“Propaganda Theatre”: Luis Valdez’s Actos and the 1965 Farm Worker Strike (by Alison Mercer-Smith)

Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies Grade 11-12
1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

High school students will examine two of Luis Valdez’s actos, written for the farm worker strike in Delano in 1965, in order to determine how these performances may have functioned as a motivational tool for workers and what they revealed about the ideology of the movement.

Students will learn about the conditions of the 1965 grape strike through the context of the actos performed by strikers. Students will be asked to view the actos as both forms of entertainment and as theatre with a political agenda. Through the examination of the actos themselves and the theatrical styles that by the author’s own admission influenced the development of the actos, students should understand that both humor and the reiteration of the union’s political ideology were core aspects of the performances. First students will read two short articles. The first will give background on the working conditions and the strike in Delano in 1965, and the second, written by Luis Valdez, will give an overview of El Teatro Campesino, its goals, and its inspirations. In the first class, students will perform a staged reading of “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito.” The teacher will provide a short lecture on Brecht, Cantiflas, and Commedia dell’arte. By the end of the first day’s class, the students should understand how the performance they saw uses the three different theatrical styles and what that indicates about the goals of the performance. Students will be asked to read an interview with Luis Valdez for homework in which he described his political intentions with certain images in his actos. In the second class, students will watch a video of a “Quinta Temporada,” and the teacher will give a short lecture on the theatrical styles of carpas and medieval morality plays, followed by a discussion. By the end of the second day, the students will understand how the actos combined both humor and propaganda and that the actos served both as entertainment and as a political tool to persuade others to leave the fields and to keep faith in the strike.

Essential Understanding:
Students will understand that the actos enabled farm workers to encourage each other through a combination of humor and reinforcement of the ideology of the strike.

Essential Questions:
1. What are actos, and who developed and performed them?
2. What theatrical styles influenced the development of the actos?
3. What do the influence of these theatrical styles suggest about the goals of those performing the actos?
4. How did the performers want their audience to respond, or what did they want their audience to do?

El Teatro Campesino: a group of farm workers who developed and performed Luis Valdez’s actos.1
Actos: 15-minute plays performed by El Teatro Campesino based on the improvisation of the farm workers and then written by Luis Valdez.2
Brecht’s epic theatre: a theatrical style developed by Bertolt Brecht wherein both the actors and the audience acknowledge that what is happening on stage is only a reflection of reality. These performances must have “socially practical significance,”3 and so must be more than entertainment. In short, Brecht’s epic theatre is a form of political theatre with a clear villain.4
Cantinflas: a popular comedian whose character was based on the shabby, Mexican underdog stereotype. 5
Medieval morality play: these medieval religious dramas stressed that good and evil are binary and obvious. Just as in Brecht’s epic theatre, the villain is clear from the start.6
Carpas: a Mexican theatrical tradition that involves improvised comic satire. 6
Commedia dell’arte: a comedic Italian theatrical tradition that uses stock characters and masks and is based on improvisation. 6

In September 1965 in Delano, California, grape farm workers, outraged at the low wages and benefits 7 and unsafe working conditions in the fields, decided to go on strike with the help of the organization that later became the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), led in part by Cesar Chavez.8 Luis Valdez, a young playwright in San Francisco asked the UFWOC if they could thought a theatre company of farm workers might be helpful to their efforts.2 Chavez invited Valdez to Delano, and Valdez formed El Teatro Campesino, a group of farm workers who developed and performed short plays called actos about the strike for the other workers at meetings and even for the strikebreakers.2

These actos were so effective that the workers were often motivated to leave their work to join the strike.1 Utilizing elements of Brecht’s epic theatre, the medieval morality play, carpas, and commedia dell’arte,6 these actos frequently showed the farm worker, or sometimes a strikebreaker, interacting with a grower, who wore a sign and a mask that quite clearly depicted him as a villain.9 In the end the worker triumphed over the grower either through trickery (“Las Dos Caras del Patroncito”)10 or, most relevant to the audience, through joining a union (“Quinta Temporada”).11 These performances, therefore, helped to keep up the spirits of the audience. The actos not only provided a way for strikers in the audience to humorously view their circumstances, but they also reiterated the ideology of the movement.

