Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer
The Monterey County Herald
The New Faces of El Teatro Campesino
By Sedona Callahan
They’re young. They’re excited. They’re motivated and focused. They are the second generation of El Teatro Campesino [ETC], a San Juan Bautista-based theater company, founded in the 1960s by Luis Valdez.
The elder Valdez has passed the baton to his children, nieces, nephews and neighborhood kids who grew up in El Teatro. This younger generation has innovatively designed new productions for ETC, as well as staged reprises of the older and beloved pageants of hope and renewal, which are annually performed in San Juan Bautista mission during the Christmas season.
This year’s production of “La Pastorela” combines the recreation of the shepherds’ journey to Bethlehem to see the newborn kind with the innovative staging, costumes and presentation by the young cast and crew that make up the new company.
Kinan Valdez, director of this year’s performances, says when his company first took over production two years ago, the changes made in the script, costuming and presentation were a bit of a shock to audiences who returned year after year to the mission to see the adaptation of the traditional Christmas story. “Our adaptation depicted diablos [devils] as cyborgs, who looked like they had emerged from the waste of a nuclear power plant, showed dissention among the previously peaceful shepherds and portrayed the ultimate bad-guy, Luzbel [Lucifer] as an androgynous rock star with bleached blond hair and spiked heels,” says Valdez. “It was more conflicted than it had been in previous years and demonstrated the cynicism of my generation. This year the play is about hope and family. It’s a musical comedy and an action play about the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. It’s not exactly the same as it was before we took it over, because you can’t go back –you have to change – but it’s less conflict-ridden now.. It isn’t as dark as it was two years ago. The youth energy of the old ‘Teatro’ of the ‘60s and ‘70s is back.”
Many performers have been hanging around El Teatro for years. Leticia Candelaria, vocal director and actress who portrays San Miguel [St. Michael the Archangel and foe of Luzbel] has been with ETC since she was an usher as a 7-year-old. “I walked people to their seats, then sat in the aisle,” Candelaria says. “We were fortunate to grow up in a town with theater in it.” Candelaria says the role of San Miguel in “La Pastorela” has always been portrayed by a woman, “to add a dynamic to the show, because Luzbel has such strong parts. People envision angels as pretty, white and gold. But I portray her [San Miguel] as strong, enforcing her power.”
Another “kid from the neighborhood,” who hung around the Valdez family and El Teatro, is Seth Millwood, who resembles a biker out of hell – huge, bald and covered with tattoos – in his role of the nasty, vile and funny Satanas. “I grew up with these guys,” says Millwood. “We’ve been together since fifth grade. I started out in “Teatro” as one of the friars in ‘La Virgen del Tepeyac’ when I was 11 years old. Now I’m playing in a role that I could never find anywhere else that is more truly me. Satanas is the bulldog of Luzbel. Satanas does the dirty work. Luzbel is the elegant one, the slick guy, while Satanas is the clown. All the angels take me down. It’s totally fun and very brutal.”
Another child of the theater is Anahuac Valdez, now producer, who started at the age of 7 portraying a “diablito”, while looking up to Luzbel as his boss. “I decided then I wanted to play Luzbel,” says Anahuac. “He was the star. He got to sing a solo, and I wanted to be him.” Anahuac got his wish and has portrayed the all-powerful Luzbel twice. But in his capacity as producer, Anahuac says, “We are the new generation. We’re carrying this company into the next millennium. We want to continue the dream of my father, create new pieces and restage old works. Luis comes and gives us his blessing and to see what we’re doing. He’s enjoying the changes. Really, there are many similarities to the “Teatro” of the early ‘70s. Then there was Centro Cultural of El Teatro Campesino, a film center, Cucuracha Publishing, a studio and Menyah Music. Today there is the ETC film center, where we’re doing a short narrative film, ‘Soldado Razo,’ which is a reprisal of an anti-war piece. We’re branching out from doing only Chicano theater and have done a couple of French plays recently. We’re preparing for new technology, with a CD-ROM coming out in January, and we have our own Web site,” says Anahuac, who also teaches digital editing at California State University at Monterey Bay [CSUMB].
The exuberance of ETC is fueled by its multiple connections to CSUMB, itself a young institution. Several CSUMB students have chosen ETC as their venue for performing the 30 hours of community service required by their academic program, and some have stayed long past the asked-for commitment.
Assistant director Leslie Breton is in the teledramatic arts and technology program at CSUMB, where students learn about theater and storytelling, but also the new technologies. “We learn radio, film and basic TV, like how to work a camera, how to edit footage and how to produce,” says Breton, who has been with “Teatro” for over a year, and like many performers who fulfill more than one function, is portraying an angel, as well as carrying out her administrative duties. “I find sponsors for the show, work on publicity, basically I do whatever Kinan asks of me,” says Breton.
Lupe Valdez, general manager of ETC and mother of Kinan and Anahuac, sees the change at El Teatro as necessary and inevitable. “Any organization has to rejuvenate itself,” she says. “I always use the metaphor of the snake crawling out of its own dead skin. Every nine years they shed. People have to find new forms to keep themselves going. ‘Teatro’ has a 32-year history, with people who have been with the company all that time. To keep theater alive, you can’t keep repeating year after year or it becomes stale. It needs to go on. Theater is for the people, and the new generation really expresses that. They’re experimenting, and that’s what El Teatro has always tried to do. It’s a new season and a new crop of actors and musicians, with stamina, energy and creativity. There aren’t so many outlets for young people, and El Teatro provides that for them”
One of the actors, 25-year old Luis Juarez, who portrays El Ermitaño [the hermit], communicates the importance of having a venue such as ETC to perform in. “Our grandparents and parents grew up with this play being performed in their home towns in Mexico. But for those of us who were born on this side of the border, we grew up with the pop culture of the United States,” Juarez explains. “We grew up with TV. I got my ideas about the meaning of Christmas from Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph and Peanuts. I could only relate to those images that were artificially created to represent Christmas,” Juarez says. “But now, to be able to perform, in a California mission - me – a Chicano, a Mexican! My first night I discovered the significance of performing – with everyone coming together, sending the message of life and love out to the audience, which comes from different economic and racial backgrounds. This is mine now! I don’t need a cartoon or TV to catch the Christmas spirit. It goes beyond that. It’s too big now.”
©1997 Sedona Callahan