Luis Valdez Receives 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award at 2nd Annual Mexican-American Film & Television Festival 

The cast of “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978. Written and directed by Luis Valdez and presented in association with El Teatro Campesino, the revival of “Zoot Suit”.

By Elia Esparza, Latin Heat

A standing ovation for Luis Valdez! In commemoration of Luis Valdez contributions to the worlds of theater and cinema the Mexican-American Film and Television Festival (MAF&TF) recognized Valdez’s contributions to the American theater, film, and television industries with the Illustrious Lifetime Achieve Award on May 21, 2023 at the Harmony Gold Theater in Los Angeles.

Portrait of San Jose State University alumni and playwright Luis Valdez at the Teatro Campesino in San Juan Batista on April 5, 2007. Valdez is one of the San Jose State University alumni featured in the San Jose State University 150th Anniversary alumni interview section. (Joanne Ho-Young Lee/Mercury News)

Valdez truly encompasses the theme of this year’s festival “Changing the narrative, recognizing who we are” as he is truly a pioneer in writing and directing the stories that gave Mexican-Americans the recognition that was truly deserved.

The Mexican-American Film & Television Festival screened two of his films, Cisco Kid (1994), a television film which starred Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin and Zoot Suit (1981), which was the play that jump started Edward James Olmos’ career.

Not many iconic American playwrights, screenwriters, film directors, and actors can say their work motivated the birth of an impenetrable power — the Chicano Movement! Playwright/director Luis Valdez can. Through his work with El Teatro Campesino and his films (La Bamba, Zoot Suit), he has left an indelible mark on the annals of Chicano theater and cinema.

Born into a Mexican migrant family eighty-two years ago, he began working alongside his parents and siblings in the Delano, California agricultural fields at the tender age of six.  His parents moved often following the harvesting work around the central valleys of California. Valdez had no school stability until his parents finally settled in San Jose, California.

In 1965, Valdez formed El Teatro Campesino, a farm workers’ theater troupe. Valdez’s passion for theater and his first-hand knowledge of how much migrant farm workers labored and sacrificed, recognized that it was the perfect time to merge his theatrical productions and his upbringing for maximum exposure and effectiveness. Valdez incorporated all these experiences into “actos”, one-act skits that were originally performed for the farmworkers on truck flatbeds. His “teatro” toured migrant camps with his 15-minute one-act plays, educating and elevating the plight of the farm laborers to the general public. 

Valdez’s storytelling aspirations started as a child in grammar school. He was in the sixth grade when his interest in theatre piqued and soon found himself organizing plays at school and putting on fairy-tale puppet shows in his garage. Valdez graduated from James Lick High School in San Jose and a scholarship for math and physics paved the path for his attending San Jose State University (SJSU). Valdez spent a few months with The San Francisco Mime Troupe where was influenced by agitprop theatre, guerrilla theatre, and Italian Commedia dell’– techniques that greatly influenced Valdez’s development of his basic structure of Chicano theatre with one-act presentations. 

While in college, Valdez won a playwriting contest with his one-act play, The Theft, in 1961. Two years later, Valdez’s first full-length play, The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa, was produced and debuted at SJSU.

Valdez incorporated humor into his plays and his productions were a major tool to lift the morale of farm workers on strike. The social and political commentary picked up by mainstream media expanded the experiences of farm workers and other aspects of the Chicano culture. Valdez was able to bring to the forefront and dispel the Chicano stereotypes. 

Valdez soon took his style and creativity to the screen with his first film directorial, the short I Am Joaquin, a poem by poet, political organizer, and activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales in 1969. Next, came a TV documentary short, El Corrido: Ballad of a Farmworker in 1979.

He wrote and directed the seminal hit play Zoot Suit which premiered in 1978 to sold out crowds, a majority first time Latino audiences which ran for a year goers at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and then at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood. In 1981, Valdez directed the adaptation of the play, which starred Edward James Olmos, Daniel Valdez, Charles Aidman, Lupe Ontiveros, Mike Gomez and many others where reprising their roles from the stage production.  It was a box-office success far exceeding all expectations.

In 1987, Valdez wrote and directed La Bamba which more than a decade, was the most the most successful Latino-themed film at the box-office and critically. It tells the story of the popular Chicano 1950s rock star, Richie Valens who was killed in a plane while on tour. The film starred a very young Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie, Esai Morales, and Rosanna DeSoto as their mom. La Bamba is the mega-hit that brought Valdez to mainstream America. 

Zoot Suit and La Bamba garnered Valdez two Golden Globe Awards nominations, and was awarded a Peabody Award for Excellence in Television for Corridos: Tales of Passion and Revolution for PBS as well as Mexico’s Aguila Azteca Award in 1994.

And for the younger audiences, Luis Valdez is credited on the 2017 Pixar’s computer-animated fantasy film, Coco as a voice actor.

In the United States, it is no surprise why so many Chicanos can relate to, and consider Luis Valdez their modern-day Ernest Hemingway. The power of his plays and films continues to resonate — his words accurately representing nuestra cultura Chicana… Mexican-Americans in the U.S.A., and best of all, Valdez’s films are always cast with many talented Latino cast and crew.