Valdez explained that the Teatro was “a theatre of political change,” and that “we are dedicated to a very specific goal—the organization of farm workers.”2 Valdez himself described the Teatro as “somewhere between Brecht and Cantiflas.”12 Cantiflas was a popular comedian whose character was based on the shabby, Mexican underdog stereotype.6 The style of Brecht’s epic theatre involved a certain detachment, where both the audience and the actors acknowledge that what happens on stage is not reality but rather a reflection of reality, and the performance must be more than entertainment. It must “have a socially practical significance.”3 In addition, the villain was clear from the start.4 As religious dramas like the medieval morality plays, good and evil were binary and obvious.4 As previously described, the villain of the actos, the grower, appeared on stage wearing a pig mask and a “patroncito” sign 9 10, and the audience immediately identified him as a villain. Valdez described the use of certain characters (scabs, contractors, growers, and strikers) as “our own brand of Commedia dell’arte,”12 a comedic Italian theatrical tradition that used stock characters and masks and was based on improvisation.6 Two early actos, “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” (“The Two Faces of the Boss”)10 and “Quinta Temporada” (“The Fifth Season”)11 contain elements from a variety of theatrical traditions to form a humorous “propaganda theatre.”12Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” was performed on the picket line in 1965 using a truck as a stage.12 Because “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” was frequently performed at the edges of the grape fields in an attempt to convince workers to leave the field, the scenery was real.1Quinta Temporada,” on the other hand, was first performed during a strikers’ meeting.11 Both plays were performed in settings closely involved in the strike.

By Valdez’s own admission, the effects of the actos were difficult to determine.12 However, he wrote that strikers on the march frequently asked if there would be a performance that night.12 He even recounted a story about scabs, who after seeing the performance, vowed never again to be a strikebreaker in the area.12 It seems from these accounts that the actos did affect some workers and achieved Valdez’s goal of a performance that has both a “political purpose in putting across certain points…[and a] spiritual purpose in terms of turning on crowds.”2

“U.S. farmworkers in California campaign for economic justice (Grape Strike), 1965-70”

“El Teatro Campesino”

“Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” (“The Two Faces of the Boss”)

“El Teatro Campesino Interviews with Luis Valdez”

Quinta Temporada” (“The Fifth Season”): Script Video

To prepare for the lesson, the class should read two articles. The first, “U.S. farmworkers in California campaign for economic justice (Grape Strike), 1965-70,” is a short overview of the strike in Delano and will give the students a historical context for the lesson. The second article, “El Teatro Campesino,” written by Luis Valdez, will introduce students to the idea of actos. Three students should volunteer to read “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” and come into class 10 minutes early to prepare for a staged reading.

Day 1: At the beginning of class, the three volunteer students will do a staged reading of the play, which should take about 15 minutes. They should be given the simple props and costumes described in the script, including a hat and pruning shears for Farmworker, and a yellow pig face mask, a sign that says “Patroncito (The Boss),” and a fake cigar for Patroncito. If the student volunteers are unable to speak Spanish, the Spanish sections may be read by another student or the teacher. The performance will likely be rough, but given that these actos were developed to be performed for an audience rather than read, and a live performance will likely give the students a better idea of what the actos were like than a silent reading.

After the performance give the students five minutes to reflect on the performance in small groups and hand out copies of the script for “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito.” Ask them to discuss what they thought Luis Valdez and his actors saw as the purpose of such a performance, citing textual evidence for their arguments. At the end of the five minutes, give the class as a whole ten minutes to share their ideas. Then define for the class Brecht’s epic theatre, Cantinflas, and Commedia dell’arte  and write down each style and a few key words on the board.  Then read aloud the following line from the article the students were asked to read for homework:

El Teatro Campesino is somewhere between Brecht and Cantinflas. It is a farm workers’ theatre, a bi-lingual propaganda theatre, but it borrows from Mexican folk humor to such an extent that its ‘propaganda’ is salted with a wariness for human caprice…Practicing our own brand of Commedia dell’arte, we improvise within the framework of traditional characters associated with the strike.12

For the last ten minutes of class, ask the students to discuss as a whole how the performance they saw was a combination of the three theatrical styles and what that might indicate about the intentions of Luis Valdez and his actors.

