdez was a boy, Chavez served as a major motivation for Valdez throughout his time at San José State and even to this day.

"Cesar taught by example and I think a lot of us out there just absorbed him," Valdez recalls. "He always seemed confident. He was not a bully, he never commanded people. He listened to what people were saying and he understood people. He lived by example and that was so powerful to me."

Writing plays would become Valdez's contribution to the 1965 farm ​​worker strikes in his hometown.

"When I thought about what art form could address all these issues and enlighten people, the theater came to mind," notes Valdez, who was awarded the 2015 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama. "The theater became a real instrument for me to show history through the interaction of characters." 

After graduating from SJSU, Valdez founded the El Teatro Campesino ("The Farm Workers' Theater"), the nation's longest-running Chicano theater, in 1965 at the age of 25. 

 

Spontaneous Theater

While Valdez had plenty of ambition and ideas, money, actors, and even a stage on which to perform were a lot harder to come by.

He knew a lot of farmers, though, all of whom were eager to spread the word about workers' rights and the injustices they'd been enduring for years. So what began as chants and songs on picket lines soon became short skits and then full theatrical productions performed on flatbed trucks.

"It was spontaneous, vibrant and funny — and it required nothing more than the willingness to get up and speak," Valdez recalls. "It captured the spirit of the theater."

"Our audience was the farm workers; we were trying to distract them … and get a hold of their intentions," he continues.

El Teatro Campesino, based in Central California's San Juan Bautista since 1971, remains very much alive and true to its mission: giving a voice to the unheard and educating through the arts.

"[The plays] were relevant to their time," says Valdez of the historical impact of his work. "And sometimes that relevancy lasts longer than a single generation. Theater is a form that can last hundreds of years, but you can't aim for that. If it clicks, if it works, then it will last."

 

Reaching Out to Higher Education

Now 77, the playwright boasts a peerless resume that includes a long list of firsts.

In 1979, for example, "Zoot Suit" became the first Chicano theatrical production to premiere on Broadway. Valdez has also worked in TV and film, writing and directing the 1987 hit film "La Bamba," the story of Mexican-American musician Ritchie Valens and the highest-grossing Chicano film in the U.S.

But giving back to the campus that helped shaped him is never far from Valdez's thoughts.

"Life moves in cycles and spirals and so for me the idea of relating back to San José State at this point in my career is to close the cycle, close the circle, but on a different level," he says.

"So I come back as a playwright, hopefully to inspire the next generation of playwrights that are coming out of this campus."

He remains a near-constant presence as SJSU, in fact, leading classes, workshops and directing.

Valdez's reach at the CSU goes beyond his alma mater, too; he is a founding faculty member of CSU Monterey Bay's cinematic arts and technology department and has taught at Fresno State.

"I think it is very important that kids, regardless of their background, reach out to higher education. People with a college education look at the world in a different way," he says.

"Coming to San José State changed my life in a very positive way."​