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El Teatro Campesino's Mission Remains As Its Stages Grow


The struggles of everyday people have been the focus of California's El Teatro Campesino for nearly half a century. The theater company was born on the picket lines of the United Farmworkers Movement in 1965, and has gone on to acclaim on Broadway and around the world. The troope's current production is a love story that's set in today's Silicon Valley but is based on historical events from the early 1940s. Betto Arcos tells us more about "Valley Of The Heart."

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: It's a cool, sunny afternoon in San Juan Bautista, a small town in California's Central Coast and the home of El Teatro Campesino. People gather around the box office to pick up tickets for a matinee. Felicitas Flores drove two hours from San Francisco.

FELICITAS FLORES: From a little girl, I used to come when I was 13 years old with my family, and we used to come and see their shows when they were out in the field.

ARCOS: "Valley Of The Heart" tells a story of the Montanos, a Mexican-American family of sharecroppers, and the Yamaguchis, a Japanese-American family who owned the farm where the Montanos work. The backdrop is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: They're saying the bombing of Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack. Uncle Sam's declared war on Japan. The killing has only just begun.

ARCOS: When the U.S. government orders the relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps across the country, the Yamaguchis ask the Montanos to look after their farm.

LUIS VALDEZ: "Valley Of The Heart" all these years later is still very much on theme, you know. It's about the dignity of human beings, the dignity of people that work in the fields.

ARCOS: Luis Valdez had just graduated from California State University when he learned Cesar Chavez was starting to organize the United Farmworkers in Delano.

VALDEZ: And so when the strike broke out in September, I decided to go to Cesar Chavez and pitch him an idea for a theater of, by and for farmworkers. So that launched El Teatro Campesino.

ARCOS: Over the past 50 years, El Teatro Campesino has gone from presenting works in fields on the backs of flatbeds, to theaters on Broadway and Los Angeles, where Valdez's play "Zoot Suit" was a big hit. But the mission has remained the same.

ROSA MARIA ESCALANTE: Luis has always taught us that the Teatro builds community.

ARCOS: Rosa Maria Escalante is a 43-year veteran of El Teatro Campesino and plays a Mexican mother in "Valley Of The Heart."

ESCALANTE: To be able to continue to make that community outside of here, outside of our own little pueblito here, outside of the state of California for us and even in Mexico and Europe, we were able to make community with our audiences and show a side of life that was not only particular to us as Chicanos but to us as humans.

ARCOS: That's certainly been actor Intae Kim's experience. He plays the Japanese-American son in "Valley Of The Heart."

INTAE KIM: It's literally unbelievable to me that this is my first production outside of school. It's a really, really warm, welcoming family of people.

ARCOS: The play shows the hardships Japanese-Americans faced in the internment camps.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) For Pete's sake, what's it going to take for you to understand? My wife and kid are freezing in a pinche prison in Wyoming. It started snowing last week. Lots of people had nothing but the clothes on their backs from Southern California. All they got is a potbelly stove to heat the barrack. And still, they have to walk half a mile in the snow just to use a latrine.

ARCOS: Japanese-Americans in "Valley Of The Heart" experience some of the same kinds of racism and discrimination that their Mexican-American counterparts do. Looking back at the work of El Teatro Campesino over the course of almost 50 years, company founder Luis Valdez says the situation has not improved for farmworkers.

VALDEZ: There's a special mystique that exists about vegetables and vegetarians and all of this, but they have no thought. Where does all that celery come from? Where do the carrots come from? Where does the lettuce come from? All these wonderful salads that people eat, where does that stuff come from? It comes from the hands of people that are stooping over in the fields and sweating their asses off to get it done, right?

ARCOS: Throughout his work, Valdez says he's been able to achieve two of his main goals - to express the social inequality of the farmworkers' experience and to explain Mexican-American culture to the rest of the world. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.
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