Assign “El Teatro Campesino Interviews with Luis Valdez” as homework.

Day 2: Class should begin with a viewing of the video of “Quinta Temporada,” which will take about 18 minutes. A video here is preferable due to the number of characters and props in “Quinta Temporada.” After the video explain to students the ideas of medieval morality plays and carpas and ask the students to reflect in small groups on how the performance used both styles to motivate the audience and what the performers wanted the audience to do. Allow five minutes for students to discuss their ideas in small groups and then ten minutes to share their ideas with the rest of the class. In particular, try to lead the discussion to how “Quinta Temporada” is even more specific than “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito” in what it tells its audience to do. After this discussion read the following quote from their homework:

If a DiGiorgio [grower] character is beating a farm worker…, it may be funny, but it’s serious laughter. If the farm worker starts slapping the DiGiorgio character, then it becomes riotous. We use comedy because it stems from a necessary situation—the necessity of lifting the morale of our strikers…This leads us into satire and slapstick, and sometimes very close to the underlying tragedy of it all—the fact that human beings have been wasted in farm labor for generation….I’ve noticed one thing about audiences. When they see something they recognize as a reality they laugh…Impersonations are funny, why? Just because the impersonation itself comes so close to reality.2

In the last ten minutes of class, ask the students to discuss this concept of comedy and what the ultimate purpose of combining propaganda and comedy might be.

Additional Sources:
Huerta, Jorge A. “Chicano Agit-Prop: The Early Actos of El Teatro Campesino.” Latin American Theatre Review 45 (1977): 45-58.
Huerta, Jorge A. and Linda Fregoso. “Chicano Theater.” Lecture, Houston, TX, Mar 26, 1982. The University of Texas at Austin.
Elam, Harry J. Jr. “Ritual Theory and Political Theatre: ‘Quinta Temporada’ and ‘Slave Ship.’” Theatre Journal 38 (1986): 463-472.

1Huerta, Jorge A. “Chicano Agit-Prop: The Early Actos of El Teatro Campesino.” Latin American Theatre Review 45 (1977): 45-58.
2Bagby, Beth, and Luis Valdez. “El Teatro Campesino Interviews with Luis Valdez.” The Tulane Drama Review 11 (1967): 70-80.
3Brecht, Bertolt. “The Street Scene: A Basic Model for an Epic Theatre,” trans. John Willett. In The Making of Theatre: From Drama to Performance, edited by Robert W. Corrigan, 85-96. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1981.
4Huerta, Jorge A. “Concerning Teatro Chicano.” Latin American Theatre Review 6 (1973): 13-20.
5Broyles-Gonzalez, Yolanda. “El Teatro Campesino and the Mexican Popular Performance Tradition.” In Radical Street Performance: An International Anthology, edited by Jan Cohen-Cruz. New York: Routledge, 1998.
6Goodman, Richard. “Chicano Expressive Culture: Corridos, Carpas and Teatro Campesino.” Lecture, Houston, TX, Mar 10, 1977. The University of Texas at Austin.  http://www.laits.utexas.edu/onda_latina/program?sernum=000534561&term=.
7 Carpenter, Lindsay, and Maurice Weeks. “U.S. farmworkers in California campaign for economic justice (Grape Strike), 1965-70.” Swarthmore College Global Nonviolent Action Database. Last modified March 8, 2011.
8 Pawel, Miriam. The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 9-10, 27.
9Huerta, Jorge A. and Linda Fregoso. “Chicano Theater.” Lecture, Houston, TX, Mar 26, 1982. The University of Texas at Austin.  http://www.laits.utexas.edu/onda_latina/program?sernum=MAE_82_20_mp3&tem=.
10Valdez, Luis, “Las Dos Caras del Patroncito (The Two Faces of the Boss).” In Early
Works: Actos, Bernabe and Pensamiento Serpentino, 17-27. Houston: Arte Publico Press.
11Valdez, Luis, “Quinta Temporada.” In Early Works: Actos, Bernabe and Pensamiento Serpentino, 28-39. Houston: Arte Publico Press.
12Valdez, Luis, “El Teatro Campesino.” Ramparts Magazine (1966), 55-57.

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