In 1965, Luis Valdez ushered in a new movement of civil rights protest with his formation of El Teatro Campesino, or the Farmworkers’ Theatre. Valdez’ theatre movement served as the cultural ambassador to Cesar Chávez’ civil rights activism by creating actos and performing them for other farmworkers in an attempt to bolster the strength of the union.
El Teatro Campesino was a troupe of striking farmworkers who performed brief actos, or commedia dell’arte-style sketches as a form of agit-prop theatre. This was a political theatre firmly based on improvisations of socio-political issues of the time. Nothing was traditional about this movement; these were Mexican-American/Chicano farmworkers who were eager to develop theatrical statements about their condition in an effort to ignite change.
On the surface, actos are essentially skits, but they transcend the simplicity of skits due to their social justice background. Valdez states, “We could have called them ‘skits,’ but we lived and talked in San Joaquín Spanish so we needed a name that name sense to the Raza.” Valdez’ actos were for the people by the people created to both educate and entertain. Its roots are in Bertolt Brecht’s lehrstucke (learning pieces) and agit-prop theatre of revolutionary Russia. Chicanos had issues that need to be expressed and the acto was the most efficient way to make a political statement and demonstrate the growing dissatisfaction with the status quo in the United States.
According to Valdez, the 5 goals of the acto are:
- Inspire the audience to social action
- Illuminate specific points about social problems
- Satirize the opposition
- Show or hint at a solution
- Express what people are thinking
Perhaps most notable is that the actos were created primarily through improvisation based on the experiences of the participants. Therefore, there was hardly a distinction between the worker and the actor; they were one in the same. By utilizing the personal experiences and stories of the workers, El Teatro Campesino was capable of creating theatre that accurately reflected its participants and audience. Valdez affirms, “In a Mexican way, we have discovered what Brecht is all about. If you want unbourgeois theater, find unbourgeois people to do it.” This aspect helped the Teatro to be more effective.
The acto in its most basic form only needs 2 characters and a conflict – information about who they are, where they are, and what they are doing. The conflict is the essential element that is necessary; through the acto, the participants seek a solution to the conflict. The actos worked to expose the problems of Chicano/Mexican-American workers. For decades, if not centuries, they had been an important workforce in the United States, especially in California. Far too often, their struggles had gone unnoticed or ignored. The Chicano Teatro Movement sought to eradicate their absence from history by giving the group voice. El Teatro Campesino marked the birth of the contemporary Chicano Theatre Movement and inspired other similar groups to follow their lead and illustrate the problems surrounding the farm workers.
El Teatro Campesino would travel around California and perform their actos at farms, fields, college campuses, churches, theaters, and community halls in an effort to create a cathartic experience for theatergoers.