Death and the Playwright Luis Valdez talks about Mayan physicality, his new book, and his legacy


Article and photos by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Death is often on the mind of Luis Valdez these days, with ample reason. The father of Chicano theater recently turned 82, which is not only a mystical year in the Mayan calendar, it also means the playwright is, as he put it, “staring at his own mortality.”

During the pandemic he lost friends and acquaintances, another reminder that life on this plane is not owned, crossing over is bound to happen, even for a man with his immortality assured.

But this moment of profound reflection is not holding the playwright’s creative process hostage. Au contraire. At home in San Juan Bautista, where he’s lived for the better part of his life, Valdez is working on his autobiography — an exercise he recommends to everyone — just after publishing the first book he’s written to describe the philosophy behind El Teatro Campesino.

The book, “Theatre of the Sphere: The Vibrant Being” (Routledge, 2021), is Valdez’s description of the aesthetic method he developed while working with El Teatro for more than five decades. “The Vibrant Being” is based on Mayan concepts of physicality that he learned from Domingo Martinez Paredes, a Mayan professor he met while on tour in Mexico City in the 1970s.

As Valdez describes it, the movements he developed with his actors is based on the Mayan concept of zero, “a sphere of potential energy that can be best described as a ‘vibration.’ All human beings exist in their own sphere of vibrant energy, manifesting their spiritual vitality through the body-heart-mind-spirit continuum. As actors on stage as well as in life, we are all ‘vibrant beings.’”

Valdez met with Voices of Monterey Bay and Inspira Productions for an exclusive interview in El Teatro, the playhouse he founded in San Juan Bautista.

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In the gallery of El Teatro’s playhouse in San Juan Bautista, Valdez animatedly describes the little-known concepts that inspired the book: the Mayan solar calendar, their concept of zero (the second civilization in the history of humankind to develop it independently), the sacred calendar that latched on to the solar calendar and re-aligned perfectly every 52 years. The spirals of the body, as exemplified by our spinal cord, are vital, and he talks about how to activate them to activate the mind.

“In the Teatro … we have evolved what we call the Vibrant Being workshop in which we explore for people that have never acted before,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re going to be actors, it’s just human beings, we explore the spirals in their bodies and in their movement.

“We’ve taught these exercises as part of our theater community and our techniques. So our theater is very physical, but physical in a very specific way that we spiral in the direction that we do on the stage. We call it Theater of the Sphere because we all live inside of a sphere of movement, and we spiral inside the sphere of movement. And it goes with us wherever we go because this is our being, this is who we are.”

Valdez is among the first intellectuals in the United States to explore the belief systems of ancient cultures of the Americas, namely the Maya and Mexica. Rather than accept the European-imposed belief that these indigenous groups were “savages,” Valdez set out to explore texts produced by scholars intent on revealing the true nature of the first inhabitants of this continent, such as Martínez Paredes. The Mayan scholar produced five texts in the 1940s describing Mayan philosophy and beliefs, taught at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. But when Valdez encountered him in 1972, Martínez Paredes was earning a living as a public scribe.

Paredes may have been forgotten in Mexico, even ridiculed, but to Valdez he represents the link to an important world culture.

“What that Mayan culture has allowed us to do is to put it all into this perspective, a philosophical perspective that has been missing in the world,” he said. “We all know about the Asian perspective … because China’s still very much alive. We know about the European traditions, the dance traditions, the theater, the art that comes from Europe. What has remained a big, empty block has been knowledge of the pre-Columbian peoples, because they have been disparaged and dismissed.

“That has to change because the wealth of Mexico is embodied in its indigenous cultures and … it is finally becoming apparent how advanced some of these ideas and philosophies that our indigenous ancestors had really were.”

The playwright theorizes that the Chicanos and Mexicans in the United States play an important part in the re-evaluation of ancient indigenous traditions because, as he puts it, Mexicans here are “not compromised.” In Mexico, light-skinned people do well. It is the dark-skinned Indians, subjugated by European occupation for 500 years, who migrate north to seek a living in the United States. Eventually, their offspring see things differently.

“The Spanish came 500 years ago, and they interbred with the Indios; we’re all Spanish, you know? But the fact is that they suppressed Indian civilization ideas for their own profit. It was not profitable for them to let the Indians get a decent break. They scandalized them and disparaged them as cannibals.”

The history of the world is filled with tyrants who demonize the people they subjugate, to strip them of their humanity. Valdez references Vladmir Putin. “Today you can think of what Putin says about the Ukrainians, how they were killing people and eating children or whatever, ” Valdez said. “Anybody that comes into conquest is gonna lie about the people that they’re conquering, and that happens in our family. But there’s a lot of beauty and power and strength in indigenous cultures that come through anyway. It comes through our food, it comes through our music, it comes through our art and culture. But it needs to be highlighted and shown to the rest of the world in an open and honest way.”

And that’s what Valdez has attempted to do throughout his decades in the theater. He does that not just in the Vibrant Being/Theater of the Sphere method, but in the plays themselves, in his presentations, in his scholarship. Reading his new book, you can’t help but think what he’s describing is not just an acting method; it’s a way of life, a spiritual way of being. Is this perhaps the secret to El Teatro’s longevity?

“We’re here because we stay humble,” Valdez responded. He looked about the playhouse, a converted packing shed that serves also as a history museum. There’s a cardboard cutout of Edward James Olmos in his role of El Pachuco for the movie “Zoot Suit.” Over there, a UFW flag, the ultimate raison d’etre del Teatro. There’s even a copy of the telegraph Henry Leyvas, the man who inspired the main character in “Zoot Suit,” received in San Quentin announcing he’d soon be freed. A history lesson without frills.

“We’re like the grass. If there’s a hurricane, the grass just bends … it doesn’t get blown out like trees,” Valdez continued. “Stay humble and maybe you’ll go a bit longer.”

Staying humble means keeping the playhouse closed, for perhaps another year. Audiences may not be ready to return to live theater, and farmworkers, an audience El Teatro draws from, were particularly hard hit during the pandemic. Valdez said he does not want them to be exposed to the virus more than necessary.

There’s another reason El Teatro has demonstrated tremendous endurance. It doesn’t consider itself a theater company. Not really. It’s a movement, inspired by the daily struggle of farmworkers who continue fighting to have their rights recognized.“We’re still part of a social movement that is there to affect some social change,” Valdez said. “Not violently. That was our philosophy since the grape strike. Not with violence, and not with hatred, but with understanding, right? With understanding of ourselves, and understanding other people. And embracing our own ancestral culture does not mean that we can’t embrace others.”

In the introduction of the book, Michael Chemers, professor of dramatic literature at UC Santa Cruz and editor of Valdez’s book, describes it as among the “most significant theatrical texts of the last 100 years.”

“It is equally a social and ethical handbook, a fully articulated means of moving through the world that is grounded in mathematics, anatomy and spirituality as well as in aesthetics,” Chemers writes. “It places the actor neither above nor apart from the world but within it, fully responsive and responsible to humanity at large.”

Valdez is cognizant of El Teatro’s place in the American theater canon. When he began his career in the 1960s, there were no plays that depicted the reality of Latino Americans, or any other non-European groups in the United States. Now, many young, bold Latino playwrights are staging their work all over the country.

His legacy may have reached far and wide, but he remains committed to San Juan Bautista, where he’d like for El Teatro to remain.

“This is the real root. This is the old root …” he said. “If we start chasing illusions, and say, ‘Okay, let’s go to Hollywood and play big time, or go to New York,’ we lose the contact with our own reality. And if I can leave that as a legacy, that will be fine. And just the image of the Teatro on flatbed trucks has given American theater another dimension.

“The fact that we started out on the picket lines in the Delano grape strike without a cent, and that we were using the workers as actors … All of that is an example for anybody and everybody to follow. It doesn’t take any money. It doesn’t even take that much education. If you have the heart for it you do it. And that I hope is the lesson that everybody picks up from what has happened here.”

This story is a collaboration of Voices of Monterey Bay with Inspira Studios, a Watsonville-based video production company. Filming and editing provided by Eugenia Renteria, co-founder and executive director, and Miguel Silva, associate producer and translator. 

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About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.